Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Taylor's Tiger Tales: Iron Bowl 2010

The Auburn Realist

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With fortune on their side, the Tigers had put themselves firmly in the driver seat to possibly play in the National Championship. Their rise from an 8-5 team in 2009 had been shocking to the world, though Tiger fans had some idea of what to expect after a heartbreaking Iron Bowl loss in 2009 and a strong performance against Northwestern in the Outback bowl.

With their two SEC losses, Alabama had been eliminated from a shot at the SEC championship. We had all hoped for a Winner-Take-All game for the SEC West Crown, but the losses to LSU and South Carolina had squashed those dreams. All the same, it featured the #2 ranked Tigers at the #9 ranked Tide in a massively televised and rare Friday game. It was the premier event in all of College football that day, which would be followed up with a critical match up later than night with Boise State at Nevada. Though the Iron Bowl was a nationally recognized brand of match-up, this game since created a fervor that took the rivalry from a well known but downplayed, dinner conversation game to THE focal point in all of college football. That is to say, before 2010, the Iron Bowl was a game that all college football fans knew it about, if only to laugh at how a small state could be divided in a game that didn't matter outside of the borders of Alabama, to a game that found fans across the nation deciding which side of the State to side with...and a game that suddenly shaped the entirety of the college football landscape in 60 minutes of football.

As luck would have it, my wife's uncle offered us his Crimson Tide staff season tickets in 2010. Additionally, I had a friend from high school on staff with the team who had offered me his Auburn Tigers season tickets. The Tigers tickets were free, so I was able to free up the cash I had initially devoted to Auburn season tickets to paying for the Tide tickets. In 2010, we went to almost every home game.

But, we were REALLY looking forward to this game. It wasn't the first the game we had attended in Tuscaloosa. In fact, we had gone to several Bama games in 2010 thanks to those season tickets. Additionally, since it was Thanksgiving, we had planned to be in Tuscaloosa anyway. To sweeten the deal, our best friends, Josh and Emily, had scored tickets and would spend the weekend with us, though they wouldn't make it down until late Thursday night.

So, we made an extended visit. I recall that, unlike the previous year, the trash talking at the family Thanksgiving was fairly low. Yet, there was a palpable tension in the room. While there were comments aplenty, they circulated over a one Cam Newton, who had suddenly become the most hated man in half the state. Hearts had been crushed only a week before as Cam was reinstated to play in The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, which had turned out to be The Cam Show in his home State of Georgia.

I love my inlaws, but I was itching to get out of the house Thursday after dinner. Additionally, my wife and mother in law wanted to go Black Friday shopping, and were willing to stand in line. Well, I wasn't willing to do that, so I found myself wondering the strip. The first spot I hit up was this little hole in the wall bar. It was seedy and grimy. Any other time, I would have found me a corner table and enjoyed the solitude. But, a seedy bar on the Tuscaloosa strip, the night before the Iron Bowl, dressed in Auburn garb, is the WRONG place to be. Now, I didn't get hassled too bad, but the atmosphere was choice. The only people that were at this seedy bar on Thanksgiving night were the exact people that you would expect. There was just too much backslapping  about The Snake Stabler and Broadway Joe days and overt hate for Scam Newton. So, after a few beers, I packed up and headed elsewhere.

I found a free stool at the Innisfree Irish Pub around 9pm. The place was dead, as you would expect. I texted Josh and Emily who told me they were on their way. I didn't figure I would be there very long and used my time watching college football over a few nice brews. I even had some decent conversation with local patrons, who were all younger college kids, a far departure from what I had seen at the hole in the wall previously. Over the next few hours, much of the kids on campus had the same idea I had: escape and relax. The pub went from dead to packed house in a matter of an hour. It was standing room only.

Again, I got on the phone with Josh, trying to figure out what was taking so long. The message I got back was that they HAD arrived, but were in line to get in. IN LINE! WOW. Surely, that line wasn't long. That's where I was wrong. It was 12am by the time they saddled up next to me after fighting their way to the bar. After a 20 minute wait, the bar tender finally made their way over to us, and we were finally able to share a drink. We saluted  spending Thanksgiving together, even though it wasn't Thanksgiving any more. Because they had spent so long waiting to get in, we decided to close the place down.

