AUBURN, Alabama — The hedges at Jordan-Hare Stadium sit between the stands and the field on two sides. In the event of an emergency, they can be scaled, jumped, or tumbled through on the way to the field. The first wave always has a few casualties, brave souls, stuck ass over teakettle for a moment before the shrubbery spits them out onto the field. Note to those who might try it some day: You will win, but not before the hedges throw you around a little.
The list of those emergencies worthy of fighting the shrubs at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama includes but is not limited to: fire, earthquake, lightning strike, stampede, and Iron Bowl.
There is no debate about Auburn’s 26-14 win over Alabama being an Iron Bowl. It qualifies categorically for hedge-stomping.
However, exactly when the hedges were doomed is up for debate.
A scientific person would have written the hedges off at the half. After 30 minutes, Auburn had run 42 plays, stymied Alabama’s run game, and had the Crimson Tide in the rare situation of working from behind. When Alabama can’t get off the field on third down, the play count creeps up. (Auburn went nine-of-18 on third down.) When the play count creeps up, the short gains get longer, and even the big, relentless bodies of the Alabama defense fatigue. (Hint: It’s the same thing that happens to everyone, i.e., you give up yards, points, and ultimately a loss.)
The superstitious person might have called it at another point. Trailing 20-14 in the third quarter and in good field position after a 55-yard kickoff return by Trevon Diggs, Alabama sputtered around on offense, though not before Jalen Hurts launched an insane third-down pass into double coverage in the end zone, had it tipped, and sent the entire stadium into a temporary state of delirium when Alabama tight end Hale Hentges nearly caught the tip for a touchdown.
Note: Hale Hentges isn’t even from the state, and his name already sounds like an Alabama governor’s name. If he’d caught that TD, he would have been made governor eventually, if not immediately. It’s bad for the Tide that he did not, but probably good for Hale Hentges personally, given how many Alabama politicians end up indicted.
Then Alabama faced a fourth-and-9 on the Auburn 17 and sent out the kicker.
This should be a normal moment in a football game. It can’t be for Alabama against Auburn, because once upon a time, a kindly mountain sorcerer helped a young Nick Saban out of a jam in West Virginia. In repayment, the sorcerer asked for one thing: that Saban never, ever kick a field goal in a crucial situation on short yardage, because field goals are for cowards. Saban agreed, and the wizard was appeased.
A young Nick Saban forgot his promise, though, and called for a field goal in his first game at Toledo. From that point forward in crucial situations, Nick Saban’s teams would be cursed on field goal attempts.
This is an absurd and completely fictional explanation of what happens to Alabama on crucial field goals, particularly against Auburn. But it works as well as any other theory because nothing else explains why, on a routine attempt, Alabama’s otherwise reliable holder J.K. Scott bobbled a snap, reset, and found himself playing improv quarterback with the entire Auburn defense after him. Holder/placekicker Andy Pappanastos is in the box score officially as a receiver, because Scott did complete a pass to him for a loss of 9 yards.
Maybe all that greenery was doomed before this ever started, though.
It might have started after LSU beat Auburn 27-23 in Death Valley on Oct. 14, when, after some soul-searching, Auburn went on a blind tear through the rest of its schedule. The Tigers topped 40 points in each of their next four games. That run included the outright alarming, 40-17 upset of Georgia that proved Auburn was definitely no longer the same team that lost to Clemson and was maybe even a real threat for the conference championship.
Gus Malzahn said as much himself, post-Alabama: “This time of year, very few teams are playing their best football, and we are doing that.”
What also started well before this game: the sideways slide of injury and attrition for Alabama.
Alabama started out by ruining Florida State’s season in a 24-7 game that looked a lot like every other Alabama game ever under Saban. That similarity, however, faded down the stretch. The defense got injured, particularly at linebacker, something that most observers laughed off because of Alabama’s almost unfair depth at every position. That laughter stopped vs. Mississippi State and became a dead serious issue against Auburn, especially with Jarrett Stidham gaining crucial yardage off zone reads and scrambles.
That’s not all. The offense — don’t laugh — did really lose something with the departure of Lane Kiffin. The plays are still there, including the quick horizontal stretches Alabama used early to spread out Auburn. Jalen Hurts, Calvin Ridley, and the stable of running backs are still there, too. The rhythm, timing, and ball distribution, though: They’re different, and not for the better. When Alabama gets behind the sticks or on the scoreboard, it’s all on Hurts to bail out the offense with QB runs and long passes.
It works, sometimes. It only worked sporadically against Mississippi State. Against a disciplined Auburn line, it ceased to work altogether. The entire Auburn defense is too young to know what a phone booth is, but that’s what it had Hurts playing in for much of the night.
For the first time in recent memory, Alabama’s offense looked inept. Auburn did that to it.
When the hedges and Alabama and all sense of order were collectively doomed doesn’t even really matter.
With the final seconds ticking away, a mob poured out onto the field. Over the hedges, past former Auburn QB Jason Campbell, past a sheepish but clearly pleased Tim Cook of Apple, past grinning offensive line coach Herb Hand, past boosters and random grandkids gawking for selfies with players, past ESPN’s Marty Smith, diving into the scrum to get a mic in the face of Malzahn, who was was so swarmed with cameras that bystanders could only point at the flashbulbs and yell, “I GUESS THAT’S GUS,” while holding up cellphones.
Auburn was what it is by charter: an engineering and agricultural school. First there was the controlled demolition on the field, done cleanly in 60 minutes. The celebratory vandalism is designed, too. Toilet paper in designated trees (and a few unofficially chosen ones here and there), a rush to the field, and the removal of the hedges that the groundskeepers already know they will have to repair and regrow.
The Kick Six four years earlier was the most glorious robbery in the history of college football. Auburn took away Alabama’s offense, defense, special teams, chance at a national and conference title, undefeated season, and did it all with a single play. That’s a robbery — a swift, effective, and stunning theft accomplished in a single 109-yard swipe of the football across the field.
What remains of the hedges at Jordan Hare Stadium pic.twitter.com/EzahVDzxou— Matt Scalici (@MattScalici) November 26, 2017
This was different.
When you do all that according to plan for four quarters, dominate Alabama at almost every position, accomplish all the same things in 60 minutes of clean work, but then play Alabama’s “Rammer Jammer,” followed up by a just-sarcastic-enough singalong of Alabama’s crowd favorite “Dixieland Delight?” afterwards? When it all happens by the numbers, and then you steal their theme music?
That’s not a theft, Auburn. That’s a heist.
And like any good crew of jewel thieves, Auburn left its calling cards behind so everyone knew who did it. A set of decimated hedges here, a light dusting of toilet paper waving in the trees over there.