As a nod to the late Cecil Hurt, in regard to the story I had mostly ready to go when Alabama got the ball at its own 2-yard line with less than 2 minutes in regulation: “Give me rewrite!”.
Cecil had once written about Alabama’s game-winning drive in the 2009 Alabama-Auburn game, calling it one of, if not the most important drives in the history of the program. At the time, Alabama was knocking on the door of a championship, but none of Nick Saban’s championships had yet been secured. Alabama had gone into Jordan-Hare Stadium as a heavy favorite in Gus Malzahn’s first year as Auburn offensive coordinator. Instead, it took a breathtaking last-minute drive and a Greg McElroy touchdown pass to Roy Upchurch in order to seal the deal and send Alabama on to an eventual title-winning matchup against Texas.
It makes you wonder what Cecil would say about this one.
Tonight’s drive wasn’t as important as the 2009 version, from the standpoint that Nick Saban has since established himself as the greatest college football coach of all time, and the Alabama program is the gold standard against all programs – yes, even you, Georgia – are currently compared against, and will be compared against for years if not decades to come.
It was a drive just as important, however, if you are the kind of fan who cares more about the present than the successes that have become, 12 years after the fact, the past.
One thing is almost certain, though, no matter on which side of the past-present fence you sit: The Alabama team in the 2009 matchup had shown a lot more in the game, up to the point the key drive began, than the 2021 version had. Alabama in 2009 looked a bit vexed by Malzahn’s hurry-up, no huddle offense, but the offense hadn’t been stymied in the way the offense of the 2021 game had been.
Down 10-3 and with no discernible pulse, the 2021 Crimson Tide began a 98-yard march with no timeouts; almost exactly a minute of game clock later, the Crimson Tide was in the end zone celebrating a tie ballgame. A half-hour later, Alabama was the victor in a 24-22, four-overtime game that had a little bit of everything: kicking game snafus, injuries, the ejection of Alabama’s most explosive offensive player, a goal-line stand (sort of … thanks, amended NCAA overtime rules), an offensive line that benched two starters in the second half, a key fourth-down reception from a much-beleaguered and former-starting tight end, a running back and an opposing quarterback who fought bravely through crippling injuries, and multiple key plays from a true freshman wide receiver who came into the game with only 2 catches on the year.
Cecil Hurt would certainly have been entertained by all of this, but Cecil, if you’re reading this, and all of it was some kind of cosmic joke you had a part in playing … buddy, it wasn’t very funny.
Once the smoke had cleared, the toilet paper had been holstered, and the stock market futures of the makers of Nebivolol, Lisinopril and Nitrostat had hit record highs, Alabama fans and Auburn fans found themselves sharing a moment after the game. A moment of silence. Not out respect for person or cause, but out of the lack of ability to effectively breathe.
One of these years, perhaps a writer will take the time to put Alabama’s final drive of regulation in the proper perspective. It’s impossible right now, because Alabama hasn’t won any trophies yet. The Crimson Tide has a stern test against Georgia this week in a game a lot of pundits don’t even expect to be that close. Then, certainly by win or maybe even with a loss, Alabama has a shot at yet another College Football Playoff run. Either way, that trip is expected to eventually go through Georgia a second time.
This isn’t a perfect team, and it’s probably not one of Nick Saban’s best. But it is resilient. Alabama has been taken to the brink four times in 2021 and has a 3-1 record so far to show for it. Nick Saban has probably been more hands-on this year than in recent seasons, out of the necessity of managing a young team with a vulnerable mindset, and that didn’t have some of the pieces it’s had in recent years at the positions that mattered most. Everyone realizes why Georgia is the heavy favorite to win a title, but most also understand that at some point, Alabama is going to get so much experience in the process of growing up, that it will complete the process and become the team that knows exactly what to do with the chips are down.
It’s been an enjoyable ride getting to this point, even if the road has been bumpy. It was the longest stretch of the trip, finished tonight in jubilant fashion. It may have even been the kind of game that helps remove whatever kind of voodoo curse has become affixed to this rivalry, in this stadium, along with that kind of colon-grating churn all Alabama fans feel in odd-numbered seasons when they know what awaits for them the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It’s been a long time getting here, but it’s been entertaining. It’s been fun.
Cecil, if you’re watching, I hope you enjoyed it, too.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Auburn:
1. OL nearly cost Alabama the game, and the coaches had the courage to make big changes midstream. Every team deals with injuries and turmoil to a degree, but the Bama OL, by the end of this game, had basically one lineman that had managed to finish the regular season unscathed and playing at the highest levels, LT Evan Neal. The rest was a combination of a M*A*S*H unit and the usual growing pains. Going left to right, LG Javion Cohen is still playing with a surgically-repaired broken wrist.
Center Darrian Dalcourt has been battling an ankle injury for two weeks and was eventually replaced by Seth McLaughlin in this game; whether the switch was due to injury or a combination of factors wasn’t immediately clear. RG Emil Ekiyor Jr. was banged up earlier in the season but has been reasonably healthy for a month or so, and it’s probably not by accident that he had the second-best game Saturday to Neal. RT Damieon George Jr. wasn’t injured in this game, but he was simply ineffective in the first half, and not quick enough to deal with Auburn’s speed off the corner.
The much-maligned Chris Owens replaced him at the half and while Owens wasn’t flawless, he probably played one of the most effective games of his season, if not his career, and was noticeably better than George. We previewed this in our pregame report, specifically that the Alabama OL would probably be able to handle the Tigers’ middle DL players but would struggle with the defensive ends, and that’s exactly what happened.
Alabama probably could have helped the line out with different playcalling, especially more screens and quick-hitting routes. Toward the end of the game, when Alabama got more effective at moving the ball, it was more due to two factors: Alabama was able to sustain drives better in the second half and thus run up the snap count on Auburn’s defense, and the Tigers elected to get less aggressive late in the game, at least in part due, probably, to trying to help the stamina of its rushers.
This is the biggest weakness on the team at the moment and the one Georgia will be most likely to leverage next week.
2. Defense stepped up big, beat up the Auburn OL, and McKinstry made his presence felt. If you’re an Alabama fan bemoaning your own offensive line’s performance, imagine how the Auburn fans feel. Alabama recorded 15 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, and rendered star Auburn RB Tank Bigsby a relative non-factor. Bigsby finished the night with just 63 yards on 29 carries, an average of 2.2 yards per carry, and no scores.
Again, harkening back to our OL-DL previews Thursday night, we noted the curiously strong OL metrics for Auburn given the level to which the Tiger offense had struggled on the year. Alabama managed to rip open every wound for the world to see. Auburn’s offensive line wasn’t quick enough to defend against Alabama’s elite defensive ends, and Bama’s tackles were able to overpower the center and guards with regularity.
Elsewhere, Alabama’s linebackers, which had been improving week to week anyway, staged their magnum opus, an almost flawless four quarters of pressure and hitting their marks. Alabama’s secondary held Auburn QB T.J. Finley to less than 10 yards per completion, not just per attempt (although, Finley deserves kudos for the guts he showed while basically playing on one leg for half the game).
One special shout-out to CB Ga’Quincy “Kool-Aid” McKinstry, a surprise starter in this game ahead of Jalyn Armour-Davis. McKinstry looks like one of those players that just seems to be in key spots at key times. His sack of Finley kept Auburn from adding what would have been a game-clenching field goal, and his breakup of Auburn’s second overtime conversion attempt obviously led directly to the win. Even on Auburn’s successful first conversion attempt, McKinstry was almost able to stop TE John Samuel Shenker, and would have were it not for a perfect kickout block by Auburn LT Kilian Zierer. McKinstry certainly looks like the next great Saban cornerback at Alabama.
3. With Jameson Williams out, Alabama got big-time contributions from Bolden, Brooks and Billingsley. Jahleel Billingsley’s fourth-down catch in the game-tying final drive was as big as any other single play of the game, and Bryce Young’s willingness to go to him despite his recent drops was incredibly brave. Slade Bolden had just one catch, but it was a big one, and his reliability when fielding a pair of sunset punts (made worse by how Jordan-Hare Stadium is orientated relative to the horizon) helped stabilize a rocky special teams outing. But Ja’Corey Brooks will forever be remembered by Alabama and Auburn fans alike for two clutch catches down the stretch, and his game-tying touchdown catch of 28 yards might be the moment Heisman Trophy voters remember most when casting ballots for Bryce Young.
John Metchie III, of course, had a major day, getting 13 catches for 150 yards and both of Alabama’s overtime conversions. There were a couple of drops mixed in, but once Williams went out, Metchie had to absorb a lot of those looks. Williams’ ejection was an unexpected circumstance Alabama had to overcome, and it did. The receivers delivered just about any time a clutch catch was needed despite a much better performance than expected from the Auburn secondary.
4. Bryce Young took over when he had to. With Young, Alabama is never out of a game. Young completed less than 50 percent of his attempts, caused mainly by an in-his-face pass rush that didn’t subside to any degree until about midway through the fourth quarter. Regardless of the punishment he took – he was sacked 7 times, and Auburn recorded an additional 8 QB hurries – the game-tying drive was something out of mythical legend, and Young polished things off by doing his best work in overtime. His late-game heroics put him over 300 yards passing for the day, and the touchdown pass to Ja’Corey Brooks to tie the game was a video game throw that by itself probably pushed him a couple of spots up 2023 NFL Draft boards.
The biggest takeaway regarding Young was his ability to stay even-keeled after multiple hits. Earlier in the year, pressure would cause Young to speed things up too much and would lead to mistakes. Against Auburn, he was able to take the bad with the good and forget the results of one snap before starting the next. Young is the biggest single reason why no one-score Georgia lead will be safe next week.
5. Special teams gaffes nearly sunk Alabama, continuing a theme at Jordan-Hare. It’s rather amazing Alabama was able to overcome more than just questionable offensive line play. The Bama special teams did their part to sink the Crimson Tide, and it’s become a meme thanks to it happening over and over again when this game is played in Auburn. Jameson Williams was ejected for a clear, unnecessary targeting foul in punt coverage, one of the unintended consequences of offensive players (especially those who are key playmakers) playing a tackling role on special teams. Then there was Paul Tyson’s muff of a good snap from Kneeland Hibbett, which led to a failed field goal try and Tyson’s eventual replacement as the holder. Fortunately for Bama, the two kickers themselves did their jobs.
Placekicker Will Reichard hit a later field goal attempt in regulation, then another in overtime to send the game into the new conversion stage. Punter James Burnip didn’t have a great gross punting average, but he did enough to pin Auburn deep a couple of times, and his best work of the night came when he replaced Tyson as the holder after the muff. We’re not going to bring up the past regarding Alabama’s special teams woes in Jordan-Hare Stadium, because there isn’t enough Alka-Seltzer to go around. We’re just wondering when there’s going to be a close Alabama-Auburn game in that venue that doesn’t have special teams misfires playing a key role in the storyline.
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