The next morning, we left out for Bryant-Denny early. It was a good thing, too, as the place was swamped with fans from both sides. We had heard that Auburn was going to have a massive Tiger Walk, so we decided to head that way and get in line. We showed up at least an hour early and there was already a crowd. The crowd built and built. Finally, the buses rolled in and the players disembarked. True to his style, Coach Trooper Taylor got out slinging his rag around, pumping up the crowd.


The energy was already high, but when Cam Newton stepped off the bus and rushed the crowd, it created a fever pitch. The crowd was primed. The gates opened, and we all filed in. We swapped tickets with Josh and Emily so that we could sit with the Auburn crowd and they with the Alabama crowd.

We found our seats and were happy to find that the entire upper deck was almost all Orange and Blue. I have to admit that the excitement slowed during warmups. The pregame show in BDS is all about lights and sounds from the big screens, and of course it features nothing but Crimson Tide. The time came to introduce players. There were the "boos" for every single Auburn player, of course, but the tempo for the day was set with the announcement of Cam. Over the loud speakers came "Take the Money and Run", blaring from every corner of the stadium, referencing the rumor that Cam had been paid to come to Auburn. From the student section came a rain of paper. The wind blew them across the stadium where we were able to catch one. 
The day got off to an absolutely dreadful start as McElroy drove from the 29 to the 9, where Ingram scored. a 3-and-Out by Auburn followed. 2 plays later found Julio Jones streaking 68 yards for another TD only minutes later. The Auburn offense was destroyed with 2 straight sacks and an incomplete pass.

The Auburn faithful were dead silent. Stunned. The offense had not been stopped consistently all season. They were in negative yards. Additionally, the Alabama offense had chewed up yardage. In the next series, McElroy orchestrated a near flawless drive to toss a short TD to Hanks. Yet,  the Auburn defense had shown signs of life as Fairley began to find his way into the backfield. But, after a huge sack on a 3rd and 8, he was called for an Unsportsmanlike penalty....which I think was WAY overboard. Yet, Fairley had been a very controversial player in the weeks leading up to this game and everyone knew he would be watched and scrutinized. With a new set of downs, the Tide found the endzone again and took a 21-0 lead. The 1st quarter ended with the Auburn offense in negative yards, and the Tigers down by 21. 

21-0

At that point, no team had ever come into BDS and won when losing by 21 points in the first half....much less after a single quarter. The second quarter started with Auburn punting the ball back to Bama.

The Auburn fans were stunned. Shocked. The team looked to be woefully ill-prepared and careless against a very hungry Tide team who was playing for nothing but pride...and the hope of ending the Red Headed Step Child's dream. It was infuriating to see a team who had everything to play for, who had defied all the odds to this point, who had lived under constant scrutiny, lay down. And to of all teams....the Tide. I know every fan with me wanted the same thing: to go down to the sideline and grab the facemasks of each and every Tiger. We wanted to scream "Don't you know what this means? If not for you, what it means to us?" After seeing the Tide program resurrected in only 2 short years....to see them win an National Championship and a Heisman after the way Auburn had dominated the Tide for a decade, but had nothing to speak of Nationally except a raped dream in 2004, was too much. We knew what this game meant. If Auburn didn't win this game, Auburn may never again be able to compete with Alabama as long as Saban was in Tuscaloosa. Auburn had to win this game, not only to get to Atlanta, but to stem the flow of momentum to the West which would be irrecoverable. A loss today would dash the dreams at a National Championship  in 2010, sure. But it also meant more. The battle on the field was representative of the battle going on for the future of each program. For recruits, for donor support, and most important, for the moral of the fan at the watercooler on Monday.The pendulum was already at the breaking point, even if Bama was out of the Championship race in 2010. 

I wanted to cry, and I don't say that as comic relief. I was devastated. And it didn't seem POSSIBLE to get any better with the Tide playing the way they were, where they were, with a crowd to the point of frenzy. To call it "raucous" wouldn't give it enough credit. The stadium rocked after every single play. And, let's be fair, there hadn't been a negative play for the Tide defense or offense YET. To that point, I had never left a game early, but the score was already out of hand and the Tide fans smelled blood in the water. There I stood, with my arms crossed, waiting for that moment when even the most stallwart of Auburn fans realized it was time to get out while the getting was good. I told Alyse that if they scored on this possession, we were going. She didn't argue. 

