An Unlikely Victory!
Could the Tigers shut down a Heisman Winner?
War Eagle, everybody! It’s spring break on the Plains, as the campus has emptied of students, and a much awaited rest ensues. With no news from the football side of things, I’ll kick back and indulge in a little nostalgia for today. A little over six years ago, we were witness to one of the strangest Iron Bowls in memory.
Auburn came into Tuscaloosa in 2010 sporting a perfect 11-0 record, but there weren’t many smiling Auburn faces. News of alleged recruiting violations at Mississippi State, of all places, threatened to nullify Auburn’s great season. There were reports that the father of star Auburn quarterback Cam Newton had shopped his son’s talents to the highest bidder, and that Newton was to attend school in Starkville before the deal fell through.
Ultimately, it was never proved that Cam Newton had any knowledge of this, nor was Auburn guilty of anything by playing Cam. Still, it was a tense time. I remember remarking to friends that an undefeated season should be more fun than this. And of course, there were matchup issues I was worried about. Auburn had been leaky in the secondary all year, and Alabama was throwing with confidence and effectiveness. Alabama also had a top-notch defense, playing its best ball of the season in November.
Auburn won the toss and deferred. Alabama got the ball and went with the shotgun formation early and often. Tide quarterback Greg McElroy distributed the ball on screens as the Tide methodically moved the chains. During that drive, Auburn’s star defensive tackle Nick Fairly was seen being escorted to the locker room.
Alabama threw its first deep pass of the game, and Tiger corner Demond Washington drew a pass interference flag that put the ball on the Auburn nine-yard line. From there, on an inside give to Mark Ingram, Auburn was blown off the ball, and Ingram scored. Without Nick Fairly in the middle, Auburn was in trouble. Compounding the issue was that linemen Mike Blanc and Michael Goggins had both been suspended for the first half of this game due to being parts of fighting in the previous game. Auburn had no depth on the line without them.
Leading 7–0, Alabama kicked off. Despite an Alabama substitution infraction penalty, Auburn was unable to pick up a first down on 3 runs. Alabama linemen and linebackers were camping out in the Auburn backfield. Auburn’s Ryan Shoemaker would be a busy man in the first half. He punted the ball dead at the Alabama 18. It didn’t take the Tide long from there. A screen to Preston Dial picked up a first down, then Bama called the go-route. Auburn’s secondary ignored Julio Jones, who was wide open for a 68 yard touchdown bomb. It was 14–0 Bama, and we weren’t even halfway through the first quarter.
Auburn’s second possession started with a nice 25-yard Onterrio McCalebb kick return and a 5–yard penalty on Alabama. It didn’t matter. Auburn tried to go to the air, no one got open, and the Tide tallied back-to-back sacks on Cam Newton. A third down throw-away later, it was 3 and out again.
Alabama started at its 39 after the punt. Alabama knocked out a couple of first downs, then inexplicably went to the wildcat formation. Trent Richardson was stuffed twice, and Auburn had Alabama down to 3rd and 8. Back in the game was Auburn’s Nick Fairley. Greg McElroy dropped to throw, and Fairley burst through! McElroy was sacked for a big loss, and Fairley celebrated a bit, and out came the yellow flag. The dead-ball personal foul gave Alabama a makeable 4th and 4 at the Auburn 32-yard line. Alabama began moving it again on short passes. From the 12-yard line, a square out to slot receiver Darius Hanks in the end zone resulted in another Alabama score.
Auburn was now trailing 21–0 in the first quarter and had not notched a first down. Auburn’s next possession went no better. Onterrio McCalebb was spilled for a loss on a speed sweep, and Auburn could not buy Cam Newton time enough to make a throw on 3rd down. Auburn punted away once again. An illegal block call on Alabama backed them up to the Bama 17 yard line.
Alabama was on the move once again, and picked up first downs up to their 40 yard line. From there, Greg McElroy hit running back Mark Ingram with a jail-break screen, and Ingram was off to the races. It looked for all the world that Alabama was going to score again as Auburn’s last player in position to stop Ingram, nickel back T’Sharvan Bell, bounced off of Ingram. Ingram was slowed and staggered just enough for Auburn defensive end Antoine Carter to catch up. Carter punched the football out of Ingram’s arms, and the ball bounced down the sideline, going through and out of the end zone for a touchback! The Tigers had dodged a bullet!
Auburn finally broke the first-down drought on the next series. A quick screen to Terrell Zachary picked up 7 yards (the longest gain of the day to that point), then Newton surged forward on 3rd down to move the chains. The drive was blown up when the Tigers attempted a reverse to Zachary on 2nd down that lost 5 yards. Newton was forced to scramble on 3rd and long, and he and Zachary could not hook up on the broken play. It was too bad. Zachary had found a wide open spot and would have gone a long way. A shanked 20-yard punt followed, and again Alabama had the ball against a tiring Auburn defense.
Auburn managed to get Alabama to 3rd and 5, but Greg McElroy and Julio Jones found the Auburn secondary asleep again, hooking up for 42 yards. Alabama was first and goal at the Auburn 3-yard line. Alabama play faked, and McElroy delivered a toss to the goal line. A dropped ball by Bama back Trent Richardson saved another touchdown. The Auburn line rose up and thwarted the drive from there. Jeremy Shelley drilled a short field goal, and Alabama led 24–0, midway through the 2nd quarter.
It was long past time for Auburn to answer a Bama score, and on this drive they did. Alabama got Auburn to 3rd down and long twice, but timely slant passes from Cam Newton to Kodi Burns moved the chains. Then on 2nd down from the Alabama 36, Newton faked a quarterback run then loaded up a throw down the left sideline. Auburn’s Emory Blake faked a sideline wide receiver screen, then took off upfield and was wide open. Blake juggled the ball but held on in the end zone, and Auburn was on the board! The Tigers still trailed, 24–7.
A long, methodical 9-play Alabama drive followed, and it looked for all the world that the Tide would answer the Auburn score with one of their own and put the game further out of reach. On second and goal from the Auburn 6-yard line, Auburn tackle Nick Fairley jumped the Bama snap count perfectly. Fairley was in the backfield before the Bama line was out of their stances. Fairley ran through quarterback Greg McElroy, and the ball went flying. The Alabama line still hadn’t figured out what had happened, and Fairley was able to scramble around them and fall on the ball! Auburn was bailed out again in the red zone!
With less than a minute left in the half, Auburn went to the 2-minute drill. Tiger chances ended when the officials missed a Darvin Adams catch on the sideline up near midfield. Alabama went to the half with a 24–7 lead over Auburn, but it could have been a whole lot more.
Auburn got the ball to start the second half and started at the Auburn 31. A quarterback run was predictably stuffed for a loss of 1. On second and 12, Alabama showed blitz. Newton dropped back and gunned the ball down the field on a fly route to Terrell Zachary. The blitz had been a fake. Bama was dropped back into 2-deep coverage, and it looked like an interception was imminent. Somehow, Zachary got the inside position on both Bama defenders and secured the ball! Alabama’s Mark Barron fell to the turf, and Zachary was gone! The play covered 70 yards, and Auburn cut the Bama lead to 24–14, just two plays into the half.
Alabama went right back to the quick passing game, but it was not as effective in the 2nd half. I’m not sure Auburn really did much differently. I’m not sure the big hit Nick Fairley put on McElroy near the end of the first half didn’t have some effect. McElroy just wasn’t as crisp from that point forward. Alabama ground it up to midfield but was incomplete from there and had to punt.
From the Auburn 17, the Tigers picked up one first down on a counter-play to Onterrio McCalebb that picked up 15 yards, running away from the strong side of an unbalanced line. The Auburn offensive brain trust picked up on that and remembered that play for later. The drive was killed on a 3rd down juggled incomplete pass to Darvin Adams, and Auburn punted back to the Tide.
Bama got off to a tough start on their next drive. Michael Goggins turned the corner from his end position and sacked Greg McElroy, who had nowhere to go with the football. On 3rd down and under duress, McElroy had to throw the ball away, and Auburn had just forced a 3 and out.
Auburn worked the unbalanced line on the ensuing drive. Newton faked the weak side give to McCalebb, looked the other way, then threw it back to McCalebb for 15 yards. Twice more McCalebb was given the ball going left, and he picked up 11, then 20 yards. Auburn was on the move! In the Bama red zone, the Tigers ground it down to the 1-yard line, where Cam Newton bashed into the end zone for a score! With 4:25 left in the 3rd quarter, the score was now Alabama 24, Auburn 21.
