AUBURN — The 84th Iron Bowl looked like it might end up being a fairly normal football game through a quarter-and-a-half of play Saturday.
When Anders Carlson kicked a 43-yard field goal with 7:04 remaining in the second quarter, Auburn and Alabama were tied at 10 points apiece.
Then the game flew all the way off the rails.
Smoke Monday returned a Mac Jones interception 29 yards for a touchdown. Jaylen Waddle returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for another touchdown. Henry Ruggs III caught a 3-yard touchdown. Sal Cannella made a toe-tapping grab on a 14-yard score. Waddle turned a reception over the middle into a 58-yard catch and run.
That was all in the span of less than five minutes.
And if that wasn’t wild enough, Auburn managed to kick a 52-yard field goal just before halftime despite the fact that JaTarvious Whitlow was tackled in bounds with only one second remaining and that it had no timeouts. The initial call was actually that time had expired, but review put a second back on the clock and gave the Tigers enough time to get the snap off.
In the Iron Bowl. Sound familiar?
And that field goal wasn’t even the biggest one of the game. The biggest one of the game was the one that Alabama’s Joseph Bulovas missed with two minutes remaining that would have tied the game.
Auburn won the Iron Bowl 48-45. Jordan-Hare Stadium did not keep the fans off the field.
“Going into this game, we felt like we had the better team,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “They’re a big-time team. Our guys hung in there. The first half was crazy. It went back and forth with touchdowns. They had a lot of momentum swings with the kickoff return.
“I’m just proud of our staff, proud of our players. We’re going to enjoy this win. We beat an excellent team with excellent players and a really good coach.”
Here are three takeaways:
1. The offense finally started fast against a good defense.
The story has been the same for Auburn in a lot of games where the offense has struggled this season. Whether it was the game against Oregon, or Florida, or LSU, Ole Miss or Georgia, it took took too long to get things going.
The Tigers didn’t score their first touchdowns in those games until their 10th, eighth, sixth, ninth and 11th drives, respectively.
On Saturday against Alabama, though, it took only three drives — a 37-yard punt return from Christian Tutt set the offense up at the 32-yard line, and the offense crossed the goal line three plays later. JaTarvious Whitlow ran twice for 18 yards (with the second of those being helped by a face mask penalty), and quarterback Bo Nix ran in the 7-yard score.
That started what was without question the Tigers’ finest offensive performance of the season against a ranked opponent. They scored 27 points against Oregon, 28 against Texas A&M, 23 against Florida, 20 against LSU and 14 against Georgia. Against Alabama, even when you take out the two defensive touchdowns, they scored 34.
“In the past, when we’ve lost, we’ve just sputtered there early in the game and we found our way at the end and we ended up moving the ball really well, and other times we could move the ball, we just couldn’t finish the drive, couldn’t get points on the board,” Nix said. “So tonight, I feel like every drive we had led to an important field goal or an important touchdown.”
Nix completed 15 of 30 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown (the 14-yard strike to Cannella) and also rushed six times for 44 yards to go along with his score. As a team, Auburn ran 34 times for 181 yards led by Whitlow’s 16 for 114. Shaun Shivers knocked a man’s helmet off on a touchdown run.
“You know, that was just pound-and-ground football,” Shivers said. “That’s all I knew growing up. I don’t fear nobody. He puts on pads just like I put on pads, so I just had to make it happen. I knew if I scored that could seal the game because I know our defense was going to hold on.”
2. The defense gave up points, but it finally scored some of its own.
The biggest claim to fame for Auburn’s defense this season is that none of the 11 teams it faced scored more than 24 points against it. Only five other defenses in the country could say that.
Alabama broke that streak Saturday, though. The Crimson Tide finished the Iron Bowl with 45 points. Seven of those points came from Waddle on special teams. Waddle scored three more touchdowns on offense. Najee Harris totaled 146 yards on 27 touches.
But the Tigers also scored some points of their own on defense. That’s something that hadn’t happened all season. Alabama quarterback Mac Jones completed 26 of 39 passes for 335 yards and four touchdowns, but two of those incompletions were interceptions.
Monday returned the first one 29 yards to give Auburn a 17-10 lead a little more than halfway through the second quarter. That one came with the Crimson Tide deep in their own territory.
“Coach (Kevin) Steele made the call and I just knew I had to do my job at the time,” Monday said. “Coach always told us, ‘Two steps to the man,’ and I took my two steps to the man and looked up, and the ball was there.”
The second came as they were knocking on the door of another touchdown. Jones tried to hit Harris running a quick out on first-and-goal from the 2 after an Auburn penalty. The ball was behind the running back, and it bounced off him and right into the arms of sophomore linebacker Zakoby McClain.
He returned it 100 yards down the visitor’s sideline for the touchdown that gave Auburn a 37-31 lead in the third quarter.
“I was shocked in my head. I really don’t know. I really can’t remember it. I was so happy. Just running,” McClain said. “It felt amazing. It’s like, I changed the game.”
3. Anders Carlson got his groove back.
Auburn’s place-kicker had been very shaky in his previous two SEC games. He missed three attempts against Ole Miss, then another against Georgia a week later.
But on Saturday against Alabama, Carlson was automatic. He went 4-of-4 with makes of 43, 52, 43 and 44 yards.
The one just before halftime, the one Alabama head coach Nick Saban looked furious that he even got a chance to kick, may have been the biggest.
“I’ve always been the same,” Carlson said. “I might make minor adjustments, but I’m confident in what I do and sometimes it doesn’t go your way, but that’s the lesson you have to learn just to bounce back and keep going. I locked in today and that’s good it paid off, but I’m going to keep doing the same stuff.”