The Epic 2014 Iron Bowl Review

Redemption. Webster’s tells us the definition of redemption is the act of making something better or more acceptable. Last year’s loss was unacceptable. This year’s win was a bit of redemption – but the victory was not the only redemption seen on Saturday night. No, there were several tremendous stories of turning the unacceptable into the acceptable.

First and foremost, there was Blake Sims. After spending five years trying to redeem his career as a quarterback, Sims quickly lost any gains he’d made this season when he threw three interceptions in little over a half of football. But, his redemption was obtained when he struck quickly for four straight touchdowns, turning a 33-21 deficit into an insurmountable 48-36 lead.  How he kept his chin up thru the early adversity I’ll never know.

Then there’s Bradley Sylve. He was last seen being booed off the field this season against West Virginia – replaced by a kid who was barely 4 months removed from having an ACL surgery. But, when Eddie Jackson faltered, it was Sylve who came to the rescue, thwarting several Tiger passes, including a key fade thrown to the corner of the end zone.  I admire him for staying the course and preparing for his next opportunity to shine.

With Alabama struggling to score touchdowns against Auburn last season, AJ McCarron finally found Amari Cooper in the end zone for a sure touchdown…but Cooper dropped it. It was a huge loss and an unacceptable drop for Coop  But this year, Cooper found redemption in the form of setting a new Iron Bowl record with 13 catches for 224 yards and three touchdowns. He was simply brilliant.

And what about DJ Pettway. Dismissed from the team and exiled to a junior college, only to return and play a pivotal role in stopping Auburn’s offense in the second half. His batted down pass resulted in perhaps the best redemption story of them all….

Nick Perry. The Prattville native was nearly the a goat of the 2012 LSU game, beaten unmercifully by LSU wide receivers time and time again. After that, he was little more than an afterthought in the Alabama secondary. But, in the last three SEC games against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn, no Bama defensive back has played any better than he has. His pick was the defensive turning point in the game but he also was the one who made the fourth down tackle in the Alabama red zone when Auburn threatened late in the fourth quarter. At one time, Perry’s career was gone…but now he’ll not be forgotten.

And lastly, it must be said that the redemption of Lane Kiffin’s career is now complete. His game calling and his ability to navigate Blake Sims thru the pitfalls of the biggest game of his career will be legendary.   Once the scourge of an entire nation, he’s now the diamond on Nick Saban’s staff. What an amazing story he’s turned out to be.

The 2014 Redemption has certainly made the 2013 Kick Six loss seem to be at least a little more acceptable. This is a different team. It’s a different vibe that’s emanating from the sidelines and from the locker room. They bounce.  They have fun.  They love one another.  In the face of adversity, this team simply smiles and rallies around one another, picking a man up whenever he’s down. Whether it’s a TJ Yeldon fumble against LSU or three picks thrown by Blake Sims, this team finds a way to lift them up and carry them to victory, even when the odds are stacked against them. When West Virginia, Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Tennessee closed to within one score, this team answered on the very next drive. Down 12 against Auburn, they scored touchdowns on FIVE consecutive drives. That’s the heart of a champion and that is the heart of this team. What. An. Amazing. Game.

Alabama on Offense

Going into the game, the Lighthouse tried to make it abundantly clear that Auburn’s defense was one of the worst ones in the conference. If you didn’t believe me before, perhaps you do now. But, credit Lane Kiffin, Blake Sims, Amari Cooper and TJ Yeldon for making the Tigers look even worse than they did coming into the game.

Under Lane Kiffin, Alabama has become a pass first offense and with a weapon like Amari Cooper, who could argue with that kind of game plan? But, it’s the way that Kiffin aligns Cooper that allows him to continually be wide ass open on most every play. And, the beauty of a true play caller is the ability to set up plays to be run in the future. After bending Cooper on a corner route, Kiffin can raise his hands and signal for a touchdown before Coop completes his fake of a corner route and heads to the goal post. Amari has routes against man and routes against zone and Kiffin is able to signal in which routes to run based on what coverage he’s seeing across the way. Multiple times this season Kiffin has raised his hands and celebrated long before the pass is even thrown. Amazing.

