AUBURN, Ala. -- This resembled last season's Auburn team for about three blurry minutes. Before that, the defending national champions could barely keep up with a supposedly overmatched Utah State team.
Mike Dyer bulled through the line for a game-saving touchdown with 30 seconds left and the 23rd-ranked Tigers scored twice in the final 2:07 to escape with an opening 42-38 win over the Aggies on Saturday.
Coach Gene Chizik's blunt assessment: "Offensively and defensively we're a long way off of being able to win very many games right now."
And it showed against a team that probably should have been physically overwhelmed, but wasn't. The Tigers still pulled off their fourth comeback from a double-digit deficit in the last 13 games -- and allowed hundreds of celebrating fans to head to Toomer's Corner to roll the once-stately, now sickly oak trees that were allegedly poisoned by an Alabama fan.
"As they've done so many times since I've been here, they found a way to come back and win," Chizik said. "That's kind of been instilled in this group that you never look at the clock and the scoreboard until it says zero-zero-zero.
"In that regard, we were thrilled that we won the game today. Everybody who saw the game realizes that we did not play well as a football team. There's no excuse for that."
The Aggies (0-1) seemed poised for a stunning victory before Auburn's final rally.
First-time starting quarterback Barrett Trotter hit Philip Lutzenkirchen for a 15-yard touchdown to start a Cam Newton-like comeback. Then wide receiver Emory Blake collected the onside kick to set up the game-winning drive. Trotter completed three passes and Onterio McCalebb had runs of 10 and 14 yards to push the ball near the goal line.
BCS title game MVP Dyer did the rest, ducking his head and powering through Utah State defenders from a yard out.
Poised freshman quarterback Chuckie Keeton couldn't muster a threat in the final seconds for the Aggies, who also tested Oklahoma in last year's opener.
Utah State twice led by double digits against a team clearly feeling the effects of the departures of numerous starters from last year's national champions, including defensive tackle Nick Fairley and Heisman winner Newton, who repeatedly led the Tigers from behind during their 14-0 run last season.
Only that 24-point deficit against Alabama might have been a more improbable comeback than this one from 10 points down in the final 3:38. The Tigers came in as three-touchdown favorites, but also as a question mark with 19 new starters.
They managed to avoid an embarrassing opening loss against a team that has now lost 44 straight road games against Top 25 teams and was starting a freshman at quarterback.
"I felt like we were stronger than them," Utah State coach Gary Andersen said. "I felt like we were faster than them. I felt like they made plays when they had to, and we didn't."
Lutzenkirchen didn't disagree with that assessment.
"We were wrong for thinking coming in that they might be a cupcake team and they really ran it down our throat the first half," he said. "We got lucky with this one."
Trotter completed a solid starting debut with a huge finale. He was 17 of 23 for 261 yards and three touchdowns.
Trotter marched the Tigers downfield quickly before hitting an open Lutzenkirchen to keep them alive. He followed a 13-yard completion to Travante Stallworth with a 9-yarder to McCalebb and a 7-yarder to Lutzenkirchen, one of Newton's favorite red zone targets last season.
Then, Blake came up with another big play with his midair scoop of Chris Brooks' kick.
"It unfolded pretty much exactly the way you draw it up," Chizik said. Blake also caught a 56-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.
Auburn still wound up trailing 21-7 in the second quarter but one of the many youngsters the Tigers are relying on came up big.
Freshman Tre Mason returned a kick 97 yards to close the gap. Dyer added an 11-yard touchdown to tie it midway through the third quarter.
Josh Thompson added a 34-yard field goal and the Tigers didn't take the lead until Trotter's 39-yard touchdown to Stallworth late in the third quarter, making it 28-24.
It didn't last. Keeton faked a handoff, went left and got the nose of the ball across the goal line for a 31-28 lead with 11:20 left.
Robert Turbin then scored a 1-yard touchdown run with 3:38 left to push the lead back to 10 after Andersen rolled the dice in a big way.
Facing fourth down deep in Auburn territory, the Aggies successfully faked a field goal, completing a pass by holder Stanley Morrison for a first down.
Keeton completed 21 of 30 passes for 213 yards and ran for 33 in his debut after beating out junior college transfer Adam Kennedy. Andersen didn't announce a starter before the game.
Close wasn't comforting for an Aggies team that wanted more.
"I don't think you guys understand how much this hurts," Turbin said. "When you're up 10 four minutes to go and you lose, you've got the defending national champions on the ropes and you lose -- the focus right now is to win. Period. That's it. I don't care about nothing else."