Paul Benson’s 100th-minute winner handed the Hatters a dramatic late victory in a thrilling, topsy-turvy encounter in their first game since John Still’s departure.
The experienced striker was in the right place at the time in the 10th minute of added time to seal a remarkable win on the road and end a run of four straight defeats.
Goals from Cameron McGeehan – from the penalty spot – and Danny Green had the Hatters 2-0 in front at the break.
But hosts Exeter, who had only lost once at home this season before kick-off, pulled a goal back with 20 minutes left through Tom Nichols’ free-kick. And Paul Tisdale’s side completed the comeback when Alex Nicholls headed home with seven minutes left to play.
The Grecians had dominated the second period in their bid to get back on level terms and looked as though they would go on and condemn the Town to another defeat – but Benson struck at the death to swing the three points into the Hatters’ hands.
It all began with caretaker boss Awford making three changes to the side that lost 4-3 to Northampton last weekend.
Jake Howells returned to the starting XI at left-back for his first appearance since the final game of the last season – and his 318th in total. Scott Cuthbert partnered Magnus Okuonghae at centre-half and McGeehan started in central midfield. A knee injury ruled out Jonathan Smith and a hamstring injury meant Luke Wilkinson also sat out.
The Town will line-up 4-2-3-1, with Olly Lee and Alex Lawless sitting in central midfield behind Green on the left, McGeehan in a central role and Craig Mackail-Smith on the right. Benson led the line.
And the Hatters were the first team to threaten when, after three minutes, Green strode forwards and was upended on the edge of the box but his free-kick hit the Exeter wall.
That chance was as good as it got for the Town for a good 25 minutes, though, as the home side dominated. The Town had Mark Tyler to thank for a wonderful one-handed save on 12 minutes when denying Nicholls from 12 yards. Joel Grant’s low cross found Nicholls alone in the box but Tyler sprung to his right to keep out the Grecian forward’s effort.
As the hosts continued to press, Grant slammed a low shot wide two minutes later and, on 17 minutes, Lawless did well to stand in the path of a goal-bound shot from Jamie Reid.
Tyler then showed excellent handling of a slippery ball on a greasy pitch to cling onto a low shot from Grant on 23 minutes and, a minute later, the Town number one palmed a shot from Nichols around the post.
But then the game swung in the Town’s favour on the half-hour mark. Mackail-Smith sent Sean Long haring into the box but the right-back was upended by Craig Woodman. McGeehan drilled the resultant penalty low into the bottom corner. It was the midfielder’s ninth goal of the season.
With Town tails up, Mackail-Smith fired over a minute later but it got better for the Hatters on 35 minutes when Green made it 2-0. Long was again the creator, swinging in a high cross from the right which found the unmarked Green and the winger slammed a first-time shot through Exeter keeper Bobby Olejnik.
Behind, Exeter pushed the Town back for a reply before the break with Woodman testing Tyler on 44 minutes before the same home player drove a dangerous low cross into the box that thankfully evaded everyone in the penalty area.
The Hatters started the second half brightly and Benson sent a glancing header into the arms of Okejnik five minutes after the restart.
Exeter briefly threatened from a corner from which Reid sent a header straight at Tyler but the Hatters almost made it 3-0 with two chances inside 60 seconds on 54 minutes. Woodman gifted possession to Mackail-Smith down the right and his cross was met by McGeehan whose effort was deflected behind. From the resultant corner whipped in by Green from the right, Benson thumped a header inches wide of the post.
Back came Exeter, however, and the hosts pushed the Town for long spells only to see the Hatters defence to hold firm. Howells, however, who had done well in his first appearance since May, needed to be substituted with 25 minutes left after clearing the ball at the back-post. He was replaced by Scott Griffiths.
However Exeter’s pressure finally paid off with 20 minutes to go when Tisdale’s side halved the deficit. Cuthbert conceded a free-kick on the edge of the area and Nichols struck a firm effort up and over the wall and past the dive of Tyler.
Back in the game the home side were now looking dangerous going forward. Tyler held a shot from distance but, with seven minutes of the 90 left the Grecians levelled. Cuthbert did well to defend a dangerous cross but, from the left-wing corner, Nicholls flashed a header home from six-yards.
At 2-2 there now seemed only one winner and Tyler needed to be alert on 87 minutes when parrying an effort from Nichols away as Exeter went for the jugular.
Nine minutes were added on by the officials following an earlier stoppage that had seen one of the assistant referees replaced, and in the second minute of those, substitute Jack Marriott came close to fashioning a chance before home sub Clinton Morrison was thwarted by Tyler at the other end as the game breathlessly raced from end-to-end.
The Town then spurned a wonderful chance to win it on 94 minutes when they countered only for Marriott to shoot wide under pressure having been found by Josh McQuoid.
You felt that was the final chance of a topsy-turvy game but this is Luton Town, remember. In the 100th minute, Marriott chased a lost cause down the right to force a mistake out of Woodman and his cross found Benson. There seemed a moment’s hesitation from keeper Olejnik and that gave the striker enough of a split second to react to the loose ball and bundle it beautifully over the line.
There was no way for Exeter after that and the Hatters could celebrate one of their latest-ever victories to end a dramatic week off the pitch on a high on it.
Town: Tyler; Long, Howells (sub Griffiths 65), Okuonghae, Cuthbert; Lawless, Lee; Green (sub Marriott 89), McGeehan, Mackail-Smith (sub McQuoid 72); Benson.
Subs: Musonda, Justin, Guttridge, Justham.
Attendance: 3,777, including 416 very happy Hatters.