In this game, the only thing that stopped Alabama’s offense was Blake Sims, and Nick Saban nearly pulled the plug on the 5th year senior. Credit Saban and Kiffin for allowing Sims to have the latitude to find Stella’s Groove and somehow put Humpty Dumpty back together for the win. At 33-21, that simply didn’t seem possible.

On Broadway: Saturday night, Amari Cooper surely punched his ticket to the Downtown Athletic Club as there simply isn’t a better receiver (or perhaps player) in the country. It’s been our privilege to watch him over the last three years – no receiver has dominated games like Cooper has this season. Saturday, all of his routes and skills were on display: screens, curls, deep in routes, fly patterns, cop routes. Kiffin lined him up in the slot, out wide and in the backfield and he beat every player and every coverage assigned to him with fluid routes and sick speed.  There’s no one like him in college football.

Rebel Yeldon: After a sub-par game against the Auburn Tigers last year, TJ Yeldon put his stamp on the rivalry this year. Gone were the choppy, hesitant steps and in their place was a pair of hard charging authoritative legs. Whether he was busting over the goal line (against a woefully misaligned Auburn defensive front) or turning the corner on wide sweeps from the shotgun, Yeldon saved his best performance for his last Iron Bowl. 19 carries for 127 yards and 2 touchdowns surely broke the Aubies hearts since he was once a verbal commitment to the Tigers for a few weeks before he finally rolled with the Tide.

Mac the Knife: The murder ballad for the death of the Tigers was sung by the voice of Lane Kiffin and executed by the feet and hands of DeAndrew White. Facing a 4th &3 from the Auburn 42, Alabama desperately needed to keep pace with the Auburn offense. Down 33-21, Saban had to go for it and, out of over 150 plays, this one was clearly the key play of the entire game. And, on the key play of the game, you knew Bama would look to Cooper…but they didn’t. Instead, White motioned from his wide receiver spot into the backfield and the Tiger assigned to him in man to man raced past the center of the line, knowing White was going all the way across the line of scrimmage. Except he didn’t. White quickly stopped and as the ball was snapped he quickly flared out to the flat back from whence he came. White caught a perfectly led pass and got a lead block from Austin Shepherd for the key first down of the game. On the next play, Sims found Cooper on a cop route and the Tide and the crowd loudly announced to the Aubies they were back in the game!

Get Up, Stand Up: Mega props to the offensive line for dominating the line of scrimmage. They gave up only one sack and that was a result of Sims having to hold the ball because Raheem Falkins ran into Jalston Fowler, ruining both routes. Meanwhile, Bama backs averaged 6.7 yards per rush. That’s domination.

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks: With Cam Robinson going down to injury, senior Austin Shepherd flipped from right tackle to left tackle late in the game. Please, please go back and watch the Derrick Henry touchdown run because it was a thing of beauty. Jalston Fowler led Henry around the end, kicking out the tiny little tigger corner who had the outer edge. The inside crease was created by massive TE Brandon Greene who turned the defensive end inward. But, that left an Auburn linebacker and safety who closed on the gap that Henry was hitting. Enter Austin Shepherd. The footwork for a right tackle is completely different than working on the left side but he was able to pull around the Greene block and he launched himself at the linebacker’s legs, taking him AND the safety out of the play. It. Was. AWESOME!

Don’t Call It a Comeback: Lastly, we close with Sims. What else can you say about a kid who has fought adversity since he came to the campus. His teammates have loved him and they have believed in him since spring training and now you know why. Most kids who would throw three interceptions when making their first start in the biggest rivalry in all sports would have caved in. Maybe they would have believed what the fans, the bulletin boards and the sportscasters said about them. Maybe they’d lower their head in shame. Not Blake Sims. He isn’t wired that way. What a comeback performance in the biggest game of his life. You want to be Blake Sims today. You’ve dreamed of being the guy who hit the game winning shot or smacked the game winning homer. This kid just won the wildest Iron Bowl game in history. Not bad for his first and only Iron Bowl game of his career.