Mark Ingram took a seemingly innocent looking screen pass down the left sideline and right towards me. He shucked an Eltoro Freeman tackle on the sideline. Etheridge made a desperate attempt to dive at him. The tackle missed, but it slowed him down. I thought, just for a second, Ingram was going to fall. I wanted to believe. He needed to fall. He HAD to fall. If he didn't and he scored, it was over. 18 minutes into the game. But he didn't fall. HE DIDN'T FALL! How was it even possible? But it was.  As Ingram straightened up and headed to the endzone, I didn't want to see it. I turned around and grabbed my jacket. I told my wife to come on. The screams and cheers had already started. 

But they came from the wrong side of the stadium. Someone grabbed me by the collar and shook me. I turned around to watch the ball hop over the pylon. Washington dove on the ball. Carter had punched the ball out of Ingrams arms at the 19 yard line and it had tight roped the sidelines all the way into the Crimson colored endzone. 


To this day, I believe that this play has and will continue to be the single most important play in Iron Bowl history.

Did it win this game? No. Was it the Kick-6? No. But this play stood for more than winning a single game. It was the moment that stemmed the Tide. 

It was a blip of a heartbeat. 

Just a beat. A single weak sign of life.

It didn't mean we were going to make it. There seemed to be so far to go. An impossible task that no one had ever accomplished. 

It did mean the team was alive and willing to fight.

Auburn did pick up one first down and showed some life on offense. But, ultimately had to punt it away. 

Bama hammered away at the Auburn defense again, driving down to the Auburn 3 after a 42 pass to Julio Jones. The heart beat got stronger and the defense bowed up and forced a fieldgoal, despite started a new set of downs on their own 3 yardline. 

24-0

7:56 left in the first half.

I turned to Alyse. This was it. The offense had to put points up on THIS series or it was over. The fumble, though it was a spark, wouldn't be anything but a teaching point for either team if Auburn didn't score. I said that with regret, as I didn't actually believe a team who had negligible, if any, yards could suddenly break through. 

The series started shakey with Cam running for 5 yards. Dyer stuffed on 2nd and 5. Newton hits Burns for 19 yards for the first big play of the game. We all yelled "NO HUDDLE! PACE!" but the offense didn't respond, giving up a sack on the next play...fumbling the ball. Yet, we recovered. Incomplete pass to Adams and Auburn faced a 3rd and 9. Certain death against such a formidable defense. The season again stood on the brink. Cam hits Burns for another first down. Hurry. Ball snaps and Dyer picks up his first positive yards of the day. Not much, but just enough to push the secondary a step up into the box. Pace. Hustle. The shotgun snap comes in. The double move on the outside and we all see it. Just for a moment...Blake is open but Barron is streaking in. Cam floats the ball. The throw is behind Blake! But, he sees it and adjusts. He makes the catch, but Barron is there for the easy breadkup. The hands of #4 crash on the ball and we all see the one chance to climb back in...the one play that was setup by successive successful plays....evaporate. Just another incomplete pass. But Blake holds on. Barron tumbles and Blake heads up the sideline and into the endzone. 

24-7 and hope. However small, hope remains. 

It's business as usual for McElroy as the senior drives the tide all the way up the field and into the redzone. Down to the 7 with a first down. We all want to give up. Auburn cannot string together a ball game of big plays, strung out far and few,  punctuated by brutal Alabama offensive series leading to Bama scores. 

The defense is back on the razors edge. 

Ingram is stuffed on 1st down. 

Fairley comes streaking out of the backfield, blowing through a block with a nifty swim move, and levels McElroy from the backside. The ball comes loose and he pounces on it. 54 seconds in the half. Auburn gets hammered on offense and punts the pall on the last play of the half. 


The halftime show is accentuated by the Auburn sunset, which has now become a thing of legend. The unique pattern of clouds and rain combined to form a sunset from the west that could only be described as an omen. What are the chances that the sunset of west Alabama, on this day of all days, could possibly form that exact shade of orange? How is it that it happened to form facing the one endzone that needed to see it, among all things? But it did. And it gave heart, even if it only gave it to those who were desperate enough to search for any hope. 

The series started off innocently as Cam took a short run. He takes the snap from the gun, fakes the inside hand-off to McCaleb, ducks forward, pulls back. From motion, 81 fakes a 8 yard stick route to the seam, then busts hard for the endzone. Cam loads up, throws a strike down the left side of the field. Barron goes for the ball, collides with Zachery, but 81 comes up with the ball and room. He trots the 10 yards in for a 70 yard TD catch. 

"Now we have a ballgame!" Stan White says on the radio. 

