When Gus Turned the Corner at Auburn.
Darvin Adams gave Auburn the lead!
War Eagle, everybody! I don’t know about you, but I am certainly ready for some spring football! We’re about to leave February behind, and it’s time to enjoy the pop of shoulder pads and the smell of freshly cut grass. Unfortunately, we’ve got another three weeks plus till it actually happens, this year. Still, I we all anticipate a big turnaround in the football program this season.
Back in 2009, I think we all were wondering if Gene Chizik would work out, and if the Gus Malzhan offense was a long-term answer at Auburn. The season had its ups and downs, but I think one of the defining moments happened on Halloween of that year, when Auburn hosted Ole Miss.
The season started with much uncertainty, but after rolling out of the gate with five wins, the Auburn faithful were fired up. Somewhat lost in that euphoria were uncomfortable facts that there were many areas that the Tigers were still struggling in. The Tigers were giving up an unprecedented number of points, and were tending to live off big plays on offense.
After going 5-0 and winning in Knoxville (which used to be a big deal!), the wheels came off for the Tigers. Bobby Petrino’s Arkansas Razorback squad had all the answers to Malzhan’s offense, and the Tigers faced a 27-3 halftime deficit in Fayetteville. The Tigers showed a willingness to fight on in the second half, but lost 44-23. The Tiger offense frankly looked inept the next two games, a 21-14 loss at home to Kentucky, and a 31-10 beatdown in Baton Rouge.
On Halloween morning, there was little reason to predict an Auburn win. It was an early game, the kind Auburn had been prone to losing for at least a half decade. Houston Nutt’s 25th ranked Ole Miss Rebels were on a bit of a roll, and were playing aggressive defense. The week before the Rebels had pummeled Arkansas 30-17, the same Arkansas squad that had beaten Auburn earlier by 3 touchdowns.
Early on, the game went according to the script. The Rebels fumbled the opening kickoff, but recovered and went on a 94 yard drive for a touchdown, and led 7-0. The big play in the drive had been a 43 yard screen pass to Brandon Bolden.
Auburn opened its first possession with a couple of screen passes to Mario Fannin and Eric Smith, and moved to the Ole Miss 25, before a Tommy Trott holding penalty was too much to overcome. Wes Byrum hit a 36 yard field goal to cut the Ole Miss lead to 7-3.
Two Jevan Snead misfires doomed the next Ole Miss drive, and Auburn again attacked the aggressive Ole Miss defense with quick passes, hitting Darvin Adams and Kodi Burns for first downs. The Tigers had 3rd and 1 at the Ole Miss 41, but two Ben Tate runs failed to move the pile and Auburn turned the ball over on downs.
Ole Miss chewed through the Auburn defense with 5 straight successful running plays, but again two Jevan Snead wild throws brought up 4th down. Joshua Shene missed a long field goal attempt. Auburn answered with a motion penalty, and a three and out on offense. Ole Miss drove it to the Auburn 33, but a dropped ball brought up 4th and 6, and Jevan Snead took a sack to bail the Tigers out early in the 2nd quarter.
The two teams traded another turn of ineffective drives, then the Tigers took over after a punt at their own 10 yard line. Auburn’s running game was doing absolutely nothing with 8 Ole Miss defenders camping out on the line of scrimmage, and Gus Malzhan put the game in the hands of quarterback Chris Todd. On 3rd and 2 from the Auburn 18 yard line, Todd play-faked and hooked up with Terrell Zachary on a 42 yard strike down the sideline. Two plays later, a good fake left Darvin Adams wide open in the endzone, and Todd connected with him from 28 yards out. The Tigers had their first lead of the ball game, 10-7.
Ole Miss had over 5 minutes left in the half to answer, but wasted nearly all of it on a drive that ended with a couple of failed Hail Marys. The Tigers led 10-7 at the half. What was important was the first half showed the first legitimate signs of life from the Auburn offense in weeks. Would the Tigers continue the attacking trend in the second half, or was this just another temporary streak of good play?
Things didn’t look great on Auburn’s first possession of the second half. The two teams traded 15 yard penalties, and Chris Todd missed Terrell Zachary on another deep pass attempt on 3rd and 9. Clinton Durst backed the Rebels up with a 55 yard punt to the Rebel 15, and the Rebels promptly went three and out.
