A Great Senior Season.
Dameyune Craig was always looking downfield.
War Eagle, everybody. This time last week, I ran out of time while reminiscing about the great Dameyune Craig. This week, we’ll finish that thought up, with a recap of Craig’s senior season. After absolutely dismal football and basketball seasons this year, I know I can use the escape! So settle back this frosty morning, and I’ll tell you how it was.
There were worries going into the 1997 Auburn football season. Tiger fans had witnessed back to back shaky years on defense, and an Auburn offense that had not even produced a 500 yard runner in 1996. Would the Tigers be able to ride the arm and legs of Dameyune Craig back to the postseason? Critics weren’t sure. Fortunately, second-year defensive coordinator delivered. He pieced together a pretty salty two-deep on defense, and stopped the bleeding. There were occasional lapses, but for much of this season the defense played like tough Tiger units of old.
There were bigger concerns on the offense. The Tigers desperately needed to run the ball better. To block better, Auburn held a battle-royale for the starting fullback position. Senior Fred Beasley won the spot, and coach Bowden moved senior runner up Kevin McCloud to tight end, where he would start most of the season. The Tigers had a pair of veteran lead blockers, with that move.
Four Tiger runners vied for the starting role, but the coaches weren’t terribly impressed with any of them. Sophomore Markieth Cooper was selected to start in the first game, but separated his shoulder after gaining just 32 yards on 9 carries. Sophomore Rusty Williams carried much of the load in 1997, but he was not a breakaway threat. The receiving corps took a blow when junior Robert Baker was declared academically ineligible for the season.
For the second season in a row, there were offensive line worries. Tackles Victor Riley and Jeno James would be solid, but the interior was green. Junior center Carl Lavine won the battle for that spot in the spring, and his backup James Kiger left the team. Then Lavine was injured and out for the year less than a week before the season opener. Coaches Terry Bowden and Dick Trickett did some shuffling, and moved guard T. J. Dunnigan to center, to start with only a couple of days work. Junior Demarcus Curry started at right guard, and redshirt freshman T. J. Meers moved into the left guard spot.
Auburn opened the season at 23rd ranked Virginia, in Charlottesville. Dameyune Craig didn’t get to show much in the first half. The fact that T. J. Dunnigan had only played center a couple of days in his life showed on the first play. The snap was fumbled, and Craig lost 15 yards scrambling to get on the loose ball. Auburn punted out of its own endzone, and that punt was blocked for a safety. Thereafter, Auburn was backed up on its own end of the field till the final drive of the half, where Craig engineered a 98 yard drive, and took the lead on a 17 yard scramble. Auburn led 7-2 at the half, after Bill Oliver’s defense had bailed the team out time after time.
Craig got his chance to shine in the 2nd half. He escaped pressure time and time again. On a 57 yard touchdown strike to Karsten Bailey, TV talking head Lee Corso commented that Auburn had to get Craig out of the pocket, where he was more dangerous. Corso did not think much of Craig as a pocket passer. A couple of series later, Craig dropped back in the pocket on 3rd and 11, and threw a perfect spiral to Bailey behind the Cavalier defense for another score, this one for 77 yards. Auburn held on for a 28-17 victory, and Craig was off to a good start with a 247 yard passing night.
The next week at home against Ole Miss, coach Bowden was determined to work on the running game, and Rebel head coach Tommy Tuberville was equally determined that his team wouldn’t be run on. The teams could only manage to trade field-goals for much of the game, till a Fred Beasley score late in the 3rd quarter, where Craig had hit 5 of 7 passes on the drive. Craig finished the scoring with a nice 16 yard fade to Tyrone Goodson, who had also caught one for 47 yards earlier in the drive. Auburn took out the Rebels, 19-9.
Auburn then girded up for a trip to Baton Rouge, to take on 9th ranked LSU. Bill Oliver’s defense had its worst outing of the year, as they were repeatedly gashed on the ground by runners Cecil “the Diesel” Collins and Rondell Mealey. LSU rolled up 377 rushing yards, but they could not stop Dameyune Craig, who posted a 342 yard passing day. Craig had two first quarter touchdown passes, to Fred Beasley and Hicks Poor, and finished the day by leading Auburn on an 80 yard drive in the waning moments for the win. Auburn defeated LSU 31-28.
Game four of the season was back at home, against the Central Florida Golden Knights. UCF was 0-3, but they had lost all three games in overtime. Auburn wasn’t the only team in the country whose quarterback had the initials D. C. UCF’s starter was Daunte Culpepper, and he was dangerous. Culpepper led the Knights to a pair of first half touchdowns, but was shut down in the 2nd half by the Auburn D. Craig had another great day, throwing for 360 yards and a pair of scores. Auburn rolled over UCF, 41-14.
Auburn made its first ever trip to Columbia, South Carolina in week 5. Again Auburn didn’t have much success running the ball, but Dameyune Craig continued to carry the offense with his arm. Craig passed for 321 in this one, including a beautiful 36 yard 2nd quarter bomb to Karsten Bailey in the back of the end zone. The defense held USC to just 198 total yards, and Auburn took home a 23-6 victory.
It was then Homecoming week in Auburn, and in came 18th ranked Louisiana Tech. This wasn’t your typical pushover cupcake. Quarterback Tim Rattay and the “Global offense” were racking up big numbers. The Bulldogs drove for a quick score, but the Auburn defense clamped down thereafter, with linebacker Takeo Spikes enjoying a first quarter pick-six. Dameyune Craig had his fourth straight 300+ yard passing day, throwing for 355, and rushing for 50 more. Plus, the Tigers showed signs of life in the running game after taking the redshirt off true freshman back Demontray Carter, who racked up 63 yards on 12 carries. Auburn smashed Louisiana Tech 49-13.
