(by Jordon Semien)
TUSCALOOSA–There’s no week in college athletics that means more to a team than the last week on the schedule: Rivalry Week. In the proud state of Alabama, that means it’s finally time for the most anticipated game of the year. This year’s Iron Bowl carried the weight of a year’s worth of “what could have been” for the Tide as they looked to finally get the bad taste of a last second loss out of their mouths.
With a spot in the SEC title game and a possible berth in the College Football Playoff on the line, Nick Saban’s Tide kept their focus on the task at hand of protecting home field. The Tigers won the opening coin toss and elected to receive first and begin their attempt to repeat as Iron Bowl champs.
The defense found a rocky start as a backwards pass from Auburn’s Nick Marshall was dropped and ruled a fumble, which the hungry Tide defense was all too happy to scoop up at the Auburn 45 yard line. Five plays and an eight yard rumble by TJ Yeldon later, Alabama took an early 7-0 lead. The Tigers got their offense back on track in their next drive, pushing their way 72 yards down field before running into a brick wall of Alabama defense and settling for a field goal, leaving the score at 7-3. The Tide returned fire with a 17 yard pitch and catch touchdown from Blake Sims to Amari Cooper, to pull ahead 14-3. The Tigers found the uprights again after a long drive sparked by a Marshall deep pass to Duke Williams stalled, resulting in another field goal and a 14-6 Tide lead at the end of one.
The second quarter quickly turned into track meet that the Tide looked unprepared for. Nick Marshall and the Auburn offense took to the skies to pick on the smaller Tide secondary, though the front seven still managed to hold them to three points to start the quarter. On first down of the Tide’s next drive, Sims reared back for a pass over the middle, put was picked off by Auburn’s Whitehead. The plainsmen capitalized on the excellent field position with a 34 yard scoring pass from Marshall to Sammy Coats for a 16-14 lead.
Alabama looked to retaliate, but were forced to punt after five plays; after a three and out for Auburn, the Tide found pay dirt on a one yard score from TJ Yeldon to take a 21-16 lead. When forced to answer the bell, the Tigers came out swinging with 68 yard strike from Marshall to Williams to regain the lead, 23-21. Sims’ second interception of the night led to another Auburn field goal as the Tigers took a 26-21 lead into the half.
Coach Saban was not happy with his team’s performance in the opening half, calling it “as bad a half of football we’ve played all year”. Coach add that his team didn’t channel the emotion of the game in the right place.
Alabama opened the second half with a another interception by Sims, resulting in another scoring pass from Marshall, this time to Tyler Bray for a 33-21 lead. Sims finally found his rhythm and connected with Cooper again, this time from 39 yards out to pull the score to 33-27 after a blocked PAT. Auburn notched another field goal on their next drive, but the Tide answered with a 75 yard bomb from Sims to Cooper to breathe life back into a, until that point, stunned Bryant-Denny. Nick Marshall aided the Crimson Tide’s comeback with his first interception of the night before the end of the third, giving Alabama a 34-36 lead going into the final 15 minutes.
Sims used the fourth to turn his performance around, starting with an 11 yard run for a score and a completed pass on the two point conversion, taking a 42-34 lead; Sims then connected with DeAndre White for a six yard score, but failed the two point conversion. The Tide put the game out of reach with a Derrick Henry 25 yard scoring run, though Auburn did muster a late scoring drive, setting the final score at 55-44 in the highest scoring Iron Bowl in history.
Sims finished the night 20-27, with 312 yards, four scores and three interceptions, while Yeldon added 127 yards and two scores of his own. Amari Cooper’s 13 catches for 224 yards and three scores gave him the school records for receptions in a career and touchdowns in a season.
After the game, Head Coach Nick Saban commended his team on their resilience, saying “We didn’t play very well in the first half and didn’t start out well in the second half, but we just kept grinding. We started making some plays on offense and got the momentum of the game back.”
Alabama’s Iron Bowl victory, coupled with Mississippi State’s loss to Ole’ Miss, has secured the Tide’s spot in the SEC Championship game in Atlanta against the Missouri Tigers. Kickoff in the Georgia Dome is set for 4:00pm eastern time, 3:00pm central standard, on Saturday, December 6th.