Tidebits

  • Oh, Ellis. What were you doing at the goal line on 4th and 1? Five big Tiger linemen lined up from the center over to Alabama’s left tackle. Only one down lineman lined up to Bama’s right. They did the same thing against Georgia, too, with the same result – TOUCHDOWN.
  • The cop route that Cooper scored was the most awesome play I’ve seen simply because Kiffin raised his hand before Coop even made his first move. How amazing is it to know a play is a touchdown nearly as soon as you signal it in.
  • OJ Howard had his best blocking game of his career. That’s not saying much but he did provide the key block on Yeldon’s 25 yard gainer.
  • If you see Falkins in the game and motioning towards the line of scrimmage, keep your eyes on him. He crushed the defensive end a couple of times with some nasty crack back blocks.
  • I didn’t see any benefit in going for two to make it 42-36. None. Kick the extra point and it’s 41-36. Miss and it’s 40-36. Had AU scored a touchdown, a field goal would have only tied in that scenario whereas it would have provided a one point margin if you just kick the extra point. Glad it worked but it was absolutely not the right call, IMO.
  • As with every game, I thought we should have run the ball more, particularly right after Sims injured his ankle. On his first play post injury, he threw the first of his three picks.  It would have been better just to see if his injured ankle would even allow him to execute a handoff.
  • Speaking of, two of the three interceptions were just awful throws but on his last one Christion Jones actually quit on the route.
  • Loved seeing Fowler in the backfield next to Sims and Yeldon. That was a great new look and Fowler was a highly effective blocker from that formation.
  • After being undone by field goals last year, Alabama didn’t have to attempt a single one this year.  Not one.  This and Auburn’s failures in the red zone was clearly the difference in the game.
  • I’m an idiot. I screamed for Sims to run and he hit Jones on a 21 yard catch along the sidelines. I yelled for him to throw it away and instead he somehow found White at the back of the end zone for a touchdown. In Blake I should trust.
  • Speaking of Sims, he was on the opposite hash at the 19 when he ran towards the front pylon for his 11 yard touchdown run. That’s like a 50 yard run and yet he scored without being touched. Wow.
  • Credit Nick Saban for adapting to this style of game.  Who’d have thought Bama could allow Auburn to score 44 points and still come away with an 11 point win?

Alabama on Defense

Whoa Nelly. This ain’t yo momma’s Alabama defense. Hell, this ain’t 2012’s defense. Auburn racked up an obscene 628 yards of offense with Nick Marshall, a QB with ZERO 300 yard passing games coming into the game, throwing for a staggering 456. Four. Hundred. Fifty. Six. My God, what hath you wrought on my beloved game? We are the Crimson Tide. The bedrock of our foundation is that defense wins championships. Yet, there we were watching a Baylor-esque Big 12 shootout where defense was purely optional. Auburn’s 90 plays had the players and fans alike gasping for air. It was not our best day.

But, after all of that, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart are sleeping like babies while it’s Gus Malzahn who is lying awake at night thinking of what could have been. Five times the Tigers entered the red zone getting to the Bama 3, 7, 7, 3 and 16. Folks, that’s not the red zone, that’s the DEAD zone when you play against Auburn. The Tigers came in ranked as the #3 red zone offense in all of college football so it was unbelievable to stop them so close to the end zone! And that, my dears, was the story of the game. In a ridiculous game of basketball on grass that featured 1167 yards of total offense and 99 total points, it’s amazing to think that the defense could actually be the story of the game but it certainly was.

Red Zone Stop #1: Facing a 3rd & 1 at the Tide 10, Malzahn subbed in a four wide receiver set which forced Smart to counter with his smaller dime package. Malzahn felt he could attack the Bama front from the spread against the dime and he was right on this play as Artis-Payne picked up four decisive yards. Gus then kept his foot on the pedal, keeping Bama’s dime defense in the game which he thought was to his advantage. Only this time, the Tide blitzed Geno Smith and he and the Bama front stuffed the run for a gain of two. Uh oh. With 2nd & goal from the 4, Malzahn decided to sub his goal line package back in but then called a time out because he was undecided how to attack the Bama D. To me, this was a turning point in the game plan because the advantage Gus thought he had, he found was no advantage at all. From this point on, they seemed to go away from their original game plan in the red zone. Saban and Smart took away the Tigers strength and Malzahn had no answer. A toss sweep against the goal line jumbo defense failed miserably and an incomplete pass later the Tigers’ drive was thwarted.

Red Zone Stop #2: Facing 1st & goal from the 7, Auburn threw three straight incomplete passes before settling for their second field goal. This was totally uncharacteristic and completely over reactionary by Gus. Auburn was now going away from their bread and butter.

Red Zone Stop #3: Facing 3rd & 2 from the Bama 7, the Tigers hurried to the line of scrimmage to quickly run the zone read at Alabama. Smart and Saban once again called for a blitz off the corner and Geno Smith and Ryan Anderson combined to throw Artis-Payne for a loss of two. Now needing 4 yards, the Tigers were forced to kick their third field goal of the game.

Red Zone Stop #4: This one will be the one that keeps Gus up at night for the rest of his life. Auburn picked off Sims before the first half ended and they struck quickly by hitting Coates down at the Bama 2 yard line. When the catch was made there were 28 seconds remaining on the clock and Auburn even had one timeout remaining. Malzahn inexplicably chose to substitute players on and off the field, all the while with the clock ticking…and ticking…and ticking. When Marshall finally handed the ball off to Artis-Payne, there were only 10 seconds left on the clock. When the play was over, there were only 4 seconds left and Auburn was forced to call a time out to kick another field goal. The master of the hurry up managed to get off one single solitary snap in 28 seconds while holding onto a timeout. Credit big Jarren Reed for blowing up the run and tackling Payen for yet another 2 yard loss inside the 10.

Red Zone Stop #5: Facing a favorable 2nd & 2 at the Bama 13, Auburn once again ran the zone read at Alabama and, once again, Artis-Payne was thrown for a loss. This time Trey DePriest blitzed off the edge and came free unblocked while DJ Pettway helped engulf Payne for a three yard loss. An incomplete fade on 3rd & 5 left Auburn with yet another field goal, their fifth of the game.

Red Zone Stop #6: Most folks forget this but with seven minutes to go in the game, Auburn was facing 4th & 8 at the Alabama 14. Marshall connected with Marcus Davis but Nick Perry came up in the Nick of time, stopping Davis short of the first down.  And there you have it – six red zone flat tires for the Gus Bus.

The Reflex: Alabama was completely and utterly (cow college – get it?) destroyed on the ground by the Tigers last season, giving up 296 yards of offense on the ground. The Tide’s inability to stop the zone read resulted in the game tying touchdown, as well. This year was totally different and Bama’s ability to stuff the zone read ruined the Tigers’ ability to score in the red zone. Bama blitzed linebackers and safeties with reckless abandon, stuffing the run for three yards or less 26 out of 47 running plays – 12 of which went for no gain or a loss! That’s staggering, especially compared to last year!

Sylve Linings Playbook: Bradley Sylve was booed off the Georgia Dome turf after repeatedly getting toasted by West Virginia wide receivers. But, Sylve found his redemption when he replaced the man who replaced him in the first game of the season and he played perhaps the best man to man coverage this side of Cyrus Jones. I can’t tell you how impressed I was to see this young kid get shoved out onto the brightest stage under the white hot lights and yet he found a way to not only survive but thrive. Mike Pereira of FOX said after the game that Sylve should have been awarded an interception on the simultaneous catch he had with Bray. The rule book clearly states if simultaneous possession is established in the air, then the first person to land in bounds is to be awarded possession – that person was Sylve.

Blew By-You: On the first Coates touchdown, Eddie Jackson inexplicably paused while running with Coates and that hesitation resulted in a touchdown. On the bomb to Coates before the half, Jackson was in man with a single high safety and was once again peeking into the backfield instead of turning and running. This time, he was burned like a naked Irishman in the Caribbean. Ouch.

Stop in the Name of Love: After Marshall threw the pick to Perry, the next drive ended in a sack at the hands of Xzavier Dickson. But, if you watch closely, the play is made by Reggie Ragland, who lined up at defensive end. At the snap, Ragland arced around the outside, trying to beat the Aubie tackle off the edge. But, when Ragland realized he’d gone past Marshall (the cardinal sin of pass rushing against running quarterbacks), he stopped his rush and spun back to the inside. Marshall saw Ragland go outside and thought he had a running lane but when he took off, Ragland had recovered and forced him back into the pocket and into the waiting arms of Dickson.

Tidebits

  • I thought Rashaan Evans was a difference maker. His initial pressure flushed Marshall and led to him throwing the pick to Perry. Evans disrupted the pocket nearly every single time he was out there.  Would love to see more of #32.
  • Auburn opened the game by going away from their known tendencies out of the zone read. Instead of the usual handoffs, they influenced in one direction and then brought Artis-Payne back against the grain. The Tigers used this to pile up 128 yards of rushing in the first half but Bama adjusted afterward, holding Auburn to only 44 yards rushing in the second half.
  • The Tide also finally adjusted by not blitzing Marshall and leaving their corners to be fed to the Tigers. Bama just rushed four when Marshall threw the pick to Perry and then rushed four once again when they sacked him to stop the very next drive.
  • I find it fairly incredible that out of 47 throws they challenged Cyrus Jones maybe three times total. My how his status has changed.
  • I LOVED the fact that this year Saban/Smart blitzed the Auburn zone reads and dictated the reads to Marshall.  Last year, Alabama sat on their heels far too much but this year they did what Kansas State, Georgia, Mississippi State and others did to the vaunted zone read – blitzed the piss out of it.
  • I’ll be very glad to see Coates and Williams go pro.  Say what you will but they are exceptional wide receivers.

Alabama on Special Teams

Just a couple of quickie notes on special teams where I felt Alabama dominated field position throughout the game.

  • After receiving applause for simply catching a punt earlier this season, Christion Jones quietly had his best game of the season with a 37 yard kickoff return and a 29 yard punt return.
  • JK Scott had a 70 yard punt that flipped field position completely and his other punt was downed at the Auburn 15. He netted 55.5 yards per punt.
  • I thought the kickoffs from Scott were outstanding, as well.
  • The one concern was the use of Gunnar Raborn for the place kicking duties. We’ve mentioned that Adam Griffith has been battling an injury for weeks but after a week off against Western Carolina I thought he’d be ready to go. Clearly he was not. After Raborn’s low extra point kick was blocked, Griffith was summoned for the final two extra points. Hopefully he will not be needed this week against Mizzou – then he’ll have about a month to heal.

Final Thoughts

Folks, at halftime the entire stadium felt this team was in dire straights and then things got even worse after Sims’ interception on the first series of the second half. Bama seemingly had no answer for Auburn’s offense and Blake Sims was shrinking from the brightest lights of any game he’s ever played in. But, as this team has done so many times this season, they rallied around one another – staring down adversity and kicking it in the shorts.

Belief is a very strong thing and it’s a necessary ingredient in every championship team. Belief in your coaches. Belief in the game plan. Belief in the man standing next to you. And belief in yourself. I told you guys after the Florida game that this team had a very special character and they’ve shown this time and time again this season. Somehow it was easy to forget about this at halftime but oh how this team reminded us in the second half that they are a very, very special group of men. If you weren’t convinced of this before, you should be now.  Gone is the Kick Six.  It’s been replaced by the Dead Zone in the Red Zone.  Kick Five, Gus.  But for Bama, T-town stands for Touchdowns.

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