AUBURN — The first two drives Saturday felt like more of the same from Auburn’s offense.
One started well, with back-to-back completions of 13 and 20 yards that moved Tigers across midfield, but it ultimately ended with a punt from Alabama territory. The other never got started at all, quickly going three-and-out.
Those had been the outcomes far too often for Auburn in its three most recent SEC games — a loss at LSU, a close win over Ole Miss and a loss to Georgia. The offense had 41 possessions in those three games, not counting those that ended halves. More than half of those either crossed midfield but did not reach the red zone and result in points (13) or went three-and-out (12). The Tigers didn’t score their first touchdowns in those games until their sixth, sixth and 11th drives, respectively.
But the Iron Bowl did not end up being more of the same for Auburn’s offense. After failing to score on its first two drives, it scored on five of its next six. It scored 34 points, which is 13 more points than the 21 it had averaged in games against FBS teams with winning records entering Saturday.
Combine that with a pair of crucial pick-sixes from the defense, and you get a 48-45 win over the Crimson Tide. This from the same Tigers team that mustered only 20, 20 and 14 points, respectively, in those games against LSU, Ole Miss and Georgia.
They didn’t do anything different on Saturday, either; they just did everything better.
“We just finally executed the plays,” sophomore wide receiver Seth Williams said. “We've always had a good offense. We didn't change anything. It was just another game where we just executed our plays.”
That’s been the Tigers’ biggest problem when they have struggled on that side of the ball this season. Because it’s not like they can’t put up points. They surpassed the 50-point threshold against Kent State, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Samford. They just couldn’t do it against the better teams on their schedule.
The thought for a while was that it might just be the result of starting a true freshman quarterback, Bo Nix, in a neutral-site game against Oregon and in difficult road contests at Texas A&M, Florida and LSU. But Auburn didn’t get much of anything going when it returned home to face the Rebels and Bulldogs, either.
It wasn’t just Gus Malzahn’s play-calling, or Nix’s growing pains, or the offensive line issues, or turnovers, but rather all of those things together. Nix fumbled on one drive over midfield against Ole Miss and threw off the mark trying to find Harold Joiner on a crucial fourth-and-2 late against Georgia. Running back JaTarvious Whitlow was stuffed for a loss of 13 yards on a third-down Wildcat carry against the Bulldogs. Placekicker Anders Carlson missed four field goals over 40 yards in those two games.
“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 (Georgia), and other times we could move the ball, we just couldn’t finish the drive, couldn’t get points on the board (Ole Miss),” Nix said Saturday. “Tonight, I feel like every drive we had led to an important field goal or an important touchdown.”
The Tigers got it done in different ways. Their second touchdown drive was all Nix and his receivers. The offense faced third-and-7 from its own 38. On back-to-back-to-back plays, the true freshman quarterback lofted a dime down the left sideline to Williams, who made a one-handed grab for a 37-yard gain; rolled to his left and fluttered a ball across his body toward Will Hastings, who made a leaping grab for 11 yards; and fired a strike toward the left pylon, where Sal Cannella got both toes down for a 14-yard score.
Auburn’s next offensive touchdown, which was scored with 8:08 remaining in the fourth quarter came courtesy the ground attack. Nix carried twice for 37 yards, and Whitlow five times for 14 yards. That got the offense to the 11-yard line, where 5-foot-7 Shaun Shivers took the ball on a Wildcat sweep running right, cut upfield, lowered his shoulder into Xavier McKinney so violently that the Alabama defensive back’s helmet flew off, then barreled his way into the end zone.
“He does that stuff all the time. You go back and watch his film, man, and he’s running people over. He looks for contact,” senior left guard Marquel Harrell said. “I’m proud of Worm, man. I’m telling you; I wouldn’t want to tackle him.”
Alabama’s offense ultimately beat Auburn’s. It outgained it 515 yards to 354 and outscored it 38 points to 34. But the Tigers weren’t asking their offense to be perfect against top defenses, which the Crimson Tide’s was (it entered the game ranked 10th nationally holding opponents to 16.2 points per game and 15th surrendering just 4.7 yards per play). They were just asking it to do more than it had against those teams.
On Saturday, on the biggest stage yet, it finally did.
Nix completed 15 of 30 passes for 173 yards and one touchdown and carried six times for 44 yards and another score.
The run game totaled 181 yards and two scores on the ground, led by Whitlow’s 16 carries for 114 yards. Auburn’s 5.3 yards per carry are the most that any team has averaged against the Crimson Tide this season.
And after missing four field goals against Ole Miss and Georgia, Carlson made all four he tried against Alabama, all from beyond 40 yards.
“We're getting better. We've grown, and our quarterback's grown,” Malzahn said. “The problem is the three previous times we've played, what, top-five, top-10 teams, we haven't put enough points on the board. Tonight, obviously, there was enough points.”
It might be frustrating that it took until Auburn’s final regular-season game for everything on offense to finally come together against a ranked team, but there is something positive to be taken from the fact that it did.
“People were throwing shots at us, saying the offense can’t do this, couldn’t do that. But we realized that we were just a few calls, a few plays from being undefeated,” Harrell said. “It just stings that it had to happen that way, but man, I’m just happy.”