For the last 9 years, every single Iron Bowl (with the exception of the glorious years of 2011 and 2012), has been filled with what I like to call “Plains Voodoo”. It comes in different forms, but it always involves wacky plays from the Tigers that somehow skew the game score to look much different than what you’d expect from looking at a box score. I won’t go into details and examples, since Gary Danielson did that well enough for us in the CBS pregame show.
This year started no differently. You could tell from the first few plays of the game that Alabama is just playing on a higher plane of existance than Auburn. Despite the talent disparity and Auburn’s total lack of a passing game, a conglomerate of trick plays, misdirection runs, and questionably grabby defensive backs kept the scoreboard close throughout the entire first half.
The Tigers opened up the game with a three an out, founded on a couple of dropped passes. Alabama started promisingly, moving the ball up the field with a combination of solid runs and short passes, but the drive ultimately stalled out. But no harm no foul, Auburn came back with a another drive to nowhere. There was a 75 yard jet sweep for a touchdown, but the officials did happen to notice that Dylan Moses, the man preparing to make a tackle, got hooked by a blocker from behind, springing the big play. After calling holding, Gus Malzahn argued the call until Auburn got an unsportsmanlike call, effectively ending the drive.
With a short field to work with, Tua Tagovailoa completed a couple of nice balls to Henry Ruggs before running a QB power sweep to the left side on 3rd down and trucking two defenders into the endzone for a rushing touchdown. His knee is fine, y’all.
The Tide had the lead, and things were looking up. Until Auburn called 5 straight run plays that gashed Alabama for a flurry of first downs in a smashmouth, ballsy playcalling in which Auburn showed to the world that they can play with the big boys. They capped off the drive with a misdirection WR jet sweep that had Anthony Schwartz waltzing into the endzone.
Not to be daunted by this display of manball, Tua Tagovailoadrove the ball right back down the field, breaking off a nifty 21 yard scamper on 3rd down where he broke a tackle in the backfield and juked some poor soul 10 yards down the field. He capped off the drive with a quick pass to Henry Ruggs III, who went through and over a defender into the endzone.
Another Auburn punt had Alabama with a solid lead and posession again. A couple of good runs from Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs set things up perfectly for a deep ball to Waddle down the left sideline. The route and the throw were absolute beauties, but the glamour of it was marred by the Auburn defensive back tackling Waddle before the ball arrived. The ensuing 15 yard pass interference was nice, but not as nice as a touchdown would have been. An intentional grounding that was definitely not intentional (Irv Smith ran a post and Tua threw a corner) stalled the drive, but Joseph Bulovas had his Heisman Moment and drilled a 30 yard field goal that could have melted even Saban’s heart.
Alabama forced another punt, and the Tigers were, at this point, looking totally outmatched and overwhelmed. They were racking up hothead-esque penalties, diving at knees, dropping passes, and just generally looking undisciplined. However, OC Mike Locksley decided that now was the time to play ultra conservative, and call a draw play on 3rd and 3. It didn’t work, and Alabama was forced to punt. You could just feel the voodoo coming to strike before the punt even happened, and it did. Mike Bernier decided to take about 72 seconds, give or take a few, to punt the ball, and Auburn blocked it lazily, giving them a short field and long momentum.
Jarrett Stidham threw a screen pass, and Saivion Smith hit the receiver so hard he fumbled the ball 10 yards into the air. Instead of it becoming a drive-killing turnover, it fluttered perfectly into the hands of a lone Auburn lineman who advanced it all of 0 yards, but more importantly kept possession for the Tigers. The very next play was a slow developing double pass that was extremely obvious to everyone on the field, sidelines, and stadium... except Christian Miller, who shed the block of RB Malik Miller, only to realize that he wasn’t shedding a block, but actually getting toasted in coverage. 17-14, Alabama.
From there, the two coaches telepathically decided to end the half, and both teams ran the clock out to go into halftime, leaving the rest of us biting fingernails.
As usual, Saban and Locksley adjusted well to the Auburn defensive gameplan of holding receivers deep and run blitzing on every play. Instead of trying for deep shots over and over, they instead started hitting some short passes at the sticks to TE Irv Smith to open things up... Then took a deep shot off of a fake screen. It was a beautiful dime of a pass to Jerry Jeudy, who accelerated at the last second to cradle it in and prance into the endzone as the better 2⁄3 of the state let out their collective breath.
As our pal Gary Danielson said later: That was the moment that broke open the floodgate. A few short minutes later, Tua dropped a dime to Josh Jacobs, who was streaking down the center of the field with two linebackers trailing him and a safety crashing down from over the top. He caught it in stride over his shoulder, and slipped out of 3 would-be tacklers for a 33-yard score.
On the next drive, Auburn’s offense was bailed out when Jared Mayden stupidly hit receiver Ryan Davis right in the forehead, getting himself ejected and rendering Davis motionless on the ground for a very worrying length of time. A more questionable roughing the passer was called on Quinnen Williams two plays later, extending it 15 more yards. The drive petered out though, and Auburn was forced to settle for a field goal.... Except they didn’t. Instead, half the team lined up on the left side of the field, and backup QB Malik Willis took the snap, throwing the ball to the kicker on the right side of the field. It looked wide open, until Patrick Surtain filled the space and made the most textbook tackle you’ll ever see and getting the turnover on downs for the Tide.
