Resilient Tigers deliver rivalry blow
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When the Iron Bowl had ended, and Auburn had come back, and quarterback Cam Newton had run around Bryant-Denny Stadium with his hand clapped over his mouth, presumably mocking the stunned Alabama fans but also reminding one and all that he hasn't spoken publicly in three weeks, and defensive lineman Mike Blanc had said, "Oh man, it can't get any better than this," the Crimson Tide had disappeared from the premises pretty much the way they disappeared in the second half.
The Tigers? They did not leave. They lingered, giddy on endorphins, overdosing on joy, blissfully ignorant of the raw, blustery weather. No. 2 Auburn had spotted No. 11 Alabama a 24-0 lead and won the game anyway, 28-27. Woe unto the football fan who flipped off the TV in the second quarter.
There is humiliation, there is utter humiliation and there is losing the Iron Bowl the way Alabama lost this one. Never since Auburn began playing football in 1892 had the Tigers won a game in which they trailed by 24 points.
There will be time for Auburn to enjoy Alabama's discomfort -- the next 364 days, to start with. The question here is what to make of an Auburn team that has fallen behind four opponents by at least 13 points and beaten every one. Does that make the Tigers a great team?
Resourceful? Yes. The Tigers illustrated Friday that nothing rattles them, including getting rattled.
Auburn started this game as if determined to make every mistake there is to make on a football field. The Tigers missed tackles. They blew a coverage so badly on Alabama wideout Julio Jones that he turned a simple route into a 68-yard touchdown pass.
"We were just really anxious," tailback Michael Dyer said. "We were too eager to get out there on the field. Then our minds were everywhere. We really weren't focused on what we needed to do. We were too caught up in all the hype of the game."
But Auburn never panicked, just as when it trailed Clemson 17-0, just as when it trailed South Carolina 20-7, just as when it trailed Georgia 21-7.
"Just like always," Auburn left offensive tackle Lee Ziemba said, sounding like a senior making his 50th consecutive start. "We've been down before. Eventually, we're going to get something going."
Let's reset it one more time. Alabama had won 20 consecutive games at Bryant-Denny Stadium over the past three seasons. Tide quarterback Greg McElroy completed his first 12 passes, for 204 yards and two touchdowns, before Newton completed his first.
But that's where the turnaround began. If you're behind 21-0 on the road, you need something a tad unusual. You need a defensive end like Antoine Carter catching a Heisman Trophy winner like Mark Ingram from behind. At the end of a 41-yard completion, Carter punched the ball out of Ingram's grasp at the Auburn 19. Corner Demond Washington recovered the fumble in the end zone.
"It makes me feel fast," Carter said, a twinkle in his eye. "I mean, hey, I'd like to move to offense, run the ball a little bit. But I don't like getting hit, so I don't think I'll be over there too long."
Two plays later, Newton completed his first pass, which meant that with 11:43 remaining in the second quarter, Auburn had a finally made a first down. Another spark.
And then, after yet another big play by Alabama, this one a 42-yard completion from McElroy to Jones, gave the Tide a first-and-goal at the Auburn 3, tailback Trent Richardson dropped a pass on the way to the end zone. The third spark lit the fire. Auburn held Alabama to a field goal.
From then on, Auburn made almost every big play. Nick Fairley separated McElroy from the ball at the Auburn 8 in the final minute of the first half.
Two plays into the second half, Alabama safety Mark Barron badly misplayed Newton's pass to Terrell Zachery, who turned a 25-yard reception into a 70-yard touchdown. As poorly as Auburn played, Alabama's two red zone turnovers had allowed the Tigers to stay within sight. Two plays in, Auburn trailed only 24-14.
"That touchdown pass kind of livened us up," offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. "Our guys, they were back. At that point, it looked like we were going to win the game."
Alabama began the game playing as if it meant to show Auburn what a national champion is supposed to look like. Auburn ended it by leading the last 11:55 of the game. McElroy threw for a career-high 335 yards in the first half. He threw for 42 yards in the second half and ended it on the bench with a concussion suffered on a fourth-quarter sack.
Never has a one-point game been less close. Alabama dominated one half. Auburn dominated the other. Each team came unglued, like the game had enough glue for only one team at a time.
So here's the question: Is this what a national champion is supposed to look like? Auburn seems intent on proving that the how many really is more important than the how. In the era of the 13-game SEC season, 12 wins usually proves to be enough to get the opportunity to play for the crystal football, and 13 certainly will.
Those decisions will be made in a week. And no matter what happens, no matter how many style points Auburn lost Friday, it has bragging rights. Punt Bama Punt, move over.
In 1972, Auburn knocked Alabama out of the national championship race by returning two blocked punts for fourth-quarter touchdowns to win 17-16. What pain lingers from that loss, nearly four decades ago, has been permanently numbed. Tide fans have an ache that should last another 40 years.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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