The Auburn defense asserted itself again. Linebacker Josh Bynes broke up a slant pass to Julio Jones, then a 3rd down screen to Trent Richardson was snuffed out by Antoine Carter. Then disaster almost struck. Cody Mandel punted to Quindarius Carr, who fielded the ball in traffic at the Auburn 35. Carr was hit once and spun around, then belted under the chin by Bama’s Courtney Upshaw, and Carr lost the ball. Alabama fell on it at the Auburn 27. Back-to- back throws from Greg McElroy to Julio Jones had Alabama poised at the Auburn 7-yard line, but the Auburn defense rose up. A false start ensued, then linebacker Eltoro Freeman chased down McElroy for a sack. Bama was forced to settle for a Jeremy Shelley field goal, which made the score 27–21 Alabama late in the 3rd quarter.
On the ensuing drive, Auburn knocked out a first down on a screen to Onterrio McCalebb but then faced a 4th and 3 as Alabama tried to lock them down. Auburn called timeout, then came out with a half-huddle. Cam Newton called for the ball, trying to draw Alabama offsides, then dropped back into a sort of quick-kick formation. But when Newton took the snap, he instead threw the ball to the left sideline where Darvin Adams had gotten open. Adams snagged the hot ball, and Auburn had a new set of downs. The unbalanced line returned, but this time it was Newton and running back Michael Dyer running power to the right behind it. Newton got 12, then Dyer got 13. The Tigers ground it down to the Bama 7, and faced 3rd and 4. Newton faked a handoff to the right and looked to throw it right. Then Newton dodged a tackler and sailed the ball back to the left. Tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen had leaked back across the flow and was open for the touchdown! Auburn had tied the game! With an extra point by Wes Byrum, Auburn took a 28–27 lead over Alabama with 11:55 left in the game.
More misery followed for Alabama. Julio Jones hurt his knee on the ensuing kickoff, and quarterback Greg McElroy was left with his two top receivers, Jones and Darius Hanks, injured and on the bench. Alabama responded by running right at Auburn, and it worked for a while. Trent Richardson bashed for some yardage, and Alabama converted a 4th and short with a sneak for a first down. Then it was Mark Ingram’s turn to bash for a first down. Then, at the 36, the Tide started going backward. Ingram was run down for a loss, and McElroy couldn’t convert a slant pass to Kevin Norwood. On 3rd down and 12, Auburn dialed up a nickelback blitz. T’Sharvan Bell came clean around the corner and slammed Greg McElroy to the ground for the sack. To make matters worse for the Tide, McElroy was not getting up. He was out with a concussion. Bama’s Cody Mandel then shanked a punt for only 13 yards.
Auburn took over at their own 27 with 5:18 left in the ball game and a 28–27 lead. Cam Newton kept the ball 5 times in a row, moving the chains. A couple of short Onterrio McCalebb runs put the Tigers at 4th and 10 with 1:01 left in the game. Ryan Shoemaker punted it to the Bama 19-yard line, and Marquis Maze had nowhere to go on the return.
Alabama’s A. J. McCarron entered the game at quarterback but could not hook up with any receiver on 4 straight throws. One of them was a dropped ball on 3rd down. Auburn took over on downs at the Alabama 18-yard line, Cam took a knee, and it was over! Impossibly, Auburn had recovered from a 24–0 deficit and won the Iron Bowl! The Tigers prevailed, 28–27, and were the SEC Western Division Champions.
Auburn would move on the next week to the SEC Title Game in Atlanta, where the Tigers blew out the South Carolina Gamecocks, 56–17. From there, Auburn’s Cam Newton was awarded the Heisman Trophy, and Nick Fairley won the Lombardi Award. The Tigers traveled in January to Glendale Arizona and played the PAC-12 Champion Oregon Ducks for all of the marbles. On the last play of the game, Wes Byrum kicked a short field goal, and Auburn knocked off the Ducks, 22–19. Auburn finished the season as the consensus national champions! It was Auburn’s 5th national title recognized by the NCAA.