Unfortunately, the offense didn’t take advantage and went three and out. Auburn, in turn, pulled out their final reserves of voodoo. A bad snap messed things up from the start, and then Stidham launched the ball down the right sideline as Anfernee Jennings drove him to the ground. It was a horrendous underthrow of the streaking Darius Slayton, who was perfectly covered by Saivion Smith. Smith was actually outrunning Slayton for the deep ball... but unfortunately, it didn’t go deep. Slayton may or may not have shoved Smith out of the way when he stopped, and then made the catch and walked into the endzone. The game was back to a 10-point deficit with 3 minutes left in the third quarter, and fists started clenching up again in living rooms every where.
Instead of worrying like the rest of us mortal fans, Tua Tagovailoa trotted out onto the field and delivered a 20 yard strike to Devonte Smith, followed up by a 15 yard scamper from Najee Harris. Then Tua dropped back and scanned the field again before hitting Devonte Smith, again, in stride on a deep crossing route. Smith sprinted down the right side, and then hit the breaks to watch a hapless Auburn defender go flying past him before heading into the endzone for Tua’s 4th passing touchdown of the night.
Another three and out, and Alabama had the ball back again. The 4th quarter began, and Tua uncorked one of his best passes of the year, which was only outshadowed by the fact that it was Henry Ruggs’ best catch of the year. Tua dropped it into a pocket on the back left corner of the endzone, 22 yards down the field between two defenders. Ruggs went airborne, and caugth it one handed as the defender took out his legs, then managed to get both feet down for a TD that would have been good in the pros.
Auburn seemed to concede at this point, and ran 8 straight runs on their next drive. The Tide defense was happy to concede those 3-4 yard gains and let the clock run out. When the Tigers finally decided to run a playaction fake and try a throwback, Christian Miller came screaming off the edge to pressure Stidham, who didn’t see Anfernee Jennings dropping into coverage, and picked it off for the defense’s first turnover of the night.
With a comfortable lead of 24 points with only 10 minutes to go in the game, Jalen Hurts entered into the fray to exorcise his demons from 2017 to the raucus cheering of Bryant Denny Stadium. And boy did he ever. On his first snap of the final game of the season at home, Hurts dropped back and scanned across the field before firing a rocket to Jaylen Waddle on a crossing route, who then outran everyone to the sideline and beyond, blasting off down the field for a 53 yard touchdown. It was beautiful, and everything that us as Alabama fans and Hurts as the Tide’s QB from 2016-2017 could have ever asked for in what may be his final game in Bryant-Denny. The game ended with the 52-21 score, and that was that.
Despite some hand-wringing in the 1st half, there really wasn’t a whole lot to complain about with this Tide squad. They had a couple of breakdowns on outside runs and trick plays for Saban to focus on, but sometimes there’s just nothing to be done about Barn Voodoo other than just survive it and keep going. And our team did just that. Rather than hanging their heads after an improbably Auburn score, they turned around and answered with an efficient, savage ferocity.
The pass defense was absolutely stellar. You can’t really blame Saivion for that long touchdown. Miller messed up on the trick play, and Mack Wilson got caught letting a RB leak into the middle of the field for a first down dump off after thinking he was just staying in to block. But three plays out of a whole game, two of which were more Barn Voodoo than anything else? I’m happy.
On offense, the run game wasn’t great, yet again. They had some decent plays and got some solid gains, but overall got stopped for 1-2 yards more often than not. I don’t think Damien Harris managed to elude a tackle all game, and Najee Harris’s only good run came from a 2-back set with Josh Jacobs lead blocking around the edge for him. Jacobs had a really nice game blocking and was an absolute weapon catching the ball out of the backfield, but didn’t really get much going on traditional handoffs either.
Even with Deonte Brown back in, it looks like interior power-running just isn’t going to be this offense’s forte.
But passing is. And that doesn’t relegate the backs to a secondary role. The pros are currently trending toward receiving runningbacks, and Saban is following suit in that regard. Jacobs and Harris have both been staples of the passing game, and are often used in 2-back sets, using jet sweep fakes and slipping out of the backfield.
Ruggs, Jeudy, Smith, and Waddle all got explosive receiving touchdowns as Tua continued to demonstrate his ability to spread the ball and make plays from anywhere on the field. He finished 25/32 for 324 yards and 5 touchdowns while adding 26 yards and a TD on the ground. If he wants a Heisman, finishing the season strong is how to do it. If he repeats this performance next week against Georgia, it’ll be a runaway victory for him.
Healthwise, Isaiah Buggs took a shot to the knee when an Auburn lineman submarined into his shin on the backside of a play. It’s legal, but I will forever complain about that style of blocking until the rule makers take a look into it. Buggs tried to play more in the game, but ultimately had to come back out. Deonte Brown and Alex Leatherwood both played and weren’t obviously limping or anything, but the interior run blocking wasn’t spectacular either. Not sure if there was some injury residual affecting that or if Auburn’s defensive line just straight up won that battle more often.
This was a sweet win, tying off the one loose end still out there from the 2017 season. Not only did Alabama take down it’s instate rival to win a year’s reprieve of bragging rights, but the night was capped off with a touchdown pass from Jalen Hurts, who was right in the heart of what was likely the toughest time in his football career while playing Auburn last year.
So, enjoy the win. Even Saban was grinning ear-to-ear afterwards. He’s challenging this team with greatness now. The team is there. They have the talent to not only win it all, but do it in such a dominant fashion that people will be talking about them for years to come. The three most difficult games of the season loom, but this team has what it takes make history. The question is: will they do it?