September 10, 2011
Auburn 41, Mississippi State 34.
Through two weeks, Auburn has been outgained by 234 yards, yielded 23 more first downs than it's earned, endured ten touchdown drives by opposing offenses covering at least 60 yards and held the ball for fully 28 minutes less than it's been on defense. It's dead even in turnover margin. And it's won twice in such dramatic, break-neck fashion that it's beginning to look like the game plan is actually calling for it.
Of course, even if the box scores are nearly identical, staging a goal-line stand to beat Mississippi State carries entirely different connotations than recovering an onside kick in a desperate rally to beat Utah State. Beating the Bulldogs — losers now in 13 consecutive SEC openers — may not convert the preseason skeptics who forecast doom in the wake of unprecedented attrition from last year's BCS title run, and giving up 34 points on 531 yards in the process certainly isn't going to solve any lingering questions about the defense. But it does reemphasize, again, that this team has gone almost twice as long as any other major team in America without losing a game, even when it's had the opportunity to lose a lot of them.
Over the course of its 17-game winning streak, Auburn has trailed or been tied in the fourth quarter ten times. Including today, it's won on the final play five times. Including today, it's been outgained in total offense five times. Including today, it's given up at least 30 points five times. But it's always won. As it stands, the only team riding an active streak even halfway to 17 games is Stanford, at nine.
Last year, most of the late-game heroics were attributed to the irresistible force of Cam Newton, for obvious reasons. But it was Michael Dyer who put the Tigers over the top in the BCS Championship win over Oregon, and eight months later it was first-time starter Barrett Trotter who caught fire last week, NBA Jam-style, in the comeback over Utah State. Today, generous as it was for most of the first 59 minutes and 50 seconds, it was ultimately the defense that delivered the decisive stop — two of them, in fact, from inside its own two-yard line with the game on the line. That's one of the best things you can say about a team: When it has to make a play, Auburn makes a play.
Eventually, its issues on defense will catch up with Auburn in such a way that renders its usual clutch routine too-little, too-late, and that day may be coming sooner than later. Until then, there still seems to be a little more of the old championship spirit in this edition than just about anyone suspected.