I got together with Orson from EDSBS last Thursday for a couple of beers and a pre-game summit meeting. Good guy, even if he did get a few funny looks for the jorts and Isaac Asimov sideburns.
Anyway, once the first round was underway, Orson turned to me and asked, "Is there any spot on the field where you really think Auburn has an advantage?" I was in full depth-of-despair mode after the Arkansas debacle, and couldn't even come up with one. Orson had to throw me placekicker as a consolation prize. As I told him and anybody else who asked me last week, I was entirely pessimistic about AU's chances going into the game. Heck, I didn't really believe the Tigers were going to win until almost literally the last play.
Then again, as I also told everybody who asked, I've been 180 degrees wrong in predicting almost every big Auburn game over the last five years. I shouldn't have been so surprised to miss this call, too.
The nagging question about AU over the last month was, "Are they having bad games, or were they just not very good to begin with?" Rolling over for Arkansas certainly pointed towards the latter, and the Tigers didn't do much to change that perception in the first half. While the offense did a good job of holding the ball and moving between the 20's, that limited success was mostly thanks to individual efforts on the parts of the recievers and running backs. The offensive line did a good impression of Alabama 2005, giving up five sacks on Brandon Cox.
As everybody knows by now, the Lizards ran at least as well as as the Pigs had a week earlier, and the defensive pass rush was as awful as ever. The last and worst straw had to be media phenom Tim Tebow trotting 20 yards untouched into the end zone, despite every single person in the stadium knowing before the snap he'd be running the ball. As we were being tortured by the Worst Halftime Show Ever (okay, it wasn't quite as awful as the Tuscaloosa Inflatable Hat incident of 2000, but it was nearly that bad), the main topic in the stands was, "How bad will this get?" The crowd was almost out of the game.
Fortunately for Auburn, things were neither as dispirited nor as placid in the Tiger dressing room. According to multiple accounts, Tommy Tuberville lit up both the team and his assitants, particularly on defense. The specifics are still sketchy, but it sounds a little like the riot act Pat Dye read to his team at Georgia Tech in 1987, or in Tampa on New Year's Day of 1990. Whatever was said, it clearly had an impact, and not just on the players. Even coaches need to be coached, and after the last four games, it was high time somebody got Will Muschamp's attention.
You don't need me to tell you what happened next: Auburn came out and started playing serious defense. Not only did the Tigers finally get off the ball and stop the run, Chris Leak started to get knocked around, and true to his tendencies, the Gator offense tanked around him. After four weeks of virtual inaction, Quentin Groves lived up to his billing, terrorizing Leak with a renewed pass rush. And of course, Tray Blackmon could hardly have made a bigger statement in his long-delayed first college game.
The emotional rush in the stadium was palpable. Stopping Florida on their first series was a gigantic boost, but blocking the punt for a touchdown was a veritable match thown onto gasoline. If you want a historical precident, it was a lot like this:
This game reminded me a lot of that oft-forgotten 1993 tilt for another reason. Then as now, the Florida offense just shredded Auburn in the first half, but AU stepped up and controlled the ball and the game after intermission. As in '93, the defense shut down the Florida run and started getting to the quarterback. The analogy isn't perfect; the halftime deficit was only six points this time around-- but that was very fortunate for Auburn. Unlike in '93, the AU offense still wasn't able to score. The big upside for the offense was simply keeping possession the ball for most of the game. The longer Auburn's offense could hold the ball, scoring or not, the fewer chances Florida had to come back.
I wish I could say that it was all in the bag after the blocked punt, but that wouldn't be remotely accurate. Florida didn't have things as easy in the second half as in the first, but they certainly didn't fold. Tebow became a non-factor, but even with all the turnovers, I thought Leak did a nice job of moving his offense when he had some traction. Auburn continued to sputter on offense, and once again couldn't get that one first down they needed to ice the game. Like I said above, I didn't really think AU was going to pull it out until the very last couple of plays.
But of course, they did, and with an delightfully enjoyable flourish on that last touchdown. Where things go from here is anybody's guess, but I do think it's possible--possible--that this was the corner-turning game for the '06 Tigers. I'm not about to go making any bold predictions this soon on (don't even talk to me about that BCS ranking; I was as stunned as anybody), but Auburn at the very least should be favored for the rest of the regular season.
The light is on, and a lot of opportunities are beckoning. Let's see what happens next.
One suggestion: this team doesn't get an open date, but Tuberville could do a lot worse than bestowing one on his quarterback this week. Cox has gotten his brains beaten in for the better part of a month, and the guy could use a day off. There's no reason why he should play against Tulane on Saturday. Put Blake Field in there, get him some more experience, and give the one indispensible guy on the squad a chance to heal up. He, and the rest of the team, would be a lot better for it going forward.