By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 25, 2018
Somewhere in this world, it makes sense, with 2:31 on the first-half clock and playing your rival in your rival’s house, to sit on a three-point deficit and go into the half down 17-14.
That place is not Bryant-Denny Stadium, that’s for sure. But that didn’t stop Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn from doing the above Saturday evening with his Tigers closely trailing a much more explosive – and better – Alabama team.
What happened afterward is going to be talked about for a full year, and probably will be one of those key moments that eventually trigger Malzahn’s ouster in Auburn, whenever it should eventually, inevitably come. It’s safe to say many Tiger fans, if not most, already want him gone. An ill-timed contract extension for a ridiculous sum of money is preventing it at the moment, but it will one day happen. No one leaves Auburn fully under his own terms.
Auburn’s strategy was obviously to survive the Alabama first-half storm, keep the game close, then do something heroic in the second half. Such a strategy, though, oversamples early-season results and fails to account for the Alabama of the recent. Alabama may have started the year running up huge numbers and then sitting on the leads, which led to some artificial second-half statistics that implied the Tide couldn’t play after the half.
These days? Ask LSU. Ask The Citadel. And now, ask Auburn.
Ask Auburn how getting outscored 35-7 in the second half of this game felt. Because that’s what happened. More importantly, ask Auburn how it feels to be completely impotent on offense without resorting to a heavy dose of the playground-level trickery that has become Gus Malzahn’s signature.
This is how, if you’re Alabama, you suddenly find yourself getting a fourth-down stop when your five-star, true freshman cornerback Patrick Surtain II – who, if there is justice in this college football world, will wind up a first-team freshman all-American this year – stops a punter running a drag route thrown by a running back.
It’s painful to watch Malzahn be Malzahn sometimes, because you know what you’re going to get: stuff that most football coaches won’t touch out of fear of embarrassment. Remember when you were wasting time in seventh-grade study hall and you started drawing up trick plays in your spiral notebooks because you couldn’t stomach any more algebra? In Auburn, they call that “offensive coordination.”
Alabama basically just had to wait to survive the storm on its own, then adjust to the silliness. Once that happened, it made Auburn killing the first-half clock look like the dumbest decision in sports for the day of Nov. 24, 2018.
It’s not clear whether Alabama really needed to make a statement in this game, either for its own resume or that of its sophomore Heisman Trophy candidate, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. But Bama made it anyway. Alabama, with a win over Georgia, would claim the top spot in any playoff, and would possibly be part of a four-team playoff even with a close loss. Tagovailoa probably has the Heisman sewn up with a good showing against Georgia, despite an impromptu media blitz to get Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray some artificial juice.
This is what Alabama football in 2018 has become: changing decades-old (or in some cases, centuries-old) narratives, setting impossible marks each week and then topping them. By beating Auburn by more than 20 points, Alabama became only the second college football team in history to beat its first 12 opponents by 20 or more. The last team to do that was a Yale team playing less than 25 years after the end of the Civil War.
As for what Alabama stated to or against Auburn specifically, that much came through clear as a bell: See you in Jordan-Hare Stadium next year, little brother.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Auburn:
1. Bama’s first-half offensive struggles began with route tree selection on passing plays. Alabama never ran the ball particularly well in the first half, and in the second half, the numbers were just acceptable. Auburn actually out-rushed Alabama 130-123, although the Crimson Tide had better per-carry numbers (4.7 avg. to 3.0 avg. for AU). It all went back mostly to how Auburn played its safeties in the first half and what Alabama tried to do through the air against those splits. Alabama allowed its primary routes to get pulled into the vortex of Auburn’s safeties, and the Tiger secondary was good enough to limit separation. In the second half, Alabama’s adjustments were apparent mostly in the routes it chose to highlight. Once that change was made, Auburn had to make different choices in the secondary alignments. Alabama didn’t exactly find great success statistically on the ground – 70 yards in the first half, 53 in the second – but passing numbers exploded after the break and Bama’s 53 yards in the second half felt more meaningful to the playcalling flow. Bama utilized the flats more in the second half and also clear-out routes across the middle with a trailing receiver. Once it got Auburn’s secondary moving up and back to cover the changes, it was like playing with a yo-yo. Auburn never figured it out.
2. All things considered, this was Bama’s best pass protection of the year. Auburn recorded a single sack, which was actually an intentional grounding flag thrown because Tagovailoa didn’t get outside the tackle box before throwing the ball away in the face of an eight-man blitz. Aside from that one, sellout play, Alabama’s offensive line gave Tagovailoa a clean pocket for most of the day, and Tagovailoa made the most of his scrambles when he was forced to move. Given the Auburn front is every bit as good as the Mississippi State defensive line, this performance should give Alabama good feelings heading into the SEC Championship Game against Georgia.
3. Bama’s receivers proved to be Auburn’s worst nightmare. Alabama’s wide receivers might be the best group in the country, and Saturday was just further exhibit of that fact. Whether it was Jerry Jeudy getting key separation on a downfield go route, or Henry Ruggs III’s acrobatic, saw-it-on-Nintendo-once touchdown catch in the early fourth quarter, or Jaylen Waddle running away from everyone on Bama’s final touchdown, Auburn couldn’t match up. Auburn’s secondary has made impressive strides in 2018, but this was a men-versus-boys issue Saturday and at some point in a situation like this, one team just can’t find a way out. Alabama’s receivers combined for 5 touchdown receptions and running back Josh Jacobs, who often lines up as a receiver, added a sixth.
4. Tide was able to get affecting pressure with just a 3- or 4-man rush. If anything, when Alabama brought more than three, it emptied the secondary of defenders and made Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham’s job easier. Auburn’s entire passing attack, like everything else the Tigers do offensively, is based on speed and quick timing. Dropping seven or eight into coverage clogged passing lanes and gave the three or four rushers up front time to work Auburn’s subpar offensive line and cause protection issues. Alabama was also fortunate to get a clutch performance by DE LaBryan Ray off the bench when Isaiah Buggs went down. Ray caused issues for OT Prince Tega Wanogho all night, and together with LB Anfernee Jennings – who had a sack, an interception and a QB hurry – Alabama’s defensive line may have played its game of the year, all things considered.
5. Tua sets record for TD output, and at this point, what else is there to be said? Tua’s performance was so dominating, it is almost pointless to talk about it. His exploits have reached a level where dissecting them further and further is like trying to figure out what makes diamonds attractive to fiancees. What’s clear is that if you’re sitting on the opposite sideline, life feels sort of hopeless when Tagovailoa is hitting his spots, and then there’s the matter of a receiver corps that might as well be called the Fred Biletnikoff Five. Any school can be beaten, and Alabama fans are keenly aware of recent challenges from Georgia and Clemson, as well as what happened the last time Bama played an Oklahoma team with a good offense. But when Tagovailoa is having the kind of day he had Saturday, why fear anyone?