AUBURN, Ala. -- Chuckie Keeton hardly played like a freshman quarterback and Utah State didn't back down from the defending national champions.
In fact, the Aggies could rightfully claim to have outplayed No. 23 Auburn.
Unfazed by 87,000-plus fans and a Southeastern Conference power, the Aggies twice raced to double-digit leads before falling 42-38 Saturday after a wild final few minutes.
The Tigers (1-0) closed it out with two touchdowns wrapped around a successful onside in the final 2:07 after Utah State (0-1) pulled to a seemingly secure 10-point edge with Robert Turbin's 1-yard TD run 91 seconds earlier.
Close wasn't comforting for the upset-minded Aggies.
"I don't think you guys understand how much this hurts," a subdued 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."
Utah State, which wasn't even considered a favorite to win the Western Athletic Conference, scored three touchdowns after gambling on fourth down, including the last one that nearly put it away.
Facing fourth down deep in Auburn territory, the Aggies successfully faked a field goal, completing a pass by holder Stanley Morrison to D.J. Tialavea for a first down after they took a delay of game penalty.
"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."
Auburn's Phil 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," said Lutzenkirchen, who caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Barrett Trotter to start the rally. "We got lucky with this one."
Utah State outgained Auburn 448-364 and ran for 227 yards.
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.
"We had to come out high intensity," Keeton said. "We came out and scored on our second drive. It didn't matter. We didn't win, so there's no other objective other than to win. It doesn't matter how many yards we rack up, and it didn't happen. We took strides to get to where we need to be. All we can do is go uphill from there."
Mike Dyer bulled through the line for the clinching touchdown with 30 seconds left.
Auburn 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.
Chizik had a much more complimentary take on Utah State's performance.
"That was a good football team," Chizik said. "They played probably a perfect game. Their gameplan, they executed to a 'T."'
After Lutzenkirchen's touchdown, 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.
Keeton couldn't muster a threat in the final seconds for the Aggies, who also tested Oklahoma in last year's opener before losing by a touchdown.
Utah State led 21-7 early 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 Cam Newton.
The Tigers just 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.
Trotter completed a solid starting debut with a huge finale. He was 17 of 23 for 261 yards and three touchdowns.
Freshman Tre Mason returned a kick 97 yards to close the two-touchdown gap. Dyer added an 11-yard touchdown to tie it midway through the third quarter.
Utah State's 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.
"(We) pulled out everything we possibly could," Andersen said. "Every fake and every third-down scenario, we executed every one of those. We failed to execute the gigantic play on the onside kick that pretty much won the game. We'll bounce back. This is a good football team."