War Eagle, everybody! It's time now for the Acid Reign report, on Friday's Iron Bowl. It was a win for the ages for the Tigers, who overcame a 24-0 second quarter deficit to take the game, 28-27. As much as any game this season, it was an overall team win. Without any one unit's great plays, it would have been a loss. Alabama has never before lost a lead that big, and Auburn has never before recovered from such a deficit. It could be argued that the 1970 Iron Bowl in which Auburn recovered from a 17-0 deficit was Auburn's greatest comeback in history, but this one eclipsed it in a big way. At one point, Alabama had 314 offensive yards to 2 yards for Auburn. To recover from such a lopsided margin is beyond amazing!
On defense, Auburn opened with a bit of a Cover-One Robber scheme, the idea being to get strong safety Zach Etheridge into the box to help contain Bama's great runners Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. That plan proved to be an absolute disaster as Alabama opened in the shotgun and immediately started burning Tiger single coverage in the flat with well-blocked quick screens. As Auburn tried to adjust, Bama quarterback Greg McElroy went to single-covered Julio Jones early and often. Alabama moved Jones around, and the Tigers could not find him for much of the first quarter. The absence of not only the suspended Mike Blanc and Michael Goggins, but also Nick Fairley early really hurt the Tiger pass rush. At the end of one quarter, Alabama was on pace to win the game 84-0.
Auburn did start doubling Julio Jones in the second quarter, but Alabama has other good options, and continued to move the ball. A few miracle Tiger defensive plays, and a few Bama miscues kept the Tide out of the end zone in the second quarter. In the second half, Auburn went to a mix of zone-blitzing and bear defense, determined to rush and harry the quarterback. As has happened to other Auburn opponents all season long, Bama's passing game became less and less effective, and the running game was choked off. Alabama did not convert a third down the last three quarters.
Aside from the punt return team, Auburn got a pretty good effort from special teams across the board in their biggest rivalry game. Wes Byrum closed out his regular season Auburn career with a decent day kicking, the Auburn coverage units held dangerous Tide return men in check, and the kick return unit consistently gave Auburn decent field position. Although it was nothing spectacular, senior punter Ryan Shoemaker was called on often in this game, and he delivered with the best punting game of the year. Although we only managed a 38.7 yard average, only two of seven punts was returned, and Bama's Marquis Maze (who was averaging 15 yards per return) got absolutely nothing.
Although Alabama is not a great pass rushing team, they have unique talent and schemes to completely choke off running and short passing games. The Auburn lanes through which they normally have posted 300 yard rushing games were totally smothered by angry red shirts. It took the Tigers a quarter and a half to start getting the outside passing game going, partially because of missed passes in the cold, damp air. The Bama defensive coaching staff is not one that will continually be beaten by the same scheme all day. The Tigers were able to light up the Bama secondary before the half for their first touchdown, but the Tide was already adjusting as the half ended. Auburn tried a deep sideline route early in the second half, and Bama was right there in cover-two. On deep throws, sometimes you just have to take a shot and win the battle. Terrell Zachary did just that, taking the ball away from two Tide defenders, and breaking away for the touchdown! That in my mind, was the turning point of the game.
To that point, Alabama was still stopping everything Auburn wanted to do on offense, and we had proved unable to block everyone either up the middle, or to the strong side. Bama is fast enough to even chase down speedsters like the Auburn backs. The Tigers had to punt, and the game was starting to slip away again. The next drive, Auburn opened with a combination of quarterback draws and swing passes. When Alabama started defending that, offensive coordinator Gus Malzhan pulled out his secret weapon: the unbalanced line. Auburn has run that look in spots all season, and teams have had difficulty recognizing it and getting lined up. Alabama's staff had it scouted well, and the first run to the overloaded side was snuffed out and buried for a loss. Malzhan stayed with the formation, and started running counter plays back to the weak side with Onterio McCalebb. Not even the TV announcers figured this out. They kept whining about Auburn having only ten men on the field... The Tigers scored, and it became a three point game.
