GAMEDAY: Remember the Iron Bowl-2010

GAMEDAY: Remember the Iron Bowl-2010

Auburn won two of the last five Iron Bowls, in 2010 and 2013. CW File

A deep fog hung over Tuscaloosa when Auburn’s players walked out of the southwest tunnel of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Some walked alone and listened to music, while others chatted with teammates in a futile attempt to relax.

As the team walked around the field, Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” and The Steve Miller Band’s “Take the Money and Run” played over the sound system.

Waiting a few feet above the tunnel was the ferocious Alabama student section. Kickoff was nearly two hours away, but the students were already out in full force. Some threw beer. Some shouted profanities. Many were escorted out of the stadium well before kickoff. Police officers even moved some students back a few rows to avoid the threat of a thrown object injuring an Auburn player.

“Alabama, man,” said Josh Bynes, a senior linebacker and captain on the 2010 team. “When you come in that stadium, they all know your background. They gone go on Google. They gone find every ounce of bad dirt, all kind of things they can find out about you, and put it on a big ole poster.”

The Tigers had played on the road three times in 2010, taking trips to Mississippi State, Kentucky and Ole Miss. The largest crowd of the three was 70,776 in Lexington. The crowd in Tuscaloosa exceeded 101,000.

“I was nervous as hell, man,” said Jeff Whitaker, a freshman defensive tackle. “That’s what you call a road game. I mean, you could feel the hate. ... eighteen years old, walking out there thinking like that, I was looking for my mama. We’d been on the road all year, and I was thinking, well, I done been in a road game. That was a road game that for me personally was a welcome to college football.”

Kickoff. It seemed to happen that fast. Auburn had not allowed a first-quarter touchdown to Alabama since 1996, but it took only 3:26 for the Crimson Tide to put six points on the board. 7-0. Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones blazed past the Auburn secondary for a 68-yard touchdown on the next possession. 14-0.Then Alabama gashed the Tigers with a 10-play, 61-yard drive.  21-0.

“It happened so fast, and it was all our fault,” Whitaker said. “Especially as a defense, we was looking at Julio running free, and we let [Alabama running back Mark Ingram] walk in the end zone.”

The feeling that Auburn was self-destructing wasn’t unique to the Auburn sideline.

“To tell you the truth, looking back on it, Auburn made a bunch of mistakes,” said former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy. “They had a blown coverage. We had a few decent drives, but they had several mistakes that we were able to capitalize on. … that obviously allowed us to distance ourselves in the first half.”

See also: Remember the Iron Bowl--2009

As bad as the defense was, the vaunted Auburn offense – which entered the game averaging over 505 yards of offense per game – was struggling just as much. Three drives equated to nine plays and minus-3 yards of offense in the first quarter. If the crimson-clad fans hadn’t smelled blood in the water before the game, they certainly did after the first 15 minutes.

As the Auburn defense returned to the bench following McElroy’s touchdown pass to Darius Hanks, defensive tackle Nick Fairley gathered the defensive line. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and at the team hotel in Birmingham the night before, players took turns sharing what they were thankful for. The defensive line had not done so.

Fairley, who would go on to set Auburn single-season records in tackles for loss and sacks, thought it was the perfect chance to make up for the missed opportunity the night before. Some were a bit skeptical of the timing.

“Everybody was looking like listen, we’d be thankful for a touchdown right now,” Whitaker said. “Nobody trying to hear this today, man.”

But Fairley was persistent, and one by one – engulfed in a sea of crimson all the while – the linemen shared what they were thankful for.

They didn’t know at the time, but someone in that huddle was about to make a play that would turn the tide of the game, the season and Auburn history.

The Crimson Tide opened the second quarter rolling just as it did in the first. Alabama was quickly marching down the field with its mind on a fourth – and possibly game – touchdown. On first-and-10 near midfield, McElroy dumped a pass off to Ingram.

Auburn linebacker Eltoro Freeman missed a tackle near the line of scrimmage, and Ingram raced down the right sideline. Trailing him was Auburn defensive end Antoine Carter. There was no way Carter – he of 4.79 40-yard dash speed – was going to catch the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner without help. The help came in the form of safety Zac Etheridge, who tripped Ingram at the Auburn 30. Ingram stumbled, and Carter was able to track him down.

While the senior dragged Ingram to the ground with his left arm, he used his right arm to punch the ball from Ingram’s grasp. The ball meandered down the sideline, drawing within inches of the white chalk. It stayed in bounds and eventually came to rest on the red carpet that was the Alabama end zone, where cornerback Demond Washington jumped on top of it.

It wasn’t world-shattering, but it was a spark, and it was exactly what Auburn needed.

“It was all pursuit drill and hustle,” Carter said. “That changed the momentum. I think that play gave the team a lot of hope, gave the fans a lot of energy, and we went on from there.”

Not only did the fumble come at an opportune time, it came at the expense of an unlikely subject.

Ingram had fumbled only once in his career – a span of 612 touches – before the play, but Carter was able to dislodge the ball.

“Antoine Carter’s play was probably by far the biggest play ever in the Iron Bowl, besides the (Kick Six),” Bynes said. “That play was pivotal, because you never know. What if he scores a touchdown? It may not have been a championship season.”

Instead of facing a 28-0 deficit, Auburn had the ball, hope and a renewed determination.

“When that happened, we said, ‘All right, they’ve had enough,’ ” Whitaker said. “When that play happened, that was when everybody was like OK, we gone win this game. We gone win it.”

Three drives later, wide receiver Kodi Burns – Auburn’s starting quarterback in 2008’s 36-0 loss in Tuscaloosa – kept the drive alive early with a third-down catch over the middle. Burns had another reception later on the drive, and the Tigers finally cracked the scoreboard with their first explosive play of the day, a 36-yard touchdown pass to Emory Blake.

“Any time you can get a drive started off a third down and keep it going off of third down, it really helps the team, gives them confidence,” Burns said. “We went down and scored, and it changed the game.”

After another sustained Alabama drive, Fairley forced and recovered another crucial red-zone fumble to keep the halftime deficit at 17, which was Auburn’s largest of the year. The morning of the game, coach Gene Chizik told his team it would encounter adversity that day, and Auburn had certainly encountered it. But the Tigers had survived, and the second half would prove to be a different story.

As the Alabama fans filed out of Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Auburn players began their celebration. After trailing by 24 in the first half, the Tigers used three second-half touchdowns and a strong defensive performance to claw back into the game.

They celebrated in different ways. Newton ran around the field with his hand over his mouth, having silenced anyone still critical of his on-the-field performance. Nosa Eguae ran to the stands, where he saw two Auburn fans who had been harassed for their fandom during the game. He thanked the fans for their support and hugged them. Carter tried to run the Auburn flag around the field, but the idea was shot down by the Auburn coaches.

“As players, you realize what it means to the people in that state,” Burns said. “You realize what it means to the people who have played before you. It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than Cam Newton. It’s bigger than Bo Jackson. It’s bigger than anyone that’s played there. It’s about the people who love Auburn. It’s about the family and what winning that game means to those people.”

Evan McCullers is the Plainsman assistant sports editor.

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