AUBURN, Ala. — The scene in Auburn’s locker room at halftime on Sept. 21 wasn’t what one might expect.
The Tigers had just completed their worst half of the season. Auburn’s offense couldn’t get anything going, unable to manage a single point. The defense didn’t fare much better, as it gave up three touchdowns to LSU in less than 18 minutes of play. Even Auburn’s special teams joined the misery, as punter Steven Clark couldn’t handle a snap on the team’s second possession, fumbling it away and resulting in a turnover on downs to give LSU the ball 10 yards away from the end zone.
So down 21-0 in their first road contest of the season — at Tiger Stadium, no less, considered one of the best home fields in college football — on a wet, dreary evening in Baton Rouge, La., it would have been understandable if Auburn’s players were frustrated. Furious, even.
Dee Ford said that couldn’t be further from the truth.
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“Positive. That’s the first word that comes to my mind,” the senior defensive end said when asked about the locker room’s halftime mood. “No one was pointing fingers. No one was down. We knew what we had done, and we had lost Jaylon (Denson), so there was a little bit of emotion in that. The last thing we wanted to do was go out with our heads down, so we went out and fought.”
That they did. Auburn made a furious comeback, drawing to within 35-21 in the final period. It could have made things even more interesting had an onside kick recovery not been overruled with just 6:32 remaining. That turned out to be the visitors’ last gasp, as no more points were scored by either side.
Dropping to 3-1 was a tough pill for Auburn’s players to swallow.
“That loss hurt us. It hurt us to the core,” senior defensive lineman Nosa Eguae said. “Coming back on Sunday after that loss you could go into a team meeting room and you could hear a pin drop, because guys were disappointed, guys were upset. We knew it was something we weren’t going to dwell on or let it linger. We had a 24-hour rule.”
Gus Malzahn took it far different, as he walked away feeling upbeat despite the setback.
“They were fighting until the end,” Auburn’s head coach said following the game. “I am very proud of our guys, and with the attitude they have we have a chance to get better and improve.”
Those words proved prophetic, as Auburn hasn’t lost since.
Malzahn cited the LSU loss along with having an open date the ensuing week as the pivotal turning points in his team’s season.
“That first off week was more about us and it gave us a chance to catch our breath because we still were learning about our players,” he said. “Not only from a physical standpoint but as a team, how we handle situations. We evaluated our personnel and we got a plan for the rest of the year. Offensively we felt like we needed to run some more read zone.”
That meant tailoring the offense to put Nick Marshall in total control, letting him operate the zone-read at will and making him a co-leader of the running game alongside Tre Mason.
It’s a decision that has paid off handsomely.
Through four games, Marshall had run for just 148 yards (and no touchdowns) on 41 carries. In his first game after the open date, the junior signal-caller had a breakout performance, rushing for 140 yards and two touchdowns in Auburn’s 30-22 win over Ole Miss.
In the eight games since that time, Marshall has continued to pad his rushing total, tallying 735 yards and nine touchdowns. At the same time, Mason got untracked, posting 100-yard efforts in every contest since the Ole Miss win aside from the Florida Atlantic game, where he carried only 10 times for 60 yards.
Thanks to its dominant rushing attack — and clutch plays in fourth quarter comebacks against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama, respectively — Auburn vaulted itself into the BCS championship game. Each of those games will be remembered fondly by the Tigers in the years to come. But in retrospect, Ford said everything comes back to those two miserable quarters on the third Saturday of September.
None of the indelible memories Auburn has made since would have come to pass if not for the resolve it showed against LSU.
“We took a big blow that first half, then that second half we came back a total different team,” Ford said. “I think that really set the bar.”