24-14

I will never forget that moment, as long as I live. Sure, we were down 24-14. But the air had been let out of the building for the Tide fans. Instead of an vacuum, the Auburn fans replaced with it with their own. The thousands of Auburn fans in the building were not only hopeful, but angry and hungry. They shouted. And they didn't know WHAT they were shouting. It was an incomprehensible roar that I found myself echoing. I don't know what we said. But I know what we felt. It isn't over. It was never over. This is just the beginning. 

"The momentum has shifted" is a term that is used too lightly in sports. This shift was real and it was palpable. It was oppressive and thick like stepping out of air conditioning into a swamp. It was 72 degrees and dry to 102 with 100% humidity. And it happened just like opening a door.  It was a team telling the world that it wasn't going to quit. Not only would it keep fighting, that it would win. And it didn't care what the score was. 

It wasn't a rivalry. It was a war. 

You could see it in the Bama fans eyes. What's the big deal? So it's 24-14. So you hit some big plays. So what? They seemed to be right as the teams exchanged series that each ended with punts. The Tide fans seeing that as a win. Stem the comeback. Burn the clock. The Auburn fans saw it as progress. The offense would pick up, and as long as the D could make stops, there remained a chance. 

Halfway though the 3rd and Auburn had the ball back. A nice 9 yard gain by Newton followed by a pass top McCalebb. Another short rush for Cam, then back to back monster gains by McCalebb. Cam for 5 more. Then a pass to Fannin down to the 1. Under 3 minutes off the clock and Auburn had gained 70 yards on a vaunted offense. 

Everyone in the world knew what play came next. Cam over the top. There was no stopping it, even if you had 22 men on the field. 

24-21 


Could the defense continue to stop the Tide, who had piled up yards so far? It didn't seem so, but the defense did force the Tide to a field goal. It was points, but it was progress.

The quarter ended 27-21, a far cry from 21-0, which seemed to have happened to someone else. It was like an out of body experience. I had been there, but had it happened? 

Auburn had the ball to start the 4th. The series seemed to be over on a 4th and 3 from midfield. Another razors edge moment. Malzahn dialed it up and Cam hit Adams for a 9 yard catch on the sideline on a GUTSY throw. We all breathed after spending an eternity holding our breaths. Down the field the Tigers went in big bunches. 3rd and a bunch, it seemed, from the 7. Cam takes the snap. Rolls right. Ducks underneath, gets away, and hits Lutz on the backside. We all saw him bust loose from the far side and we knew he was open, but the passrush was amazing. It seemed impossible that Cam could stand in the pocket, see him and deliver.  An amazing play. A most improbable play. But the only play that would have sufficed. 

Lutz does The Lutzie. In our endzone, though the corner away from us. We all go nuts. 100%. Nuts. There are hugs. High 5s. Ecstasy. 

28-27

The mountain had been climbed, but there was so far to go. Can they hang on? 

Bama has a nice drive going, converts a 4th down. 3rd and 12 and Bell ROCKS McElroy. Just a BRUTAL hit. McElroy doesn't get up. None of us want anyone to get hurt and I find myself yelling and cheering for McElroy. He is helped off the field, but he is done for the day.

Auburn stalls on 3rd and 3, bringing up 4th and 1. Cam rushes, picks up the first. The new set of downs doesn't amount to anything and they give Bama 51 seconds to win. 

McCarron takes the field. First and second down don't amount to anything, but it isn't for lack of try. The Bama receivers drop the passes. The offense looks flat and defeated. The crowd is silent, arms crossed, shakers half-heartedly shaking. This isn't somewhere these fans have been. Third down, McCarron checks down to an open Norwood who has Bynes beat. An easy first down and more. After all, they only need a field goal. The ball comes out, nearly perfect throw, but Norwood drops it. 4th and 10. 35 seconds. The North endzone drenches the stadium with screams and yells. How could a few thousand fans be so loud, I don't know. But we pour our hope and our hate. We leave it all out there, just as we know the Auburn players will. 

The snap comes in, McCarron loads up and throws another strike, this time to Jones. It hits him in the hands. Thorpe comes in and knocks the ball away. And it's over. The offense kneels on it. Cam blows a kiss. The fans rush the field. 

And Reverse Rammer Jammer starts. We do what so few have ever done before us in BDS. We sing it. We yell it. We cry. 

"Hey Alabama! 
Hey Alabama! 
Hey, Alabama!
We. Just. Beat. The. Hellouttayou!
Rammer Jammer
Yellow Hammer
Go To Hell, Alabama!"