On first down, Todd went right back to work deep, against the Ole Miss blitz. He hooked up again with Terrell Zachary, good for 41 yards! Ben Tate cut back on a counter to set up a first and goal at the Ole Miss 9 yard line, and in came Kodi Burns to run the wildcat. Of course, everyone knew that Burns would likely take it up the gut, like he did 90 percent of the time.
Burns took the snap, and the entire Ole Miss defense crashed the line hard. Burns lofted up an almost too easy pass to wide-open Tommy Trott for the score, and Auburn led 17-7. The Tigers were up, but would the defense hold onto the lead?
The Rebels tried to start their comeback with a 5 yard hitch pass. Markieth Summers juggled the ball, and it popped up right to Auburn corner Darren McFadden, who raced 29 yards for the score on a crazy pick-six! The Tigers were suddenly up 24-7.
The Ole Miss offense again could not get out of its own way. A holding penalty set up 3rd and long, and Jevan Snead held the ball and was sacked again back at the Rebel 21. After an Ole Miss punt, Auburn ran a fake reverse for nothing to Ben Tate, but then the real reverse to Travante Stallworth picked up 14 and a first down. Then, Ole Miss bit hard on a fake sweep, and Ben Tate was off to the races on the counter play. He streaked down the left sideline, and was gone for a 53 yard score. Incredibly, Auburn was up 31-7 over the Rebels!
A four score lead was not familiar territory for the Tigers in recent years, and handling prosperity proved to be difficult. Jesse Grandy took a short Morgan Hull kickoff, and raced 82 yards for the score. The Rebels had cut the Auburn lead to 31-14. The Rebels then forced a quick three and out with some all-out blitzing.
On the next Rebel possession, they only needed one play on a simple toss sweep. Dexter McCluster knifed through the Auburn defense for 79 yards and a score. On the point after, Antonio Coleman swatted the ball down, and Demond Washington scooped it up and raced the other way for an Auburn two pointer! The Tigers held a 33-20 lead, and were getting the ball back.
Could the Tigers put the Rebels away with another drive? Ole Miss sent the house after Chris Todd, forcing a bad throw and a sack to end Auburn’s drive quickly. The Rebels drove it to the Auburn 25, poised to cut further into the Tiger lead. Neiko Thorpe separated the ball from Brandon Bolden, and safety Darren Bates recovered for the Tigers!
Badly needing to keep the ball and run some clock, the Malzhan offense produced 8 plays, but was derailed by an unfortunate illegal shift. The Tigers had run play-action off the wildcat, and Kodi Burns lofted what seemed like a sure touchdown to Terrell Zachary, who the Rebels were still determined to try to cover one on one. This time, the Rebels tackled Zachary before the ball got there and drew the flag, but there was no play due to the illegal shift. Chris Todd ended the drive pooch kicking the ball down to the Ole Miss 1 yard line.
Auburn let the Rebels out quickly, giving up a 48 yard pass to Shay Hodge, but then Houston Nutt’s idea of a good play was to let Jevan Snead run the quarterback draw on 3rd and 9. The Rebels were forced to punt, down two touchdowns in the 4th quarter.
The Tigers did run some clock with a couple of double digit Mario Fannin runs, but then disaster struck. Chris Todd was sacked on 3rd down, and fumbled the ball back to the Rebels at the Tiger 24 yard line. With a chance to score, Ole Miss responded with a holding penalty that wiped out an 18 yard Jevan Snead scramble. On 3rd and long, Snead was sacked again, by Antonio Coleman. With 4th and 32 from the 45 yard line, Ole Miss elected to punt with 7:44 left in the game.
Auburn ran the ball to a quick three and out, and Ole Miss got it back with 5:21 left at their own 46. The Rebels mounted a drive, but their last hopes faded with a Walter McFadden interception at the Auburn 6 yard line. Ben Tate pounded out 6 of the last 7 plays of the game, and Auburn took a knee to end the game.
The Tigers had won! The 33-20 win over the ranked Rebels increased Auburn’s record to 6-3, and the Tigers would be going back to the bowls. More importantly, Gus Malzhan and the Auburn offense had sent a message.
If the Tigers could rip Houston Nutt’s ranked defense for over 400 yards, they could do it to anyone. Auburn went on to average 36.5 points per game the last four games of the season. Though the Tigers found ways to lose to Georgia and Alabama, the offense was an unqualified success. And with the offense moving the ball and generating momentum, the Tigers were never out of any ball game. Auburn had the blueprint to move forward, towards an unforgettable 2010 season.