Photo by Kevin Strickland
Auburn 41, West Virginia 30.
This is Auburn football.
It’s not the Auburn football you grandparents remember. It’s not the Auburn football your parents remember. It’s not even the Auburn football you remember prior to September 5, 2009.
Auburn fell behind 14-0 and trailed 21-10 to the visiting West Virginia Mountaineers on Saturday night before rallying behind an opportunistic defense and a determined offense to fell WVU.
Auburn 41, West Virginia 30.
This is a different kind of Tiger football team.
No disrespect to former coach Tommy Tuberville, whose teams won their share of thrilling, emotional, nationally relevant games, but digging out of a hole when the opponent had momentum was not one of the strong points of his Tiger teams.
Arkansas 27, Auburn 10
Georgia 35, Auburn 17
Arkansas 42, Auburn 17
Alabama 31, Auburn 7
Arkansas 38, Auburn 17
West Virginia 34, Auburn 17
Those were the resulting scores when an Andrew Zow or a Fred Talley or a David Greene or a Noel Devine got hot against a Tiger defense.
The offense rarely had an answer. Things got out of hand.
Saturday night, the opportunity to fold was there. West Virginia burned Auburn on its first two offensive series with a long pass and a long run.
Perhaps feeding off the pent-up emotion of a raucous Tiger crowd, Auburn overpursued, was overly aggressive and ended up getting scorched.
Recognizing that the Mountaineers had speed to spare and a multitude of offensive weapons, the defensive strategy switched from impact to containment. If West Virginia was going to score, they were going to have to drive the ball to do so.
The Tiger defense kept the Mountaineer ball carriers in front of them, giving up yards in exchange for preventing the big plays that opened the game.
The strategy was largely successful. After giving up a 58-yard pass play on the first series and a 71-yard Noel Devine rush on West Virginia’s second possession, the Tiger defense allowed four plays of 20 yards or more the remainder of the game. One of those came on the last desperation snap.
West Virginia piled up 509 yards and 23 first downs, but after the first two long strikes, the majority of that came between the 20 yard lines.
Forcing West Virginia to drive the field also increased the opportunity for turnovers. Auburn grabbed six on the night, converting one for a score.
All the defensive maneuvering might not have mattered in the past. Until the arrival of Gus Malzahn, Auburn has not been a team engineered to dig itself out of holes.
For three consecutive weeks, however, the Tigers have done just that. Auburn overcame deficits against both Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State before putting both away in the second half.
On Saturday night the vaunted Tiger rushing game was effectively limited by a quick Mountaineer defense. West Virginia’s strategy was clearly to force quarterback Chris Todd to win the game.
Todd shouldered the burden and while he might not have been spectacular, he was effective. Todd was a pedestrian 16-of-31 with an interception. He also threw four touchdown passes and converted several critical third-down passes.
More encouraging, Todd consistently made the right decision. Other than the interception and a few poorly thrown passes, Todd kept the Tigers out of trouble and the offense moving forward.
The Tigers are not world beaters. Significant challenges await in the SEC.
Just don’t tell them that. Auburn looked a repeat of 2008’s Mountaineer meltdown in the face and stared it into submission.
There was no panic, no resignation, no quit, no sense of “here we go again.” The Tigers simply got up off the mat and went right back to the fight.
No, these aren’t your father’s Auburn Tigers.
That is what 87,000 fans realized. The same fans who waited for an hour in a blinding rain, filling the air with chants of “It’s great to be an Auburn Tiger” as the clock struck midnight on the Mountaineers.
This is a different breed of cat.
In addition to writing and taking photos for The War Eagle Reader, Kevin Strickland serves as the sports editor for the Pickens County Herald, a weekly newspaper in West Alabama where he has covered high school and college sports for the past 15 years. In his career as a sportswriter, he has covered 12 state championship teams; followed the careers of three local football players who starred at college and played in the NFL and covered two local baseball players who played in the majors. He has won numerous Alabama Press Association writing awards including being named the state’s Best Sports Column in 2004.