For the first time this season the University of Alabama offense, primarily the passing game, had to pull out a victory, and came through on the Plains, 26-21.
While Auburn had the advantage of an extra week of preparation, and the Crimson Tide (12-0, 8-0 SEC) had a day less of preparation due to television scheduling the game for Friday, the combination along with the emotional high of playing at Jordan-Hare Stadium and having nothing to lose helped the Tigers take a quick 14-0 lead.
Although they were the most points scored by an opponent in any quarter this season, Alabama outscored Auburn 26-7 the rest of the way, including the impressive game-winning possession.
"That may have been one of the greatest drives I have ever been associated with in the fourth quarter to win the game," Nick Saban said. "I just can't say enough about how proud I am of our team."
"They got the onside kick and got two scores ahead, but again this team is all about character, discipline, and overcoming adversity and perseverance by our players. If there is one thing our team has not been challenged by this year, it's that. We didn't play a great game today. It's a great win for our team and I have never been prouder of a team in terms of the way they won.
"We didn't play our best football and we need to learn from that, but at the same time the character that we showed and the resilience that we showed to overcome the adversity in the game, on the road, getting behind, I don't think you can say enough about the character, the competitive character, that this team showed today and that's what I am most proud of."
Before turning our complete attention to Saturday's No. 1 vs. No. 2 rematch in the SEC Championship Game at Atlanta, here are this week's awards.
Play of the game: The original call was for a run, but Saban called time out and changed it to a pass that scored the game-winning touchdown. With Alabama having senior nose tackle Terrence Cody in the game as a fullback and having successfully punched into the end zone earlier in the game, the play-action worked and junior quarterback Greg McElroy found senior running back Roy Upchurch for the decisive points.
Player(s) of the game: Similar to last week, there's really no way to pick just one. Offense: McElroy completed seven straight passes on the drive and finished 21-of-31 for 218 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers. Defense: Junior linebacker Rolando McClain had another big-time performance against Auburn with a game-high 12 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss and a sack. Special teams: Senior Javier Arenas had only three returns, but broke free on two with a 46-yard kick return and his 56-yard punt return to set the SEC career record. He needs 37 yards to break the NCAA record (Wes Welker, Texas Tech, 1,761, 2000-03). Arenas also had a terrific came at cornerback with seven tackles, a sack and a hurry, and his blitzes caused major problems.
Hit of the game: A big key to Auburn's offense was running back Mario Fannin, who lined up in various spots and had 34 yards of offense. However, in the second quarter the junior running back was drilled by senior cornerback Marquis Johnson and buckled. At the time he was leading the Tigers in receptions and wasn't a factor the rest of the game. Two other hits of note were by Kareem Jackson on Arenas' punt return, and Cody flattening freshman Jonathan Evans on the Tide's touchdown run.
Statistic of the game: Auburn took the lead just 3 minutes and 20 seconds in and didn't trail until there was only 1:24 remaining - all but 4:44 of the game.
Did you notice? When McElroy threw the ball right to Jake Ricks on the two-point conversion, he was the one to tackle the 6-foot-4, 292-pound defensive lineman. Also, two plays after senior linebacker Eryk Anders was called for pass interference he sacked Chris Todd and forced the fumble he recovered. The key to that play was Arenas also blitzing.
Bonus statistic: According to the NCAA, Mississippi State has played toughest schedule in the nation this season, with its 12 opponents winning 68.5 percent of their games. Six SEC teams were among the top 25 in toughest schedules, with 1. Mississippi State, 3. Arkansas, 5. Georgia, 16. South Carolina, 19. Alabama, and 25. Auburn. Alabama played the other five SEC teams on that list and was 4-0 against teams ranked in the top 25. Florida has played one ranked team this season, LSU.
Here are 10 other notable things from Friday's game:
1. The drive: It began at the Alabama 21 with 8:27 remaining, on a 7-yard run to the right by freshman Trent Richardson, and ended 7:03 later. It was the longest touchdown drive of the season in terms of plays (15) and time. McElroy was 7-for-8 on the possession for 63 yards and didn't force anything. The lone incompletion was his first attempt, on second-and-3 at the 28, a ball over the middle to junior Darius Hanks that was deflected by Jake Ricks. Also, the drive was set up by an impressive defensive stand, with Jackson making a great read to drop running back Ben Tate for a 7-yard loss followed by McClain's 10-yard sack (when Arenas was also blitzing). Possibly an important factor in going for the touchdown with a pass was that senior Leigh Tiffin had missed a 42-yard field goal and sent a kickoff out-of-bounds.
2. The passing game: With the running game largely nullified, Alabama threw more than usual on third down. McElroy attempted 10 passes and completed just two of his first seven tries, one being the 33-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Colin Peek to beat the blitz, and then all three on the final drive to finish 5-of-10 for 52 yards and two touchdowns. He had one pass dropped, threw one away, was twice hit while throwing and he missed seeing sophomore receiver Julio Jones open on the deep attempt to Marquis Maze (who didn't make a reception). McElroy was pressured 10 times with three sacks, though two were after he had already tucked the ball and started to run. The third came on the final drive after senior end Antonio Coleman beat junior left tackle James Carpenter, a matchup that went more the Tigers' way as the game progressed. The 15-yard completion to Hanks on a crossing route with 2:33 left in the first quarter was Alabama's initial first down with Auburn already up 14-0. It also came on the Tide's eight offensive snap, while the Tigers already had 19 during three possessions. Alabama receivers had an impressive 142 yards after the catch, but only one completion for more than 18 yards.
