Saturday night on the Plains showcased another strong performance from the Auburn Tigers at the end of a grueling three game stretch to close out the month of September. Coming off an emotional overtime win over Clemson in a game in which the consensus was that this was the hardest hitting game of the young college football season, there were many doubts as to whether Auburn could muster the strength and resolve to deal with a high flying (and highly ranked) South Carolina Gamecock football team, led by headline grabbing freshman tailback, Marcus Lattimore.
Yet any such doubts were soon dispelled with a strong start from the Tigers. After kicking off to start the game, the Auburn defense quickly put the ball in the hands of breakout QB Cam Newton and the Auburn offense after making an early statement that Lattimore would find yards much harder to come by against this front seven. The offense, picking off where it left off from the week before, quickly drove to midfield before letting Cam Newton do his best Superman impersonation into the corner of the North end zone. Boom. Just like that, Auburn takes a 7-0 lead and the ghost of a rugged Clemson first half seemed a distant memory. But credit the Gamecocks, who answered decisively behind the arm of Junior QB Stephen Garica to tie the score up.
Then, adversity did strike as a couple of fumbles from running backs Mario Fannin and Mike Dyer helped South Carolina stretch the lead to 20-7. Judging by some of the media reaction to the game, it is here that several would have you believe that a week later, history was repeating itself against a Palmetto State team and Auburn was struggling to deal with an energized opponent and digging another deep hole for itself.
Having attended both games, I strongly disagree with that sentiment. Certainly, it was an adverse situation, and hardly ideal after the maximum effort needed to prevail against Clemson the week before, but this felt nothing like the Clemson game to me. Against those Tigers, trailing 17-0 seemed something of a let off given how much we had been thoroughly outplayed by our ACC opponents.
Against South Carolina, the feeling was altogether different. Being down 20-7 was certainly frustrating, but hardly despairing, because it seemed as though we kept the gun pointed at our own foot with the safety never on rather than the Gamecocks outplaying us. Both fumbles came after the offense was mounting a drive. The defensive secondary seemed to be adrift in a sea of confusion with talented Gamecock receivers ready to pounce. But 20-7 seemed a harsh reality. But not too harsh. Too much has been made of the double digit deficit. Thirteen points is hardly an insurmountable lead in college football with over a half of football left. And that double digit lasted only a matter of minutes before Auburn cut the lead back down to six and reclaimed lost momentum, gaining more than just a toehold back into the game. Auburn was playing well and beginning to minimize its mistakes.
The second half was really something to behold if you like smash mouth, Southern fried football. Coach Gene Chizik had challenged his team, especially the interior lines, to be more physical against South Carolina. The defensive line had already gone some way into answering that challenge. Lattimore had been bottled up all night. After a solid first half, now it was the offensive line's chance to take it up a notch and answer the bell. They did just that, feeding off of Cam Newton's tenacity and vice versa, with Dyer also becoming a bigger factor as the game pressed on.
Yes, it still took some breaks falling their way (the flurry of turnovers in the fourth quarter after a seemingly gut wrenching field goal miss) to get it done in the end, but Auburn made its own luck on Saturday night, not least with the physical domination along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. A single stat line told a large part of this story at the end of the game. 334 rushing yards for Auburn to South Carolina's 79.
A flawed football team, Auburn certainly still is, and fans would do well not to lose grasp of realistic expectations But Auburn is also a good football team, and they played a good game against a good opponent on Saturday night, and they deserved their victory. Now it's time to recharge the batteries against a seemingly over matched Louisiana-Monroe team after a September slate of games that provided teams and challenges progressively tougher than the previous, culminating in the defeat of the 12th ranked team in the nation. The goal on Saturday will be to play as crisp a game as possible and get out without any injuries and get ready for another tough slate of SEC games that includes games against Kentucky, Arkansas, LSU, and Ole Miss.
Auburn fans will have to wait and see how smooth navigating these upcoming obstacles will be, but they can at least be confident that no tasks appears too monumental at this point. The season is already a third of the way done, but the fun is only just beginning.