Auburn football: No time to dwell on Iron Bowl loss in strange year
It’s an unfamiliar scenario for Auburn. Not only have the Tigers lost only 1 game under Gus Malzahn in worse fashion than this year’s Iron Bowl, but they’ve never had just a week to lick their wounds following a loss to Alabama in advance of another regular-season game.
“You gotta be big boys. You got to take it like a man. They got after us, they whipped us,” Malzahn said after Saturday’s 42-13 defeat. “We got to rebound.”
In a typical year, Auburn has northward of a month to recover from the physical rivalry in preparation for a bowl game, or a week to celebrate in advance of the SEC Championship Game, as in 2017 when Auburn defeated Alabama in the Iron Bowl before losing to Georgia 7 days later. But alas, 2020 is 2020. The Tigers will need to quickly respond as Texas A&M comes to Jordan-Hare on Saturday, with still another conference showdown with Mississippi State looming.
It’s easy to let 1 blowout loss snowball into 2, especially at the hands of your bitter rival. Auburn is 2-0 this year in games immediately following a loss, although that record could be 1-1 given the finish of the game against Arkansas.
“We’ve just got to come together and just stay together. We can’t let this tear us apart,” linebacker Owen Pappoe said on Saturday. “We haven’t had the season we wanted to have, but we’ve got to learn from everything that we messed up on.
“This has to make us a stronger team for the following game and into next season, when we go into the spring and the season after that. We can’t fold.”
But the main areas that need improvement from this weekend — which are a lot — may not be an overnight fix. Auburn’s offense lives and dies with the run game. Alabama completely stymied Tank Bigsby and co., breaking a 5-game streak by Auburn of averaging at least 4.3 yards a carry. Bigsby, clearly still hobbled from an injury sustained the previous week against Tennessee, was ineffective for the limited time that he did play as he failed to hit the 2nd level like fans have become accustomed to.
The Tigers had just 27 rushing yards in the 1st quarter, 30 in the 2nd and -4 in the 3rd before redshirt freshman Mark-Antony Richards was able to come on in the 4th and rush for 57 yards on 14 carries.
Auburn’s offense had thrived in the previous 3 games against Ole Miss, LSU and Tennessee because Bo Nix hadn’t been forced to single-handedly win the game. With a rushing attack rendered useless, Nix was forced to throw the most passes he has (38) since Auburn lost to South Carolina on Oct. 17, the only other game this season when he has thrown multiple interceptions.
“When we run the football, we’re a good offense,” Malzahn said. “We weren’t able to do that consistently, and that was tough.”
There’s no telling how much Bigsby and tackles Alec Jackson and Brodarious Hamm will heal in a week’s time, so it will be up to the defense to keep Auburn from getting behind early and forcing Nix to play the type of hero ball that so often leads to erratic play and questionable decisions.
Auburn trailed by at least 11 points for close to 46 minutes of game time Saturday. A defense that so often would bend but not break was shattered by huge plays from DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris, allowing touchdowns of 66, 24, 58, 39 and 24 yards, as Mac Jones added another bullet point to his Heisman resume. The Tide scored 5 of their 6 touchdowns on drives lasting less than 2 1/2 minutes.
But even while down by 36 points, Auburn didn’t quit. Nix led a 12-play, 96-yard drive that began with a near-safety and ended in a rushing touchdown for the QB. While the Tide had mentally called the dogs off at that point, their starters were still playing. The defense then went out and and forced a 3-and-out, sacking Bryce Young, who was being protected by Alabama’s starting line.
“It’s not going to keep me down,” Nix said of the loss. “I’m going to keep on battling and keep on playing and play the next play and get our guys back to next week. If you dread on the past, you’ll never make any progress. I can assure you we’ll continue to battle and continue to move forward and put this behind us and work even harder for next year.”
That attitude bodes well for a team still fighting for 7 wins, which in the grand scheme of things most Auburn fans would have probably signed up for at the beginning of September. The sting of the loss to Alabama is real, but there’s still football to be played.