The Tigers were 6-0, but the signs of a mid-season let-down were there in the second half of Homecoming. The team looked tired as the game wore on. Craig threw 3 second half interceptions.
Next up was showdown in Jordan Hare Stadium with the defending national champs, 7th ranked Florida. Florida jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but Craig and Auburn battled back, to a 10-10 halftime tie. However, Auburn’s line completely collapsed in the 2nd half, as Craig was sacked 9 times. Florida won this one as the Auburn defense tired, 24-10.
The Tigers traveled to Fayetteville, for a cold rainy night against the Razorbacks. The Auburn offense remained grounded in the first half, with only a couple of field goals. Jimmy Brumbaugh and Marcus Washington staked Auburn to an early lead with a sack-fumble return for a score. Auburn led 13-0 near halftime, but Craig coughed the ball up on a sack near midfield, and the Razorbacks returned it for a score. Craig redeemed himself in the second half, leading a first a field goal drive, then he hit Karsten Bailey in stride on the next series, for a 70 yard score. Clint Stoerner and the Razorbacks led a 4th quarter comeback, but Auburn held on for a 26-21 win.
The next week in Auburn the Tigers faced the 17th ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs. This was the Tigers’ ninth game in a row with no break, and it showed. Auburn could manage no running game at all, and Craig was harassed into 4 interceptions, and a lost fumble on the MSU 4 yard line. On the day, Auburn drove to the Bulldog red zone 3 times, but generated no points. MSU shocked Auburn 20-0, their biggest win over Auburn since 1950.
Reeling at 7-2, the Tigers took a week off to heal. The next week, the Tigers invaded Athens, Georgia, to take on the 5th ranked Bulldogs. Georgia scored first, but Auburn came up with a first-half onslaught of points with a balanced attack. This week, Craig only threw 19 passes, as Fred Beasley and Demontray Carter carried the load. Auburn rolled out to a 38-14 lead, and held on for a 45-34 win. The highlight of the game was a 76 yard bomb from Craig to his favorite big-play buddy, Karsten Bailey.
The result of the Iron Bowl was a foregone conclusion, or so most folks thought. Auburn was 8-2, and Bama had struggled to a 4-6 mark, including a homecoming loss to Louisiana Tech. Someone forgot to tell the Tide that they were supposed to roll over. Auburn moved the ball at will in the first quarter between the 20s, but could not punch it in. Two Jarrett Holmes field goals staked the Tigers to a 6-0 lead.
Meanwhile on the Bama side, coach Mike Dubose had made the inexplicable pre-game decision to bench 5th year senior quarterback Freddie Kitchens. Takeo Spikes and the Auburn D feasted on new starter Lance Tucker early. Kitchens came in early in the second quarter, and got Alabama moving. Meanwhile, Alabama turned up the blitz, and dared Auburn to block them. The Tiger offense ground to a halt. Kitchens hit Calvin Hall for a score, then Bama added a field goal after a Demontray Carter fumble. The Tide led 10-6 at the half.
Kitchens led Alabama easily down the field for another score to open the second half, and Auburn was in trouble, down 17-6 at home. Dameyune Craig is a tough guy to keep down, though. Under tremendous pressure, Craig hit Kevin McCloud for 41, and Karsten Bailey for 22 more. Auburn cut the Bama lead to 17-12. Craig engineered a field goal drive in the 4th, but could not seal the deal on the next possession.
What happened next was inexplicable. Alabama seemingly had a chance to run out most of the clock, but elected to call a shotgun screen pass on 3rd and 8. Fullback Ed Scissum fumbled, and Auburn recovered at the Bama 33. Craig hit Hicks Poor to get Auburn closer, and Jarrett Holmes hit his 4th field goal of the day to give Auburn an 18-17 win over the Tide. With the victory, Auburn was the SEC Western Division champ.
With the title in hand, Auburn traveled to Atlanta to take on Peyton Manning and the Tennessee Vols. Manning led UT down for an easy score early, but Auburn fought back hard. The Tigers went up 20-7 on a big pass from Craig to Tyrone Goodson for 51 yards. The Tigers tried to hold on. Dameyune Craig did his part, hitting fullback Fred Beasley for another score. However, Tennessee came roaring back. A breakdown on an Auburn blitz let Manning hit Marcus Nash for a 73 yard score, and Auburn trailed 30-29. The offense then melted down in the 4th quarter, under a wave of false starts and dropped passes. Tennessee won the SEC, 30-29.
UT went on to the Orange Bowl, while the runner up Tigers came back to Atlanta. On January 2nd, the Tigers took on Clemson. Auburn was basically a passing offense in 1997, and what we saw in the bowl game was typical rust that such teams often show. Auburn struggled for a couple of field goals in the first half, but trailed 7-6 due to having a punt blocked for a score. Fortunately for Auburn, the Bill Oliver defense was playing lights-out. Clemson only managed 146 total yards on the day. The Auburn offense continued to stall in the 3rd quarter, and Clemson blocked TWO more punts!
Thanks to the gifts to Clemson, Auburn trailed 17-6 entering the 4th quarter. At that point, Dameyume lit ‘em up one last time! A Craig scramble cut it to 17-12 early in the 4th. Three Craig completions then set up a Rusty Williams run, and Auburn had an 18-17 lead. After a Takeo Spikes interception, Craig and company ran the clock down and kicked a field goal. Auburn won it, 21-17.
Dameyume Craig and his senior class finished the season at 10-3, and 11th in the nation. The Tigers were the SEC Western Division champions.