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Auburn Football Film School: Tillman Reverse Sinks Bama in 86

Let's take a look back at a famous play in Auburn history and break down how it worked.

In the next few months, until football season starts in earnest, I'd like to go through a few famous plays in Auburn football history and break them down. What was the situation? Why did it work? Was it a result of poor defense, great athleticism, or a great playcall?

I did this on twitter in the past, but I think it's better served as a full blog post. For one thing, I can elaborate (read: be more long-winded) here than on twitter. Also, I think it works better as a full page rather than a string of tweets.

For the first iteration, let's check out Lawyer Tillman's 8-yard touchdown run on a reverse to put Auburn ahead of Alabama late in the 1986 Iron Bowl.

The Setup

Both teams entered the game with 2 losses. Alabama was ranked 7th in the country, but they had been ranked as high as #2 before losing to Penn State in Tuscaloosa. The Tide had also lost to LSU in Birmingham three weeks before the Iron Bowl. Auburn was 8-2 and entered the game ranked 14th. The Tigers were coming off of a disappointing home loss to Georgia (a game now known mostly for Georgia fans rushing the field, and Auburn responding by turning the field water cannons on them after they refused to leave the field).

Auburn forced an Alabama punt and took possession of the ball at their own 33-yard line trailing 17-14 with 4:54 to go in the ballgame. A methodical drive ensued, aided by a gutsy 4th down completion from junior QB Jeff Burger to senior WR Trey Gainous. With just 32 seconds remaining in the game, Auburn faced 2nd and goal from the Alabama 8.

The Video

The Breakdown

Auburn sets up with a "True I" formation: 22 personnel. Tillman, Auburn's biggest receiver, is split out wide to the right. As the story goes, Tillman couldn't hear the playcall in the huddle, so he made a gesture to Burger to ask the playcall. Burger, who could barely hear himself, yelled out to Tillman "Eighteen Reverse Left". Tillman immediately panicked. He had never run the reverse. The play was designed for backup receiver Scott Bolton. Tillman frantically tries to call timeout

Tillman barely gets set before Burger takes the snap. Let's diagram the play

Everyone from the right guard to the left blocks out in front. The right-side TE, Walter Reeves (#86), blocks down against the DE and the right tackle, #60, pulls to lead block with fullback Vincent Harris. This is a key part to the play, as this mirrors Auburn's toss sweep, a play that resulted in a touchdown earlier in the 4th quarter. Burger pitches to tailback Tim Jessie, who then hands off to Tillman, coming back left. Let's see how the blocking is progressing.

The rest of Auburn's line has done a great job here. Alabama's defensive line has been a bit over-aggressive, and the linemen have let them run on through, only to be left flat-footed by Tillman racing by them. The left side tight end, I think it might be Victor Hall #87, has walled off the inside, and the rest of Auburn's line have filtered out into Alabama's secondary. This is almost like a screen play. Tillman has a clear lane to run through here at the fifteen.

So Lawyer Tillman may have never run the reverse before, but I have no idea why. He takes two quick jab steps to the 13, then plants his right foot in the ground at the 12 and sprints upfield. Between this and the blocking, Tillman has a clear path to the endzone. This is where I draw a comparison to one of my favorite plays: the Buck Sweep. In the Buck, the runner is instructed to take the play wide, then jam his foot in the ground and get upfield. Tillman does this perfectly.

The lead blocker indicated is Walter Reeves. There's a reason Pat Dye thought Reeves was the greatest tight end in the history of football, and it wasn't necessarily his hands. Reeves has managed to mock-seal the edge to the right, slip his man, and filter left and down to the goal line. He has two defenders just out of this frame. He reaches to block the furthest man, forcing the other defender to go around him in order to get to Tillman.

Reeves hasn't made a devastating block, but he has taken one defender out of the play. Now it is up to Tillman must split the last two Alabama defenders that can hope to stop him.

Tillman makes a slight juke left at the five leaving the only clean defender grasping at his legs. He drives into Alabama's last man, who is scrambling back into the play in poor tackling form because of solid blocking by an offensive lineman (#54). Tillman dives into the endzone to put Auburn ahead by 3. Tillman mildly taunts the Alabama sideline, perhaps Ray Perkins specifically, as he runs back towards the Auburn sideline, because Lawyer Tillman always understood this game.

The Aftermath

With only 27 seconds left, Auburn stopped Bobby Humphrey on the return, and Alabama QB Mike Shula's hail mary attempt was knocked down at the 10-yard line to end the game. Alabama was denied a share of the SEC title, giving LSU the outright title and a trip to the Sugar Bowl. Both teams finished as part of a 4-way tie for second in the SEC at 4-2.

After the game, the Orange Bowl reached out to Auburn and invited them to play a Brian Bosworth-led Oklahoma team. However, Pat Dye had already accepted a bid from the Citrus Bowl and refused to go back on his word. Auburn defeated USC 16-7 on a dreary day in Orlando to finish the season 10-2. It would be the last season of the 1980s that the Tigers were not SEC Champions.