After a fumbled punt led to a Tide field goal, Auburn continued to mix screen passes, backside unbalanced line runs, and some just pure power runs by Cam Newton up the middle. The Tigers converted a 4th and 3 with a quick-kick formation and a quick out pass to Darvin Adams. Auburn had tried that play unsuccessfully several times against LSU, but it worked against the young Tide secondary. An unbalanced line throw-back pass from Newton to H-back Phillip Lutzenkirchen tied the game, and Wes Byrum put Auburn ahead to stay with the extra point. After the Auburn defense turned back the Tide and knocked Greg McElroy out of the game, the Tiger offense went exclusively to the running game, and ate most of the remaining clock with a 7 play drive.
Unit Grades, after the jump!
Defensive Line: A. After a slow start with true freshman Jeffery Whitacker getting many first quarter snaps, the line stepped up and mauled Alabama's offensive line. Playing with pain in his shoulder, Nick Fairley abused the interior of the Bama line, disrupting the running game and harassing quarterbacks. Huge bonus points for Antoine Carter and Nick Fairley single-handedly forcing Bama turnovers in the first half. Without those two plays, Auburn might have been facing a 35-0 deficit.
Linebackers: B+. There were a few missed assignments, especially early. The most glaring play was Alabama's first touchdown, where Mark Ingram raced up the middle from the spread formation, and no linebacker touched him. Eltoro Freeman got his first start, and had a mostly good day. Josh Bynes was solid in the middle, and Craig Stevens contained on the back side and made some big hits. The corps of Freeman, Bynes and Stevens became the force we envisioned before spring drills. They played 90 percent of the snaps, and dominated the second half. It was a long time coming, but fun to watch in the Iron Bowl!
Secondary: C. Some may question this grade, but it was pulled up over the course of the game from an F-minus in the first quarter. We looked as inept as any Tiger secondary in history in the first quarter, and no amount of sugar-coating will change that. From that point, this group stepped up. There were courageous hits on big receiver Julio Jones that held the slant passes down to medium gains. The Auburn corners emerged victorious, because they were still going strong at the end of the game, while Julio Jones was a shadow of his former self. A special tip of the hat goes to T'Sharvan Bell. We've run a few corner blitzes this season, and it's usually resulted in the rusher not getting there, and a big throw to the vacated area. Bell got there this game, and made a great sack! Mike McNeil got after it as the game went on. Time and time again, he came up to bruise a Tide receiver short of the first down. It was a horrible start by this unit, and a great finish.
Punting: B+. I'm still not sold on the idea of punting the ball less than 40 yards, but we did a good job limiting return opportunities. Stats can lie, sometimes. Points off on a 20-yard Shoemaker shank in the second quarter, but look at what happens when you take that punt out of his stats. Shoemaker's average goes up to 41.8 yards. It was the best effort of the year, hands down. Shoemaker really out-performed his Bama counterpart, Cody Mandel. I think he's earned the right to finish out his Auburn career as the starter.
Punt Returns: F. Aside from one successful fair catch inside the 20, this wasn't very good. Quindarius Carr fair caught one with no one within 10 yards, and got yelled at on the sideline. The next punt, he fielded it in traffic and fumbled it away. Bama's Courtney Upshaw did lay probably the hardest lick of the ballgame on that play, and I don't really fault Carr for fumbling it. I'm surprised he got up, to tell the truth. The error was the decision to field it without calling for a fair catch. We've still got a real problem in this area.
Kick Returns: B. Bama only averaged kicking it to the Auburn ten yard line, but return men Demond Washington and Onterio McCalebb still managed to average 20.6 yards per return against good coverage. I loved how that pile moved forward at the end of most returns!
Place-kicking: A-. Points off on kicking off out of bounds once. The first extra point was shaky-looking, and barely made it. There was one low, short kickoff that we got lucky on, as it bounced through two confused Bama return men for a touch back. Those are pretty minor complaints, when your kicker averages 65 yards per kickoff, and hits every kick for points. Wes Byrum won the game with an extra point. How many game winning kicks does he have in his career? I'll have to look that up when this season is done! When your kick coverage unit holds Julio Jones to 20.6 yards per kick return, you've done well.
