For about three hours yesterday afternoon, all of the stars aligned for Auburn to pull off the biggest upset in Iron Bowl history. Alabama played very poorly, posting probably it's worst performance since the 2007 Louisiana-Monroe debacle. Auburn, on the other, easily played their best game of the season. And all of the little breaks that they needed to fall their way were doing just that.
For Alabama, it was effectively a trainwreck by the entire team. Heisman contender Mark Ingram was completely stuffed in the running game, missed an easy touchdown pass to Julio Jones on a trick play, and ultimately went out with an injury. The only thing he fared better than was the Thanksgiving turkey. Likewise, our offensive line was completely manhandled in the trenches by an inferior defensive line that they should have dominated. The passing game to receivers not named Julio Jones was completely non-existent. Greg McElroy passed up an easy first down on a scramble to throw an incomplete pass to a completely blanketed receiver in the red zone (a drive where we ultimately came away with no points). James Carpenter was whipped off the edge for a key sack late in the fourth quarter. The offense continued to fall apart in the red zone. They could not take advantage of great field position all day. There was no vertical element whatsoever in the passing game, once again, and the offense was almost wholly incapable of creating big plays. The Alabama defense was confused as hell all afternoon against Gus Malzahn's mad scientist offensive scheme. Eryk Anders made some terrible plays in run support leading to big Auburn plays. Nico Johnson dropped an easy interception at a crucial time. Mark Barron bought into a double move route by Darvin Adams like a dumb investor buying into the Bernie Madoff scheme. Justin Woodall played poorly, yet again, committing a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that cost us at least four points, and then capped it off by giving up a touchdown pass after biting on the playaction fake. We missed an easy, crucial sack in the fourth quarter that ultimately cost us about 40 yards in field position. P.J. Fitzgerald had one of his usual 55-yard punts that sailed out of the back of the end zone. We were completely unprepared for an Auburn onside kick, even though it was clear they had something up their sleeve with their unusual grouping. Leigh Tiffin missed a field goal, and had another kick-off sail out of bounds.
And then all of those little breaks that Auburn needed kept falling their way. They were able to recover two muffed punts deep in their own territory. They had a critical interception erased by their own incompetence, i.e. a display of the Human False Start Machine himself, Lee Ziemba. The umpire found himself in the way of no less than three dump-off passes over the middle, effectively ending our chances on all three occasions. Clinton Durst's punt took the perfect bounce to pin us up deep against our own goal line in the fourth quarter. Julio Jones seemingly good catch on the opening drive was called incomplete and was not reviewed by the booth.
Somehow, someway, though, 'Bama survived it all and lived to tell about it. We did just enough -- barely -- to hang on in the first 52 minutes to give ourselves a chance to win it in the end and that is what we did. The final drive was just about as ugly as it got. It had all of the aesthetic value of a 1978 Datsun. We had to convert several third downs, gave up a crucial sack, and were unable to generate any explosive plays. It was the epitome of an ugly, dink and dunk drive, but fortunately we got it all done in the end. It wasn't pretty, but it was nevertheless ultimately a 15-play, 79-yard touchdown drive that will forever be cemented in Iron Bowl lore. Sometimes it is about functionality, not aesthetics.
For the most part, though, it was an ugly effort by the Tide. Plain and simple, Auburn wanted this game more than we did. They showed up with more emotion and more intensity, and they sustained at a higher level throughout the game than we did. Maybe it was just the short week, with Thanksgiving being one of the days for preparation. Admittedly, that hurt our effort, especially against Malzahn's highly complicated offensive scheme. Maybe it was something else altogether, but either way Auburn showed up with a vengeance and we showed up with the indifference of Jerry Seinfeld. That's a damning deficiency, and one that there can be no legitimate excuse whatsoever for.
Perhaps we thought it was going to be a cakewalk like last year's 36-0 route. Maybe that was it, but if so I hope our players saw enough yesterday to remove their collective heads from their rectums. I don't care how lopsided things are in this series, this is still probably the most physical game in the country and a game probably played with more emotion than any other in the country to boot. Iron Bowl victories rarely come easy, regardless of the circumstances, and if our players legitimately thought otherwise, they were fooling themselves. Repeat after me: Iron. Bowl. Victories. Do. Not. Come. Easy.
Of course, stepping back from the ledge a bit, it should be noted that in many ways this game was a lopsided affair in both directions. Auburn absolutely dominated early, gaining a 14-0 lead after the first four possessions and out-gaining the TIde in total yards a whopping 138 to 5. But we survived the shitstorm, as Saban would later call it, and from there we effectively dominated the game, out-scoring Auburn 26-7 and out-gaining them somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 to 180.
It wasn't so much that we played poorly all day as much as it was that we got off to the worst start we've had in many, many years, and then despite generally controlling the game from that point moving forward, we shot ourselves in the foot just enough -- Barron's big play allowed, Leigh Tiffin's blocked kick, Mark Ingram's missed touchdown pass, and another failure to convert in the red zone -- to keep this one going right down to the wire. If we stop shooting ourselves in the foot after the terrible start, we win this one easily somewhere in the neighborhood of 35-14, but obviously it didn't happen that way.
For Auburn, their players played a fine game and their coaches did a fine job to boot. They should all be proud of their collective effort. And frankly if their fan base wants to bask in the comfort of such a supposedly great moral victory, let 'em. As our Tennessee friend so accurately pointed out in his meltdown last month, "There are no f*cking moral victories." We look to hold the advantage in this rivalry for years to come, and if they want to get all cheery and jolly over a close loss at home, that's their problem, not mine.
In any event, though, it was an ugly day and we should all feel very fortunate to be headed back to Tuscaloosa as winners. Being brutally honest, most of the time you go out and play in the SEC like we did today, a loss is almost an inevitability. We played with fire and somehow avoided getting burnt. Doing so is a rarity in the SEC.
From here, we just have to regroup and play better. Florida would kill us given the way we played yesterday, and that's the harsh truth. We're a team that clearly has some legitimate problems right now, but we're going to have to find a way to fix those things in the next seven days. Fortunately, I've said for the past several weeks that all we really needed to do down the stretch was to (1) win, regardless of the circumstances, and (2) stay healthy doing so. And as heart-attack-inducing as yesterday's Iron Bowl was, we did both of those things and we lived to fight another week. For now, we're 12-0 yet again, and we can put all of our sights on Florida. No one ever said it would be easy to beat the Gators, and nothing we saw yesterday changed that harsh reality, but then again we knew all along that we would practically need the perfect game in Atlanta to stamp our ticket to Pasadena. Anyone who ever legitimately thought otherwise was fooling themselves.
For now, though, today is an off day for the Crimson Tide. We got back to Tuscaloosa late last night and today is an easy, leisurely day in the Druid City. Tomorrow, all focus and efforts will turn towards Florida. Our Iron Bowl performance was ugly as hell, but we survived and I'm sure it will be celebrated as such. I say we do the same thing. Enjoy another great day of football, savor yet another Iron Bowl victory, and then all eyes can turn to the rematch we've been waiting on for twelve months.