Undoubtedly, some critics will view Auburn’s 23-16 win over Vanderbilt as unimpressive. They will note how they nearly lost at home to an improving but still underwhelming Commodores team.
Sometimes, though, a victory due to sheer determination and resolve can be more impressive than a blowout. Saturday’s win at Jordan-Hare Stadium was one of those occasions.
“Oh, man. It’s the will,” said defensive back Joshua Holsey. “It’s the will of the team. Teammates and coaches, they preach that every week. They preach that adversity is going to happen. You have to know how to overcome it.”
“It was just one of those days,” said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. “Wasn’t a whole lot that went our way. Time and time again we were facing adversity. They jump over and they block a field goal. Had a lot of penalties, which is very uncharacteristic of our team. We’ve been one of the most disciplined teams in college football. Every time you turned around there was something against us. That’s what makes this win so good. The kids overcame them.”
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The Tigers overcame an undisclosed injury to starting quarterback Sean White that forced them to start junior college transfer John Franklin for the first time. They overcame a fumble by Franklin that led to Vanderbilt’s second touchdown. They overcame a clever game-plan by the Commodores, which consisted of a barrage of short passes and misdirection runs that at times befuddled Auburn’s defense.
Then they overcame a strange ending that could have turned into one of the most heart-breaking for Auburn in years.
It was a fitting end to a fitful afternoon. Everything was coming together nicely. The Tigers led by seven points in the final minutes of the game when Kamryn Pettway, their human battering ram of a running back, charged down field for what was sure to be a game-clinching touchdown. As a bonus, Mississippi State was upsetting Texas A&M, which suddenly threw the door wide open for the Tigers in the SEC West.
Only, something suddenly went horribly wrong. Pettway starting limping and finally stumbled to the ground at the Vandy 12. Three runs produced a negative 6 yards. Then Vandy’s Zach Cunningham made an extraordinary play, hurdling Ike Powell, the Auburn long-snapper, to block Daniel Carlson’s chip-shot field goal attempt. Then came a fourth-and-18 pass completion on a tipped ball, giving Vanderbilt new life at midfield with 51 seconds to play. Then another long pass to the Auburn 30 with 41 seconds left.
What looked a few minutes earlier like a comfortable win had suddenly become extremely uncomfortable. Somebody needed to make a play. That somebody turned out to be Holsey. A week earlier, Holsey sealed a victory over Ole Miss with an interception. This time, Holsey read Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shumur perfectly. He turned and made a diving interception to secure the game.
“We prepare for those situations at the end of the game, two minute situations, two minute drives,” Holsey said. “We prepare for those so when they come, there’s no pressure. As a team, we know how to fight. We know how to win. It’s a bunch of guys on the team who have a lot of fight in them. When you have a lot of guys like that, the sky’s the limit for us. We just have to keep fighting and keep playing as hard as we’re playing.”
Holsey’s defensive teammates mobbed him as he jumped up.
“To help my team win the game, there’s no better feeling,” Holsey said. “Especially having all your teammates running on top of you. They were slapping my head a little too hard, so I’m going to go beat them up about that. Other than that, it’s a great feeling.”
“That’s a big time play, man,” said safety Tray Matthews. “He’s a big time player. He came up clutch again, so we gotta beat him up. We gotta jump on him.”
There are not many feel-good stories any better than Holsey’s. He suffered two serious knee injuries, the second one leaving him wondering if he even wanted to keep playing football.
“I kind of did give up just a little bit,” Holsey said. “I backed away from it for a minute. But then it was like, ‘I’m going to do it.’ My friends were all at practice. I’m in my room. I just wanted to be by my friends and hang around my teammates just one last time. That’s why I came back, to experience this. I just so happened to have a really great year. I just want to keep it up.”
Now, with Texas A&M’s loss, the Tigers find themselves in a most improbable position. After a 1-2 start that had many people speculating about Malzahn’s job security, the Tigers are two wins away from winning the SEC West. Sure, the second of those two wins would have to come over Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Even for a team that has surged back into national prominence with six consecutive wins, that’s a bit of a stretch. But it’s certainly not a stretch to think the Tigers will beat Georgia in Athens to at least give themselves that chance.
“Our team has a lot of heart, a lot of guts, and a lot of fight,” Malzahn said. “There was more adversity today than any game I can think of. There might have been some that equal it in the past. There was not a whole lot going right for us, and we won.”
That is the bottom line, after all.