Offensive Line: B+. To hold your own against the Bama defense is quite an accomplishment, but there were issues. Marcel Darius and Courtney Upshaw caused big problems on the edges, especially in the first half. This is the first defense Auburn has faced since Clemson that forced a lot of double team blocks. With guards stuck helping Moseley and Ziemba, there wasn't much help for Dyer, Newton and McCalebb against a sea of angry red shirts. These guys will fight, though, and there's no quit in them! With the game on the line, these guys gave Cam time, and as the game progressed, they were pushing the Tide backward. I've got to salute these guys for weathering the adversity. I still think it's the best offensive line in Auburn history.
Receivers: A-. Some folks will question a grade this good, when there seemed to be passes bouncing off Tiger hands the entire first half. In my opinion, there was only one drop that was really a receiver's fault, the first one by Terrell Zachary on a screen. The rest were high or behind the receiver, and they were unable to make the one handed grab. This crew has made difficult catches seem routine this year, so it was shocking to see them not do it in the biggest game of the year. Emory Blake's juggling TD catch to start the scoring seemed to settle everyone down. Terrell Zachary's 70 yard touchdown reception might have been the catch of the year. When you can take one away from two Tide defenders, then break away for the score, you've really done something! There were 3rd down clutch catches from Kodi Burns while we were still trailing big. One of the reasons we lost the Iron Bowl last year is that we never could hit the slant pass when Bama brought the house on 3rd down. This year, Kodi burned 'em. Speaking of making difficult look routine, Phillip Lutzenkirchen did it again with the game tying touchdown.
Quarterback: A. Cam Newton was slowed way down on the ground, but still made clutch runs for first downs in the second half. He's still the best running quarterback in the country. All that was proved in the Iron Bowl is that he can't run over five guys at once. I'll count off minor points for a sack or two I didn't think he had to take, but that's a very minor quibble. Cam made great throws, especially in the second half. Once again in a big game, Cam had no turnovers and led the team to victory against a top ten team on their home field. He's clearly the finest quarterback Auburn has ever had.
Two days later, we Auburn Tigers are still basking in the glow of an incredible comeback win. This team is never out of any game. As long as they keep fighting, they never will be. It is so much fun to be Iron Bowl winners and undefeated! This is only the third time that has happened in my lifetime, and I'm loving it! This Auburn team has a clear shot at something unprecedented: a consensus national championship. It doesn't seem real!
It's too early to worry about the BCS or Oregon. I did little the past three days except watch a lot of rivalry football games. None was as impressive as South Carolina's 29-7 beat-down of a good Clemson team in Clemson. After an early touchdown, I don't think Carolina let Clemson get past midfield. Like Auburn, Clemson committed to stuffing tailback Marcus Lattimore, and succeeded largely. Lattimore managed 48 yards on 23 carries. Steven Garcia and Alshon Jeffery combined to make life miserable in the Clemson secondary. Before this weekend, South Carolina had not beaten Clemson two years in a row since the 1960s. Now they not only have two in a row, but it's by scores of 34-17 and 29-7. This leaves Auburn in the position of playing a South Carolina team on a big roll. Coach Steve Spurrier has a LOT of experience in the SEC Championship Game, also. He's been there seven times, winning five.
There is every reason to believe that the Tigers will win in Atlanta, despite a strong Gamecock showing. After all,the Tigers beat 'em earlier this year despite dropping the ball on the ground several times. Auburn has improved quite a bit since that game. Ellis Johnson's defense never really stopped Auburn's offense other than the fumbles, and I'll bet he's getting an ulcer thinking about Newton, Dyer, Zachary, McCalebb and co. turning corners on artificial turf! Auburn forced Steven Garcia to beat them, and he made a game effort in Auburn. However, you'd better do your damage early against Auburn. The Tigers have consistently pounded quarterbacks into jelly by the end of the game. Many feel that Garcia's biggest liability is that he runs with his head down and gets hurt. I think it's locking onto Jeffery, when there are plentiful big receiving options on the Carolina squad. I think the Auburn game plan will be to score early and often, rush Garcia and stuff the run, and the Tigers are going to have to double Jeffery. Do that and avoid turnovers, and I think Auburn will have their seventh SEC title. War Eagle!