With the 10th anniversary of the last win of the 6-game winning streak over Alabama, I wanted to remember each game individually. So for this summer’s version of Auburn Film School, I ask, “What play, or plays, helped give Auburn the victory?” for each game of the streak.
Auburn entered the game at 7-4, coming off a heartbreaking last-second loss at home to eventual SEC Champion Georgia (yeah kids, that was a thing that happened once; it even happened again two years later). The loss would eventually keep Auburn out of Atlanta (Auburn’s loss to Arkansas earlier in the year wound up as the tie-breaker), and Auburn would have to deal with two injuries. Ronnie Brown, who was only the starter because Carnell Williams broke his leg against Florida, and fullback Brandon Johnson had leg injuries that would take them out of the Iron Bowl. This left Auburn with true freshman Tre Smith at tailback and converted tight end Cooper Wallace at fullback.
Alabama entered the game with a 9-2 record and would have already clinched a spot in Atlanta if they weren’t banned from post-season play (and would be in 2003 as well, though they weren’t good enough anyway that season). They’re only losses had been at Oklahoma and a close loss to Georgia at home. They were coming off arguably their best performance of the season, shutting out 14th ranked LSU 31-0 in Baton Rouge. Since the Georgia loss on October 5th, they were allowing just 8.6 points per game. They would be facing an Auburn backfield consisting of a redshirt sophomore QB, redshirt freshman converted TE at fullback, and a true freshman tailback.
The game was classic Tuberville: get points when you can, but don’t give them a short field, and win with defense. Jason Campbell, making his first start in an Iron Bowl (though he had finished the game the year before) was instructed to take a sack rather than risk a turnover. Tuberville said after the game that “a punt isn’t a bad thing”. That’s how much confidence he had in his defense. Sure enough, Auburn’s first drive got inside the Alabama 30 but was snuffed out by a 14-yard loss on a sack. Auburn’s defensive plan was to force Alabama to drive the field, thinking they would eventually have to convert one third down too many. As it turned out, several Alabama drives wound up stalling around Auburn’s 35-yard line, and Alabama would attempt to convert on fourth down SEVEN times, converting just two of them. The first failed fourth down came on Alabama’s first drive, which would give Auburn the ball at their own 33.
On the surface, this looks super old school: two tight ends (one lined up as a wing) and a fullback, with only one WR. Something Auburn hasn’t run in over a decade. But look closer. A guard pulls and blocks the end man on the line (EMOL) after he is ignored by blockers in front of him. The fullback leads into the hole. This is Counter. At its heart, one-third of Gus Malzahn’s inside running game. The great plays don’t go away, they just change their formation.
Robert Johnson, the tight end on the line, will ignore the EMOL, help double-team the 3T, then climb to the linebacker. Lorenzo Diamond, the “wing-back” TE, will also ignore the EMOL and climb to the next level, eventually blocking the safety. Monreko Crittenden (RIP buddy), the play-side guard, will pull and block the EMOL. The center, Ben Nowland, will ignore the man ahead of him and attempt to block the other linebacker. The play-side guard will cut the nose tackle. Cooper Wallace will lead into the hole and move whoever is left out of the way. Smith’s job is to run to daylight.
Crittenden, Johnson, and the play-side tackle (freshman Marcus McNeill) have done their jobs well. So well that Wallace is searching for someone to block. Nowland is having a little trouble with the Mike LB (whom I believe is Freshman All-American Freddie Roach, just wearing a different number; Alabama doesn’t list a #6 on the roster for 2002 that I can find), but he doesn’t have a great angle on Smith. If Smith can get to the right, he should have some running room.
Smith makes a great move to leave the Mike grasping at mostly air. Wallace has finally found someone to block, and it’s the backside safety 8 yards downfield. Lorenzo Diamond is off to the right of this picture, and he has eliminated the play-side safety. Smith has covered just 3 yards, but it’s already clear this is a big play. He would race all the way to the Alabama 16 before being caught by the backside CB.
Two plays later, Campbell hit Johnson on a crossing route where the only defender near him was a DE dropping into coverage. Johnson juked the poor big man out of his shoes and scampered in to give Auburn the lead. Johnson would score again on the next possession, which was kick-started by a big punt return from Roderick Hood. It was all Auburn would need. Though Alabama would have a first down inside the Auburn 40 seven times, they managed just one trip inside the red zone.
Smith finished the game with 126 yards on 25 carries. No other running back carried the ball. Smith’s 51-yard run would end up as the longest of his Auburn career, and this game was his only 100+ yard effort (he did run for 99 yards against Kentucky in 2005, ending up 1 yard short of giving Auburn 3 100-yard rushers in that game). Even so, Smith is fondly remembered both for this performance and his blocked-punt return against Florida in 2006.
Alabama would win a pseudo-bowl game the next week at Hawaii to finish the season 10-3, but head coach Dennis Franchione would leave the Tide one week later to take the same job at Texas A&M. Alabama would have to hire a new head coach with 21 fewer scholarships to offer and no post-season play for 2003.
Auburn earned a birth in the Citrus Bowl, which was traditionally given to the second-best available team in the SEC. Though Arkansas had beaten Auburn and had effectively the same record (one extra loss due to the SEC Championship Game), the Citrus Bowl picked Auburn possibly due to a better chance at selling tickets (the game ended up as the first sellout for the bowl since 1998). The Tigers were again a big underdog, but defeated 10th ranked Penn State 13-9 behind a big game from a now healthy Ronnie Brown (184 yards and 2 TDs on 37 carries) and a ferocious defense that held All-American running back Larry Johnson to just 72 yards on 20 carries. A season that had started 4-3 had ended with 5 wins in 6 games, with 3 of the wins coming over top 10 opponents. Those 5 wins also coincided with Jason Campbell taking the starting QB job, which he would keep until the end of the 2004 season.