AUBURN, Ala. | Jake Ricks only had to fall on the ball, and backup quarterback Kodi Burns merely had to throw it a few yards.
They still provided the biggest plays for No. 15 Auburn.
Ricks recovered a fumble in the end zone, Burns passed for a key first down to kill the clock and Auburn sent Tennessee to its worst start in 14 years with a 14-12 victory Saturday.
One of the biggest offensive plays for two sputtering teams went for all of 10 yards and no points. Burns rolled right, spotted Montez Billings open on the right sideline to convert a third-and-5 and allow Auburn (4-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) to kneel on the final plays of the game.
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It also might have helped renew a quarterback controversy for the Tigers.
"All I knew was we had to get a first down," said Burns, who hadn't played in the last two games. "Get a first down and we win this game. I rolled out and saw that cornerback back off and open up just a little window."
It was another major blow for the Vols (0-2), who fell to 1-3 for the first time since 1994, the second full season for embattled coach Phillip Fulmer.
"I don't think this team's lost its spirit at all," Fulmer said. "I think we have good leadership and it's growing all the time. Adversity will challenge us all and we will see where we really stand. It was very disappointing to get that kind of effort out of our defense and out of our kicking game and not get the win."
Auburn's anemic offense, which only produced 226 yards a week after a last-minute loss to LSU, was bailed out when Ricks recovered a fumble in the end zone for the 14-6 lead in the second quarter after a botched handoff to Arian Foster.
"It was just like one of our drills from practice except that this time it ended up as a touchdown," Ricks said.
With both offenses struggling, the Vols' best weapon in the second half might have been punter Chad Cunningham. He buried Auburn's sputtering offense inside the 5 three times, the last one with 2:59 left.
Burns' final pass capped an offensive performance that drew plenty of boos from the fans in the fourth quarter, and didn't exactly end what might be a brewing quarterback controversy with Burns and Chris Todd. Tuberville said the situation would be settled during the week and both would likely play.
Fulmer faces bigger challenges. He had come under increasing heat this week following a 30-6 loss to No. 4 Florida. He struck back early in the week with a pointed reference to past successes: "We didn't all of a sudden get stupid as coaches." The follow-up performance didn't help public perception.
The offense, under first-year coordinator Dave Clawson, produced just 191 yards, with an 8-for-23, 67-yard passing effort for Jonathan Crompton that included a failed two-point conversion.
Fulmer didn't want his players to start playing blame games.
"It's easy to point fingers at somebody else," Fulmer said. "I know we didn't make every perfect call as coaches. We didn't make every tackle we're supposed to make, and we didn't make every block. Any number of things could have changed the face of that game."
The Vols were still trailing by eight when Dennis Rogan intercepted Todd's downfield pass and returned it 38 yards to Auburn's 37. Crompton ran 15 yards on third-and-14 after the drive appeared poised to quickly stall, and Tennessee also capitalized on a facemask penalty.
Montario Hardesty carried three straight times for the final 6 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown to open the fourth quarter. Tennessee went for a two-point conversion and the tie but Walt McFadden stopped receiver Gerald Jones shy of the end zone.
The Vols failed to score on two more possessions that started across midfield in the fourth quarter, including one set up by Jones' 40-yard punt return.
"We had good field position the whole second half," Crompton said. "The defense was playing great and getting us the ball back in good field position. We just weren't executing."
Auburn fans offered one of their biggest cheers when Burns replaced Todd with 5:59 left. Burns wound up losing 2 yards on three straight quarterback keepers.
Todd was 14-of-23 for 93 yards with a touchdown pass; Burns 4-for-6 for 36 yards. He also gained 16 yards on eight carries and moved Auburn into field goal range on his first series late in the opening half, though Wes Byrum missed a 35-yarder
Daniel Lincoln kicked field goals of 47 and 35 yards in the second quarter for Tennessee.
"In the second half defensively, I thought that was about as good an effort that I have ever seen other than about two plays," Tuberville said. "Their punter kept us in a hole all night. We had no field position but we found somehow some way to get the ball out enough and give our defense room to breathe. We all know that wasn't a pretty game, but we are going to get better."
Auburn tailback Brad Lester (sprained knee) and linebacker Tray Blackmon (wrist) didn't play in the game.