When asked over the past two weeks how Auburn might be able to beat Alabama, I replied, "Get a lead early and hold on late." In this case, it's not very comforting to have been right. Auburn was able to do the first, and in spectacular fashion, but as most of us feared, not the second.
Even so, there can be little doubt that this was the best possible effort from the 2009 Auburn defense. I'm still stunned that Auburn was able to completely shut down Mark Ingram while playing the same three linebackers for the entire football game. I completely expected Alabama to man up and wear down the defense with the run in the second half, but that contingency never even threatened to materialize. The Antonio Coleman-led front four utterly shut down the rightly-vaunted Tide running attack, and linebackers Craig Stevens, Josh Bynes and Jonathan Evans all played the games of their lives. The only shame I can find is that Auburn just didn't have anybody to spell them with. I'm not about to get mad at a secondary full of freshman for giving up yardage on the game-winning drive--especially when they had to do so against a team playing rules-optional football.
There was some grousing last week over Pat Dye's observation that Tommy Tuberville's recruiting over his last three years was weak. I can see how you could argue that Dye shouldn't be running down one of his successors in public, but it's very hard to argue that what Dye said wasn't accurate. Fifteen Auburn defenders registered tackles on Friday, compared to 24 for Alabama. Those extra nine guys (and the lack thereof on the Tiger side) made a huge difference in the second half. Lack of depth is not an excuse--you play the Iron Bowl with the players you have--but an excuse is not the same thing as a reason. Thanks in no small part to the previous staff's fall-off in recruiting, Auburn just didn't have enough players this time around, and it cost the Tigers what would have been a monumental win.
There was a moment, midway through the third quarter, when the sense of opportunity was palpable. With a touchdown's lead, Auburn's defense stuffed alleged Heisman frontrunner Ingram on four straight plays to reclaim possession, and you could feel the electricity surging through the stadium all the way down to your marrow. Every instinct shouted that a Tiger touchdown here would put the game away--and those instincts turned out to be correct. But instead, Auburn went three-and-out, and aided by (wait for it) a needless penalty, Alabama then managed a short drive and a field goal to recover a modicum of momentum.
While giving due credit to Alabama's excellent front seven--which does a great deal to mask a pretty pedestrian secondary outside of Javier Arenas--it's hard not to suspect that Gus Malzahn "went Tuberville" after getting that quick lead. Nick Saban's defense has always been susceptible to motion and misdirection. Utah famously ate it alive last year with misdirection and tempo, and all Al Borges had to do to discombobulate it in 2007 was move his tight ends around before the snap. Malzahn took advantage of those tendencies, and exploited the weak UAT secondary--big time--in all of Auburn's scoring drives.
So why, after blazing down the field for two scores, as well as after the second-half bomb to Darvin Adams, did Auburn go into a shell and insist on running Ben Tate into the tackles all those times? Alabama blitzes as well as anybody in the country, and Auburn hasn't handled the blitz well all season--so why insist on having Chris Todd try to throw from the pocket in predictable situations with little or no motion? And where'd the tempo game go? Beyond the Tigers' one long touchdown drive, it scarcely appeared for the rest of the game.
Some of the answer is surely that Alabama played better defense late than they did early, but I suspect those two floated Todd passes in the general direction of Tommy Trott on AU's third possession are the main answer. I'm no mind-reader, but it sure looked like Malzahn decided at that point that he was going to play close to the vest and avoid turnovers from then on out. Getting back to the numbers game, I'm sure it also made a big difference that Auburn essentially only has two wide receivers, making it easier on the defense to cover Terrell Zackery and Adams tight and ignore everybody else most of the time.
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It took a while for the game to sink in. There's no doubt it was a great football game, one of the better AU/UAT scraps in recent history, but losing a great game can feel a lot worse than just getting stomped. It's worse when the outcome is a surprise, as in 2001 (or 2002 for the Tide fans), and worse still when you had it in your hands, but still lost.
The fact is that the shellacking of 2008 meant a great deal more to Alabama fans and the in-state media (please forgive the redundancy) than it did to Auburn fans. That outcome had been telegraphed for a good two months before the game ever kicked off, and nobody was particularly surprised when Auburn came out on the bad end of a lopsided score. Don't get me wrong, it still sucked (plenty), but the general reaction in Auburndom was more of a wincing shrug than an offended scream. When you know for weeks in advance that you have no particular hope of winning, losing doesn't have as much of a bite. In terms of pain and/or outrage, 2008 didn't even register on the same scale as say, 1985 or 2001. The 2009 game didn't hit those low marks, and certainly not in terms of the play on the field, but it's still one that nobody's going to forget anytime soon.
While I am immensely proud of how well these guys played on Friday, I'm not remotely inclined to declare a "moral victory." While I do believe such things exist, I think they're a bit like Halley's Comet, something that might occur once in a lifetime as opposed to every few years (and certainly not, as the press seemed to assert during Mike Shula's tenure at UAT, every few ball games). The last one I'd hang my hat on at Auburn would be the 1982 Georgia game, and AU would have to fall very far for a very long time before anybody could talk about recovering from a programmatic slump akin to 1975-81. Nothing like that has happened here; AU had a bad year in 2008, followed by a decent rebuilding season in 2009. That's not the stuff of "moral victories," it just means you've got more work to do to get back to where you've been.
It is a small comfort that the 2009 game served, at least for a short time, to smack down the overweening arrogance of the crimson polyester set that had been growing like bacteria in a sewer (although not as attractively) since September of last year. Based on what little I heard from the in-state call-in shows and from friends and family with the misfortune to be living in Alabama during 2008-09, the UAT fan yahoo and media concensus (again, pardon the redundancy) was that Alabama could roll in and whip Auburn by an even greater margin than '08 with just their third team. The rather different reality was enough to short circuit the classless "rammer jammer" cheer (I guess "we just escaped by the skin of our teeth!" doesn't have very much punch), although I doubt it'll matter as much to the can't-spell-college morons populating the Tide bandwagon these days.
But beyond the sidewalk alumni, I suspect this game did put a considerable dent in the smug confidence among the UAT booster set that every season from now on was going to be a replay of 1979. When Auburn collapsed amidst an Alabama surge last year and then hired a lightly-regarded head coach in Gene Chizik, that bunch thought the days of easy wins, cheap media adulation and complete disregard for the rules were back for good.
Having eked out a win, no doubt many of those bozos have already convinced themselves that, "it was just a rivalry game on the road," or other such rationalization… but what they can't say (at least not honestly) is that they expect for Auburn to be nothing more than a bump in their road for decades to come. That particular delusion has been put to rest; like it or not, they know today that the Auburn team that took their best squad in a generation right down to the wire is also the worst Auburn team they'll get to play against for the forseeable future.
That said, it's obviously not an ideal outcome. It's not even close to one. I'd rather have the win.