3. Arenas' returns: On the 46-yard kick return Arenas worked his way toward the Alabama sideline and when freshman Rod Woodson tried to get to the last man they actually collided with the ball bouncing out of bounds. The record-setting punt return was highlighted by a block by Jackson that took out two players, with sophomore safety Mark Barron and Upchurch making blocks downfield.
4. Ingram's day: Auburn's single defensive goal was to not let Ingram get loose. The Tigers limited him to 30 rushing yards by frequently putting eight men in the box, who got to the point of attack (i.e., near the line of scrimmage) and gang-tackled. Junior middle linebacker Josh Bynes spent most of the game keying Ingram, which was partially why so many receivers were open over the middle. He led the Tigers with 10 tackles. Consequently, Richardson became a better option due to his cutback ability and burst, yet his longest gain was just 7 yards. Ingram's longest carry for 8 yards came when the Tide was running out the clock in the first half. Incidentally, despite his numbers and sustaining the hip pointer, Ingram spent as much time in the interview room answering questions as any of his teammates.
5. Injuries: Judging by his body language and the way everyone acted around him, the guess here is that Jones was playing hurt. He briefly left the game after his 12-yard gain late in the second quarter and appeared to be favoring his left side a little. Jones was then walking the sideline in obvious discomfort only to return and finished with a career-high nine catches, four on the final drive for 33 yards (two converting third downs). Sophomore defensive end Marcell Dareus appeared to hurt his left arm on a 5-yard gain by Tate late in the first quarter. He returned and finished with two tackles, .5 for a loss and a hurry.
6. Auburn's big plays: Alabama had senior safety Ali Sharrief essentially working at a linebacker spot, giving the Tide an extra defensive back on the field and he finished with four tackles. Both he and McClain initially bit on the fake on the 67-yard reverse, but there was no containment on the back end by Anders and Auburn receiver Terrell Zachery benefitted from some really good downfield blocking. On the 72-yard touchdown pass, Johnson lined up in coverage and then blitzed, which was why Barron was alone on Darvin Adams. The double move combined with the pump fake led to the 6-3 receiver being so open. Take away those two big plays and Auburn only had 84 rushing yards on 31 carries (2.7 average) and 109 passing on 28 attempts - an overall average of 3.2 yards per play.
7. Where the Tigers attacked: Even though Auburn passed for 181 yards, almost everything was out of the backfield. The Tigers didn't throw near Arenas except for once into zone coverage, it had one completion on Jackson when he slipped, and didn't complete either pass thrown in Johnson's direction, one of which was picked off by Barron. Senior safety Justin Woodall was in coverage on the double pass for a 22-yard gain, but that was mostly just good execution by Auburn. Freshman linebacker Nico Johnson missed an interception. In terms of running, almost everything was around the left end or behind the right tackle, the Tigers kept packaging it differently. Auburn's second touchdown, a 1-yard catch by Eric Smith, was very similar to Upchurch's score later on, with the Tigers putting offensive lineman Byron Isom in the backfield to block and throwing to the left instead of the right. Woodall seemed confused by the formation and bit on the run fake. Of note considering Alabama plays Florida next week, Todd isn't known for his running but had a 13-yard gain on a keeper and broke a tackle by senior end Lorenzo Washington (who ripped his shirt) for a 16-yard carry.
8. Red zone: Alabama was inside the 20 four times and scored on all four, but twice had to settle for field goals. McElroy completed 3-of-4 passes for 22 yards, while Ingram just missed on his throw to Jones in the end zone out of the wildcat formation, which appeared to catch Auburn completely by surprise. The other drive petered out after Richardson's fumble off the handoff for a 5-yard loss.
9. Penalties called: Alabama had just four, Woodall's personal foul for throwing the ball after his interception was nullified by a blown whistle, Anders' pass interference, and false starts by guard Barrett Jones and Peek when the Tide was backed up against its own end zone. Woodall's penalty came after a late whistle, but one can still clearly hear it before the ball was thrown. Instead of Auburn having third-and-11, it had third-and-2 at the Alabama 7 and four plays later scored its second touchdown.
10. Penalties not called: There were three obvious calls that were missed, all against Auburn. Junior linebacker Craig Stevens gave Peek an extra shot and stepped on Peek after his first reception, junior tackle Lee Ziemba ripped off sophomore Courtney Upshaw's helmet and then grabbed him around the neck, and on the second play of Auburn's last possession Ziemba wrapped up Upshaw and pulled him down. Also, safety Darren Bates launching himself at McElroy's head might be worthy of more than a 15-yard penalty. The onside kick was legal. Sophomore Brad Smelley was the player who got hammered by the numerous Auburn players. The only teammate in the vicinity was junior Chavis Williams, who when the Tigers players started moving initially backed up a couple of steps.