Nov. 26, 2010
BY PETE THAMEL, New York Times News Service
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The mischievous sound operators at Bryant-Denny Stadium tried to establish a theme for No. 9 Alabama's game with No. 2 Auburn on Friday afternoon during warm-ups. When Auburn quarterback Cam Newton took the field, the songs "Take the Money and Run" by the Steve Miller Band and "Son of a Preacher Man" by Dusty Springfield filled the speakers.
But on a dank day in Tuscaloosa, where the emotions were as raw as the weather, Newton fired the final salvo, almost single-handedly erasing a 24-point Alabama lead and guiding the Tigers to the biggest comeback victory in the university's history.
The outcome -- Auburn 28, Alabama 27 -- reaffirmed Newton's status as the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy. He led Auburn to perhaps its most scintillating victory in the 75-year history of the Iron Bowl. Given the stakes, it is difficult to imagine a bigger performance by a better player.
Newton's latest star turn came in front of a hostile crowd of 101,821, with the national title, the Heisman and an undefeated season in the balance.
And while Newton was not allowed to talk about his latest star turn after the game, his performance spoke volumes: he completed 13 of 20 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns. A day that began with him being mocked by songs ended with thousands of Alabama fans leaving Bryant-Denny in funereal silence.
''I think this is by far the best game Auburn has had in years, maybe in a century," Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes said.
In the press box, Alabama officials were left scrambling to find out if the Crimson Tide had ever squandered a 24-point lead. (They did not find another instance.) Auburn officials had a stream of happier hyperbole, as the Tigers finished the regular season undefeated (12-0, 8-0 Southeastern Conference) and stayed in line for a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game.
Coming back has been as consistent a theme for Auburn as Newton's brilliance this season. The Tigers have come from behind in eight of their 12 victories. But no victory will be sweeter, or more iconic, than Newton's stringing together four touchdown drives after Alabama (9-3, 5-3) steamrolled to a 24-0 lead.
''Cameron Newton is as physically and mentally tough as anyone I've been around," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "Period."
Newton's highlight of the day was not his 70-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Zachery during the first minute of the second half. Instead, it came on a fourth-and-3 from the Auburn 47 early in the fourth quarter. Coming out of a timeout, Newton threw a laser to Darvin Adams on the sideline on a 9-yard out route that gave Auburn a first down. That play set up a 7-yard touchdown pass to Philip Lutzenkirchen nearly three minutes into the fourth quarter that gave Auburn the lead for good.
Complementing Newton's latest superhuman performance was Auburn's defense, which did not allow a second-half touchdown. Alabama's only second-half points came from a field goal after a fumbled punt. Alabama gained only 67 offensive yards in the second half.
The Tigers' surge to national title contender has put the SEC in an awkward spot. The league has won every national title since 2006, a streak the Crimson Tide put in serious jeopardy Friday. For a while, it appeared as if an Alabama victory would allow Boise State or Texas Christian to wriggle into the national title game.
But the victory kept next week's SEC title game between Auburn and South Carolina a relevant part of the national title discussion.
Alabama can point squarely at itself for its loss. As dominant as the Tide was at the outset, Alabama also made three crucial mistakes.
Mark Ingram, last season's Heisman winner, fumbled through the end zone after a 41-yard second-quarter catch when the ball was poked out from behind by Auburn's Antoine Carter. The Crimson Tide squandered two more touchdown opportunities later in the quarter. Trent Richardson dropped what appeared to be an easy touchdown catch in the end zone, forcing Alabama to settle for a 20-yard field goal with 8:01 left in the first half. And in the half's final minute, quarterback Greg McElroy fumbled after being sacked by Nick Fairley on a second-down play at the Auburn 8-yard line.
McElroy had a wild day that included his setting a career high for passing yards by the end of the second quarter and ended with him on the sideline with a concussion.
A day that began with a soundtrack mocking Newton ended with Alabama thinking more of a melancholic country ballad. For generations in these parts, Newton's performance in erasing a 24-point deficit will provide a memorable refrain.