Commentary

Bama's iron will on display in comeback

Updated: November 28, 2009, 3:50 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

AUBURN, Ala. -- Lord knows, Nick Saban tries. The Alabama coach never claimed to be a poet of the podium. When he speaks to the media, he edits as he goes, interrupting his own rhythm, thoughts doing to him what his defenses do to opposing quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban knows Alabama still has tough tests ahead.

The emotion that burst forth from the coach of the No. 2 Crimson Tide on Friday after the 26-21 comeback over Auburn hit some heartfelt notes, if not always in the right order.

"I've never probably been prouder of a football team than I am proud of our guys in this game," Saban said. "… The character we showed, and the adversity we showed, to overcome the adversity we overcame in the game, on the road, getting behind, I don't think you can say enough about the competitive character this team showed today, and that's what I'm most proud of."

But to his team? That's another story. Saban speaks with all the comfort of broken-in loafers. This is what he said to the Crimson Tide after the game:

"Only the strong survive," Saban said. "But the strong still get their ass whipped."

Alabama finished great but did not play well. That's what archrivals can do to you, no matter your ranking. Texas A&M drew from that well Thursday night against No. 3 Texas. For more than 51 minutes Friday, before a roaring crowd of 87, 451 at Jordan-Hare Stadium, that's exactly what Auburn did, too.

"I want to say I am really, really proud of every guy who played in an Auburn uniform tonight, " Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "We played with a lot of heart, and we fought all the way down to the end."

The Tigers played every card they had Friday, beginning with bringing back the 1989 SEC champion Tigers to make an appearance on the field 20 minutes before kickoff. That's the team that upset a No. 2 Alabama team, 30-20 in the first Iron Bowl ever played at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

On Friday, a previously mediocre Auburn defense shut down Heisman Trophy contender Mark Ingram. The Crimson Tide tailback, fighting eight-man fronts and a hip pointer, rushed for 30 yards on 16 carries. If nothing else, Auburn might have maintained its 2-0 lead over Alabama in Heismans.

The chance to topple the Crimson Tide from its national perch caused the Tigers coaches to bet aggressively. Auburn receiver Terrell Zachery scored on a reverse, running untouched 67 yards for a touchdown on the first possession. That play nearly doubled the distance of the previous long run (34 yards) against Alabama this season.

Chizik didn't allow the Alabama defense to sit down and make adjustments. The Tigers executed a flawless onside kick, recovered on the Auburn 42, and drove for a second touchdown.

With only 9:18 elapsed, Alabama trailed 14-0, its largest deficit of the season. The Tide fought back to tie the score in the second quarter. In fact, in the rest of the game, the Auburn offense made only one play -- but what a play. In the third quarter, Alabama corner Marquis Johnson blitzed from the left, leaving wide receiver Darvin Adams in one-on-one coverage with strong safety Mark Barron.

[+] EnlargeGreg McElroy
AP Photo/ Butch DillGreg McElroy led Alabama's game-winning drive, completing six of seven passes.

Adams blew right past Barron, and Auburn QB Chris Todd lofted a pass to him in stride for a 72-yard touchdown. That's the longest score any of Saban's three Alabama teams have allowed. Auburn led 21-14.

Leigh Tiffin added two field goals in the third quarter, closing the deficit to 21-20. With 8:27 to play, Alabama took over possession on its 21. The Tide had driven more than 45 yards only once. On this possession, at this critical juncture in the season, Alabama drew from a different well, the well only winners tap.

The Crimson Tide converted three third downs. They didn't gain more than 17 yards on any one play. But they moved down the field. Looking back, it appeared inevitable.

"As you looked in the huddle," said Greg McElroy, who went 6-of-7 on the drive, "from a quarterback's perspective, there was no sense of worry, no sense of panic."

Wide receiver Julio Jones played like the All-American he had been predicted to be but hasn't been. Jones caught four passes for 33 yards, with every reception producing a first down.

Backup tailback Trent Richardson carried it five times for 20 yards and made that 17-yard catch, which gave the Tide a first down at the Auburn 11. The clock moved past 2:00. Tiffin, a Groza Award finalist who had kicked 27 field goals, waited on the sideline.

Richardson carried it twice, gaining 6 yards. Auburn called time with 1:29 to play. Tiffin might be automatic. But Auburn had gotten a hand on a second-quarter attempt from 42 yards.

Auburn came back on the field and lined up. Saban couldn't take it anymore.

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireTrent Richardson came up big for the Tide in the fourth quarter.

"They called a run," Saban said, referring to his offensive coaches. "I really didn't want to play for a field goal. I guess I tried to talk them into throwing a pass. Then when we got out there and lined up -- " Saban paused and repeated himself for emphasis. "I wanted to throw a pass. So we called timeout to throw a pass."

Saban didn't say which run had been called.

"They were in goal-line defense, and it's hard to gain 4 yards on one play," Saban said. "They were going to think that we were going to run."

Especially when defensive tackle Terrence Cody rumbled in to play fullback and Roy Upchurch lined up behind him. Upchurch, a senior, hadn't caught a touchdown pass in his entire career.

"I was yelling and screaming on the sideline to put me in," Upchurch said. "I just had that feeling I'd be wide open in the end zone."

McElroy rolled right, Upchurch leaked out to the right and caught a 4-yard touchdown pass to beat Auburn. In most years in this rivalry, that's how Iron Bowl legends are born. Had Alabama won this kind of game a year ago to break Auburn's six-game Iron Bowl winning streak, there's no question Upchurch would be a legend.

But this year is different. The Crimson Tide have more to do. They play No. 1 Florida next week, and if they win, they will play for the national championship. Alabama has more to do. In the meantime, the Tide return home with a two-game winning streak over Auburn and the knowledge that they can take a punch, rise and win.

"That's a tough game we played," Upchurch said.

Even an Iron Bowl hero understood. The greater lesson learned Friday is that the strong took an ass-whipping and survived.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE