Monday, November 26, 2007

Fear The Toes

Back on September 22, the ESPN Gameday circus came to Tuscaloosa for the Alabama-Georgia game. UAT was 3-0, and had just watched Auburn slump to 1-2 with a loss to Mississippi State. The crowd behind ESPN's stage was filled with signs sneering at the cross-state archrival, and most of them were personally directed at Auburn's quarterback: "We Love Brandon Cox" and "Cox For Heisman" were prominently featured for the national television cameras.

As in most of the decisions made in Tuscaloosa over the past decade, putting those signs up turned out to be a spectacularly bad call. By the time the Iron Bowl rolled around, UAT had suffered its own ignominious Crooming, and worse. By the time the Iron Bowl was over, Brandon Cox finished his career with a perfect record against Alabama, and had his own sign for the bammies who'd mocked him a few weeks earlier:

It goes without saying that I've enjoyed all of Auburn's wins during the current streak, but with the possible exception of the 2002 upset, I don't think any of them have been quite as satisfying as Saturday's 17-10 triumph.

I'm willing to bet the Auburn team feels the same way. After eleven months of having The Great Saban shoveled down our throats by the in-state press and legions of loudmouth idiots in Alabama's fan base (as ever, please forgive the redundancy), watching the Tide get outplayed and outcoached for the duration went down sweeter than Toomer's lemonade on a hot August day.

For the last several years, you could get a good read on how Auburn was going to finish a game by watching how they started. Against Florida, Arkansas and LSU, the Tigers came out strong, scoring on their first possession and stuffing the opposition. Against Georgia and MSU, early turnovers led quickly to defensive breakdowns, and things tended to go downhill from there. When AU came out of the gate Saturday to slam Alabama for three-and-out and followed up with a solid opening touchdown drive, they set a tone that UAT couldn't answer, even with help from an interception and some awful officiating later in the game.

There were a lot of reasons why Auburn won again in '07, but the most important was this: Auburn is a lot tougher than Alabama, which is just this side of soft. Rather inexplicably, UAT's coaching staff tried to play AU straight up with the running game rather than attacking the Tigers' most glaring weakness, the long ball. Suffice to say, it didn't work, even with a freshly-un-suspended Glenn Coffee running the ball behind also un-suspended linemen. When Minor--whoops, sorry, Major Applewhite did try to go to the air, Will Muschamp showed that with a strong push up front and a steady cover-two, Sarah Jessica Parker Wilson is an exceptionally average passer.

The much-vaunted Tide passing game rarely got anything done, and never hit the big strike that Auburn fans had been fearing all week. Even with "El Matador" Chris Capps confined to the bench for his last Iron Bowl, UAT's linemen were rarely able to do more than hold and pray nobody would notice; Auburn successfully rushed four defenders for most of the game. The only Alabama receiver even close to impressive was Nikita Stover, who was wiling to take a hit to make a big catch. That's a lot more than I can say for D.J. Hall, who appeared to be more concerned about messing up his pretty hairdo than playing physical football. Hall botched UAT's lone chance to take control of the game just before halftime; his end-zone bobble to Jerraud Powers was the biggest nail in the Tide's sixth coffin.

Not only was the Auburn defense more than capable of stuffing an anemic Tide offense--which is going to be feeling the bruises dispensed Saturday night by Tray Blackmon until roughly 2010--you could tell by AU's first offensive play that Auburn had come prepared for a physical game and Alabama hadn't. Auburn wide receiver Rod Smith laid a crushing, get-off-the-field block on UAT linebacker Rashad Johnson, setting the tone for the rest of the night. Here's a tip: when their wideouts are out-hitting your linebackers, you're probably going to lose. By the game's last meaningful play, Auburn had established dominance across both lines of scrimmage, making Brad Lester's in-your-face 12-yard run on fourth and one perfectly predictable, if no less satisfying.

Defensively, Alabama was lucky that things weren't much worse. Cox's standard workmanlike performance was good enough to win, but if he hadn't misfired on wide-open routes to Carl Stewart in the first half and Smith and Montez Billings in the second, the fourth quarter would have amounted to little more than a formality. Al Borges was able to take advantage of Saban's habit of setting the defense based on the tight end positions by returning to the shifts that served AU so well during 2004-05 (I should add that they've been sorely missed ever since), and turned in a solid game plan, although I think if he'd stuck to the run in the third quarter, the final margin would have been at least a bit larger. Then again, if Auburn had pulled away, we'd have missed the return of that icon of the Mike Shula era, the late, fruitless onsides kick. That would have been a shame.

Believe it or not, this isn't a criticism, but Nick Saban's defense is not one that's known for sophistication or trickery. Again, not kidding, that's to Saban's credit. When he has the players, he'll try and beat you straight up, and in my mind that's smarter tactics than, say, John Thompson's manic scheming. The weakness, of course, is when he doesn't have the players, and he definitely doesn't have them right now. Alabama's front seven is simply no match for a physical offense, and Auburn proved that again by gashing the Tide up the middle for the duration of the game (and with three true freshmen to boot). The contrast between the two teams was striking; on one side you had a finesse-oriented team trying to play smash-mouth, and on the other a physical team doing all the smashing.

Ah, it was fun, maybe best of all because Tommy Tuberville had coached up Auburn to play the kind of football that Alabama claims to take great pride in, while Nick Saban was unable do the same. Cutting corners on discipline and throwing your own players under the bus in the media will do that to you, Nicky. I can only imagine the grimacing among the UAT beat writers who'd been pushing the phony "Tubs is gone to A&M" story for the last couple of months as they watched the carnage. This is what they wanted to see for their team, but instead they had to watch it happen to their team.

1 comment:

Maestroh said...


I would be remiss if I did not congratulate Auburn for a well-played game and victory over my beloved Tide. No refs to blame, no excuses. You guys deserved to win.

Bill Brown