AUBURN, Ala. -- More than five minutes remained in the game and fans already were lining the stairs descending toward the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night. A fire marshal would have thrown a fit, but no one paid it any mind. After so long without a win of this magnitude, people were bound to rush the field.
Even the players were eager to get the celebration going. During a long timeout, Auburn’s sideline became a fledgling dance party as star pass-rusher Jeff Holland showed everyone how to do “The Dougie.”
When the game finally ended and No. 10 Auburn had taken down No. 1 Georgia by a jaw-dropping final score of 40-17, the scene on The Plains became that of pure joy. Holland found a sombrero laying on the ground and decided it would make a nice accessory. Safety Tray Matthews bear-hugged his defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele, and before anyone left the field, the entire defense posed for a group photo.
Somewhere in the scrum was Gus Malzahn, the once-embattled head coach now free of any hot-seat speculation. A win guaranteed that the only talk his Tigers will be a part of for the next few weeks will be the College Football Playoff discussion. Leaving a TV interview near midfield, a cell phone captured a fired-up Malzahn saying, “We whipped the dog crap out of them, didn’t we?”
He wasn’t wrong. The Georgia defense entered Saturday having allowed the second-fewest points in the country. Then Malzahn’s offense went to work with a bevy of speed and misdirection. Jarrett Stidham was nearly flawless at quarterback, completing 16 of 23 passes for 214 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, and running back Kerryon Johnson had 233 all-purpose yards and a touchdown, leading Malzahn to proclaim, “He needs to be in the Heisman talk.”
It was a far cry from four weeks earlier when Auburn blew a 20-point lead on the road against LSU. The offense was a shell of itself in the second half as Stidham was rendered useless by 17 straight runs on first down and Johnson ran hopelessly into eight-man fronts. Even before the team plane left Baton Rouge, the wolves were circling.
The buzz in coaching circles was that maybe Malzahn’s overly simplistic offense finally had been exposed. If he didn’t right the ship in a hurry, there clearly would be momentum to make a change. Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville described the situation succinctly: “He has to start beating his rivals, and that’s Georgia and Alabama at the end of the year. That’s a given. You can’t continue to lose to those teams at the end of the year and say, ‘My job is safe.’ That doesn’t happen there.”
To pull off the turnaround, Malzahn had to go back to his roots.
Speed always had been a calling card of Malzahn’s offenses, beginning with his time as a coordinator at Auburn from 2009-11 and again when he returned to become the head coach in 2013, leading the Tigers all the way to the BCS National Championship Game. With Nick Marshall at quarterback and Tre Mason bowling over people at running back, there was no stopping the uptempo pace of the offense. Once it got going, it was all downhill.
But some time between then and the failed transition to Jeremy Johnson, Malzahn let off the gas. Maybe it was because he didn’t have the right quarterback or maybe it was to protect his defense. Whatever the case, it wasn’t the same.
“We know that's our advantage,” Kerryon Johnson would say later, “and we kind of got away from that last year and we kind of didn't do it early on in the season.”
Coming out of the loss to LSU, a concerted effort to play with pace was underway. Arkansas got the first dose as Auburn went up and down the field at Malzahn’s old stomping grounds of Fayetteville, hanging 52 points on the Hogs. Stidham wasn’t perfect, throwing an interception, but he started to keep the ball more on the read-option, rushing for a career-high 49 yards and scoring just his second rushing touchdown of the season.
The next week, Auburn scored 42 points at Texas A&M, and the most dangerous thing you can say about a Malzahn-coached offense was true again: It had momentum.
While Auburn’s first three drives against Georgia ended in field goals, Stidham said no one was worried. As long as the line was getting push and Johnson was doing his thing, they knew they were golden. With less than five minutes left in the first half, Malzahn dialed up a beautifully designed double post, fake screen that ended in Stidham throwing a 42-yard touchdown down the middle of the field to Darius Slayton.
Coming out of intermission, Auburn took control, scoring 14 unanswered points, including a 7-yard touchdown run by Stidham. While no one in attendance mistook Stidham for the second coming of the fleet-footed Marshall, his ability to run it himself “changes everything,” according to Malzahn, who pointed out that it keeps defenses honest.
The cherry on the top, though, was a perfectly executed screen pass off a fake jet sweep that resulted in a 55-yard touchdown for Johnson, who broke the 100-yard rushing mark for the sixth time this season.
All told, Auburn ran for 237 yards against a top-five rushing defense.
“Our goals every week are to play with tempo, be physical, rush for 200 yards,” Johnson said. “And when you play with tempo, those 200 yards can come quicker than you think.”
“You feel the guys across from you wearing down,” veteran offensive lineman Braden Smith said. “Because with a fast pace you can’t rotate guys in and adjust, so you just keep running it down their throat.”
Playing on a roll like that was vintage 2013 Auburn football. It was the stuff that made some call Malzahn an offensive genius.
As Malzahn recapped the game, music was bleeding through the cinder block walls that separated the media from Auburn’s locker room. It was clear to all that the celebration wasn’t winding down anytime soon.
"Our goal was to win the SEC championship,” Malzahn said with a bass line thumping in the background, “and here we are Nov. 11, and we’re right in the middle of it. All the dreams we have are still alive.
“After the LSU game, I said, ‘It’s not the end of the world.’ And what I meant by that is that we still control our own destiny, and we still do. We beat a very good team, handily. ... We’ve got another nonconference game next week and then we play another No. 1 team.”
That team being unbeaten Alabama.
If you thought the Georgia game was entertaining, just wait for the Iron Bowl when Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide visit Auburn.
The last time these teams met with so much on the line in Jordan-Hare Stadium, it was 2013 and after that one, you couldn’t keep anyone from rushing the field.