By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 29, 2015
By the time Derrick Henry strolled into the end zone to keep his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown alive, the 80th meeting of Alabama and Auburn was already decided.
Auburn knew it, Alabama knew it, the fans knew it, the rest of the college football world knew it. But Henry was going to leave one final image in the minds of those who will vote on the Heisman Trophy next month.
Henry broke several school and Alabama-Auburn game records Saturday evening, the most impressive being a record of endurance: Henry carried 46 times for 271 yards and a touchdown. Some teams don’t get 46 snaps in a game.
With the SEC as a whole crashing into itself down the stretch – Florida, Alabama’s opponent in the SEC Championship Game, lost 27-2 to rival Florida State and accumulated only 263 yards in the process – Alabama needed to make a statement to the small-but-vocal group of complainers who are looking for whatever excuse they can find to leave the SEC out of the Final Four. Alabama will get no help from a close victory next week; Florida State has a very good defense, but Alabama’s is better in every way, and it will take a monumental effort from the Florida Gators to make the SEC Championship Game competitive. Were Alabama to struggle in Atlanta, the notion of an overrated SEC would become a major point of discussion.
So this became more than just a division-clinching opportunity, or an opportunity to beat Bama’s most hated rival. This became a game about flash, about style points. So credit Derrick Henry for showing up on the equivalent of the best-dressed list.
Like most Alabama-Auburn games, however, this wasn’t a simple beatdown even though Auburn’s fortunes and Alabama’s fortunes this season have been divided by a wide gulf. Alabama left Lee County with an 11-1 record and sole possession of the SEC West lead. Auburn went back to their dorms 6-6 with a 2-6 record in conference play. For a team many expected to win the West Division before the year started, Auburn’s collapse was shocking, and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has escaped talk of the hot seat only because of more high-profile busts at LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia and, for a time, Arkansas. Make no mistake, however: If Malzahn follows up this effort with a similar one in 2016, the Tigers will go looking for someone else to lead the team.
Alabama, on the other hand, appears to be only one of two SEC teams (Ole Miss being the other) that looks nationally competitive at the moment. But Bama isn’t just nationally competitive; it is potentially dominant. The Tide’s defensive line took Auburn’s best shot in the first half and held the Tiger offense to 260 yards overall. Stat Of The Day No. 1: Auburn rushed for 1 yard in the second half of the game.
In the end, this game almost felt like an Alabama home game, in that Bama’s gameplan was to absorb the body blows in the first half, then wear down Auburn’s thin front seven in the second half and go over the top for big plays. Those who felt Alabama needed to put Auburn away early in order to win the game saw their fears go unfounded. Auburn simply didn’t have the talent under center or on the edges to pressure Alabama’s defense much.
In fact, it took a busted coverage and a crazy tipped ball for Auburn to even stay in the game after Alabama scored to go up 19-6. Stat Of The Day No. 2: Aside from the 77-yard pass from Jeremy Johnson to Jason Smith, Auburn had only 2 plays of more than 5 yards the entire second half.
But Auburn ran out of miracles. Fortune follows the good, and Alabama is better now – particularly on defense – than it was in 2013, when Auburn got close enough that a single big play eventually decided the game. This time out, Alabama would have none of it. Better depth, better substitution patterns, and commitment to a better offensive gameplan left the Tigers on the outside looking in.
The one missing component of Nick Saban’s Alabama tenure has been domination of the Auburn series. With Saturday’s win, Alabama goes to 6-3 against Auburn during Saban’s time in Tuscaloosa. It’s not outright domination – yet – but you can see it from here.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Auburn:
1. Adam Griffith replaces “Kick Six” with the “Kick Five”: A first half featuring nothing but field goals doesn’t typically make for exciting football, and the first half of this game won’t carry much favor in Alabama circles due to a dropped touchdown pass by ArDarius Stewart. And that’s unfortunate, because placekicker Adam Griffith, whose last eight or so games have been nothing short of fantastic, nailed four field goals in the first half, including a 51-yarder, to put Alabama up by 6 going to halftime. He then hit another long field goal in the fourth quarter to give Alabama a two-score lead. Every kickoff but one was a touchback, and the last one would have been a touchback had Auburn not tried to return it from 6 yards deep in the end zone in a desperation attempt at making a big play. Griffith’s 5-for-5 day was a huge factor in the win, and a miss on any of those five kicks would have changed the complexion of the game – and not for the better. It was sweet redemption for a player who was a victim of circumstance on his last trip to Auburn.
