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HomeFootball2023 FootballAuburn wrap-up: Miracle finish saves Bama, and maybe its playoff hopes

Auburn wrap-up: Miracle finish saves Bama, and maybe its playoff hopes

 

Note to Auburn: If you’re going to win a game in this series, don’t let it come from a special teams miracle.

In 1972, Auburn was the victor in the infamous “Punt Bama Punt” game, blocking a pair of kicks and upsetting the heavily-favored Crimson Tide. In 2013, the “Kick Six” saw Auburn return a long field goal attempt for a touchdown on the game’s final play.

After those Auburn miracles? Alabama ripped off 9 straight wins from 1973-1981 … and now Alabama has won 8 of the last 10 games in this series following the “Kick Six” debacle.

On top of that, there’s also the realization that Alabama has now won back-to-back games at Jordan-Hare Stadium in the most unlikely of ways. Two years ago, a then-unknown receiver named Ja’Corey Brooks, playing only because Jameson Williams was out of the game, made a fantastic catch on a long touchdown pass from QB Bryce Young, which led to Alabama tying the game and eventually winning in overtime. But that was peanuts compared to what occurred on Nov. 25, 2023, when Alabama converted 4th-and-30 by QB Jalen Milroe finding WR Isaiah Bond in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. It was a play so improbable that hours after the final gun, historians are still trying to determine whether this was the longest successful fourth-down conversion play in the history of college football.

Since cute names are all the rage in this series, here are a few to pick from: Disaster in the Pasture. Hail Mary at the Dairy. Isaiah’s Corner. The Milroe Miracle. Pains on the Plains.

Whatever you want to call it, you can call it a Bama victory. But it also the worst game Alabama had played, collectively, since sliding by Arkansas 24-21 on Oct. 14. The defense was kept off-balance by an Auburn offense that quite frankly, isn’t very good. And the offense reverted to some of its worst moments from earlier in the season, namely weirdness with the center-QB snap exchange.

Those are items that will need to be cleaned up quickly, because the Georgia team Alabama will face in the SEC Championship Game is much better than this Auburn team and won’t suffer from the talent deficiencies that Auburn succumbed to Saturday night. It’s frustrating to be saying a lot of the same things about this win that were also said about Alabama’s win in Jordan-Hare two years ago, but the bright side is, both games were victories and the things that went wrong Saturday can be corrected.

So for the next 24 hours at least, it’s time to enjoy this win, marvel at how it happened and appreciate some of the players that made it possible. Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Auburn:

1. Milroe did more than just throw the game-deciding pass. This was a performance for the ages. Milroe accounted for a total of 366 yards in total offense, 259 through the air and another 107 on the ground. He was both the game’s leading passer and its leading rusher, a feat on its own given the performance of Auburn’s running backs. Everyone’s going to talk about the fourth-down pass – and they should – but it was especially notable because it followed a gaffe on Milroe’s part on the preceding play when he threw the ball after crossing the line of scrimmage. The bounceback he was able to engineer has become rather commonplace for a quarterback who most thought was a one-trick pony at the front end of the season. Milroe has now developed into one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks, if not the second-best behind only top Heisman Trophy candidate Jayden Daniels of LSU. The mental processing of defenses and situations has been the last puzzle piece in Milroe’s development, and over the past month – culminating with Saturday’s win over Auburn – fans got to see the full body of work come together. If Milroe decides to come back for another season – because crazy as it may sound, he’s draft-eligible and rumblings are starting that some NFL teams believe he could be better than 2023 first-rounder Anthony Richardson – he’ll enter 2024 as the most dangerous SEC quarterback by several degrees. Alabama probably doesn’t win this game without Milroe, and few could believe such a situation to be possible after watching him against MTSU and Texas.

2. Edge defense ran the gamut in terms of effectiveness. Alabama sacked Auburn quarterbacks 4 times, recorded 1 QB hurry, caused a fumble on a sack, and totaled 6 tackles for loss. Most of that production came from OLBs Chris Braswell and Dallas Turner, and if the discussion ended with the stat sheet, it would seem like Alabama’s edge players dominated their Auburn counterparts. But Auburn racked up 244 net rushing yards on the day, and a significant chunk of that yardage came because Alabama never could seem to get the edge set in the rushing game. Coming into the year, Turner was considered to still be developing his run-stopping skills, while Braswell was viewed as a near liability in that regard. Twelve games in, Braswell has rounded out his game nicely, but Turner had a rough day in gap control and it showed on Auburn’s stat sheet. Alabama isn’t likely to face another team this year with an offense built like Auburn’s, so the possibility that the Tide will have this much trouble again is fairly low. Still, it’s a reminder that good coaches – and Auburn’s Hugh Freeze is a very good offensive coach – can scheme superior players out of position, which happened a lot Saturday.

3. ILBs had a rough day with gap control. For a time, it looked like Alabama had rented Pete Golding for a day to work with the inside linebackers again; this was easily the ILB group’s worst game of the year. Run fits were poor for most of the day, and Auburn was able to bait Deontae Lawson and Jihaad Campbell into overcommitting on inside zone plays with regularity. The book on Campbell is that he has the potential to be one of the best inside linebackers Alabama has had during the Nick Saban era, and that’s saying something. But Campbell also goes off script too much, and Freeze and crew were a step ahead of him all day. Unlike the issues with gap control cited above in the section dealing with Alabama’s outside linebackers, plenty of teams will be able to use the Auburn game tape to their advantage. Alabama needs to clean up its assignments here.

4. Special teams ended up being a turning point for Bama, a welcome change in this series. Jalen Milroe’s fourth-down pass to Isaiah Bond may have been the play of the game, but Koy Moore’s fumbled punt certainly takes second billing. The error couldn’t have come at a worse time for Auburn, and the always-opportunistic Jihaad Campbell was ready to pounce on the ball and put Alabama’s offense back in business. Placekicker Will Reichard is now tied for the all-time scoring lead, although he missed another makeable field goal attempt and has been just “good” lately, rather than superior. We were expecting some decisive special teams plays in this game, but thought we’d see it more on the Auburn side of the ledger than the Alabama side.

5. RBs were reasonably effective, but an injury to Jase McClellan couldn’t have come at a worse time. McClellan left the field on crutches Saturday night with what appeared to be a wrap or an air cast on his leg, not what Alabama needs the week before it faces Georgia for the SEC title. In this game, the running backs put up lunch-pail numbers, rushing 25 times for 103 yards and 1 touchdown. Most of Alabama’s rushing production came from Jalen Milroe, either on designed runs or on scrambles. If McClellan can’t go next week, Jamarion Miller will have to step up big-time to fill the void and give Roydell Williams the occasional break. Bama needs a little more flash at this position – Williams had just 8 carries for 30 yards, with 11 of those yards coming on one run – but against Auburn, the group did just enough to check the box.

Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN

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