Went to a monsoon Saturday night and a football game broke out.
Lightning delayed the kickoff of Auburn’s big showdown with West Virginia by more than an hour. At one point, it was raining so hard, you could barely see across the Jordan-Hare Stadium field. You know the old joke about Clemson? “It’s Auburn with a lake.” Well, Pat Dye Field was a lake by the time the ESPN2 audience tuned in.
But think a little nasty weather was going to spoil the festive evening for Auburn fans? They had waited all too long for a night like this. That is, the pregame anticipation where Auburn football was nationally relevant again. This game didn’t receive the media hype of Florida-Tennessee or USC- Washington. Nonetheless, it made the national radar.
As for the delay? Well, that just gave them a little longer to savor the perfect start of the Gene Chizik era. Not that beating Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State warranted any talk of BCS hopes and such. But it was the fact that Auburn had found an offensive identity and some harmony in general, both sorely absent a year ago, that offered renewed hope.
But again, West Virginia is a far cry from LA-Tech and Mississippi State. Ask Georgia about that. Yeah, this isn’t the same team that stunned the Bulldogs by taking a 35-0 lead in the Sugar Bowl a few years back. Rich Rodriguez is gone to Michigan. The nearly unstoppable tandem of quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slayton are gone to the NFL.
But it’s still, essentially, the same program. Jarrett Brown is the Mountaineers’ Joe Cox — a fifth-year senior quarterback who had to wait his turn. Those who had been watching him practice the last four years insisted there would be no discernable drop-off from White to Brown. And Noel Devine might even be better than Slayton.
It didn’t take Auburn fans long to realize this. On West Virginia’s third snap of the game, Brown found fullback Ryan Clarke open at the 1-yard line. Noel Devine’s touchdown run two plays later gave the Mountaineers a 7-0 lead a mere two minutes into the game. Three minutes later, it was 14-0, this time Devine striking with a 71-yard run.
So maybe this was it. Maybe reality would finally set in.
Then again …
Maybe Chizik’s Tigers do have that certain special quality that winners are made of. By the end of a first half that seemed to last an eternity, the Tigers had pulled back to within a single point, 21-20. The comeback started modestly enough when Wes Bynum kicked a field goal. Therein might have lied the game’s most understated turning point. The offense, facing fourth-and-10 at the West Virginia 29, stayed on the field. Chizik thought better of it, called timeout and sent the field goal team.
To drive down the field and come away with no points might have been demoralizing. Instead, on West Virginia’s next play from scrimmage, Auburn recovered a fumble. Six plays later, Chris Todd found Darvin Adams in the end zone. Suddenly, it was a four-point game.
Fast-forward to the fourth quarter. An interception gave Auburn a point-blank shot at the end zone. Todd connected with Adams again — their third TD combination of the long night. Suddenly — astonishingly — the Tigers found themselves holding a 34-30 lead.
There was still plenty of football to be played on this night that would never end. When Craig Stevens plucked Brown’s batted pass out of the night air and rambled into the end zone, Auburn’s lead was 41-30 with 3:41 left.
But whatever happened the rest of the way, this much was clear. Auburn’s impressive start was no mirage.
These Tigers are for real.
Contact Guerry Clegg at firstname.lastname@example.org