2. Henry’s effort was one for the ages. Henry set so many records against Auburn, the Bryant Museum might have to purchase land for another wing. Henry became Alabama’s single-season rushing leader (1,797), broke the school record for touchdowns (22), set the school record for most rushing yards against Auburn (271), broke the school record for most rushing attempts in a game (46), and tied Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker for 200-yard games in an SEC season (4). The school record for rushing yards against Auburn had stood for 64 years, and now Bobby Marlow has been relegated to second place. Furthermore, Henry is now within 100 yards of Walker’s single-season SEC rushing mark, and now that bowl games are counted towards the record, he’s an odds-on favorite to set a new mark by the end of the season even if he doesn’t do it against Florida next week. Henry tired slightly down the stretch in this game, but his last run, a 25-yard touchdown through the left side of the Auburn defense, showed that Henry still had more gas than the Tiger defenders. He’s truly become a special player and standout at a school that has had more than its fair share, and lived up to his nicknames of “the Tractor” and “El Tractorcito” in this game.
3. Will Muschamp’s explosion should have Auburn fans fuming. Muschamp has never been viewed as the most in-control guy on a sideline, but his blowup at an official in Saturday’s game directly led to Alabama’s final field goal. Worse yet, that field goal put Bama up by two scores, which changed the complexion of the game and also affected the Tigers’ offensive gameplan. And worst of all, if Muschamp was arguing the previous call (a dead-ball foul for a late hit out of bounds), he was off-base, as Chris Snead’s flag of Johnathan Ford for hitting Alabama’s Jake Coker was textbook. Muschamp dropped a profanity-laced tirade, was flagged, and then came very close to getting ejected from the game after the ensuing field goal, as he had to be restrained by other Auburn assistants. He even appeared to go after referee Thomas Ritter, who showed remarkable restraint and instead told Gus Malzahn to get his employee under control. Muschamp’s name has come up in connection with several open jobs this offseason, but this display, when added to others from his Florida days, may have an effect on his marketability. Had Muschamp kept his cool, Auburn still faced an uphill battle to retake the lead, but his penalty and the subsequent field goal drove multiple nails in the Auburn coffin.
4. Defensive adjustments in the second half, especially up front, took Auburn out of its game. In addition to allowing only 3 plays of more than 5 yards in the entire second half, Alabama kept the ball for nearly 22 minutes. It wasn’t all about the offense grinding out the drives, either; Alabama’s defense forced punts or turnovers on downs on all but one Auburn drive, and Auburn’s longest drive of the second half was 8 plays (which ended in a punt). Alabama’s defensive line got off blocks better in the second half and the personnel matchups and alignments were too much for Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee to figure out. On multiple occasions, Alabama went with a two-man interior rush and brought safeties on zone blitzes, and QB Jeremy Johnson had no idea what to do next. As expected, the more pressure Alabama brought, the more Johnson hurried his throws. Whereas Jake Coker was never sacked, Johnson lost 32 yards on 3 tackles behind the line and was rushed into several affected throws.
5. The expiration date for Auburn’s offense may be near. Regular readers of this column will remember the following statement: Gimmick offenses have finite lifespans. Auburn’s offense, often too cute by half, almost admits going in that it can’t line up against the rest of the conference and win games. For a program that likes to talk about toughness and heart, it’s a bitter pill. Even when down multiple scores, Auburn still was running plays with the offensive line turned backwards a second or two before the snap, with a little sleight-of-hand over here, some whoops-here’s-where-the-ball-really-is over there, players faking routes and motion and more than just a touch of buffoonery. It’s a Tickle-Me Elmo brand of football, jiggling and cooing at defenses until it can set up a big play based on deception and confusion more so than by straight-ahead strength. Alabama spent a lot of time this past offseason perfecting its package substitution sequences in order not to get pantsed by Malzahn’s manipulation of clock rules. Much of Auburn’s struggles this year were due to quarterback play, to be sure, but Auburn’s playbook also didn’t move the needle forward, while other teams have gotten wise to the plan. It will be interesting to see what happens in future seasons, and whether Malzahn’s career at Auburn has a third act.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN