“I can’t tell you how proud I am of our team, and the way they competed all year long, since the Ole Miss game,” Alabama Coach Nick Saban said. “This was a tough one today. You’ve got to give Auburn’s players a lot of credit. They competed hard. It’s a great rivalry, and it was a great atmosphere out there to compete in. I’m really proud of the way our players responded, and did the things they needed to do to win the game.
“We only gave up the one big play on defense in the second half, and we were able to control the ball when we needed to. ‘Grif’ (kicker Adam Griffith) did a great job today, hitting (five) field goals, including a long one (of 50 yards). Obviously, you’d like to be able to score some touchdowns in the red area, but we stopped them a few times, too. It was a great football game.”
Junior Heisman Trophy contender Derrick Henry was again the workhorse for the Tide, grinding out career highs in yards (271) and carries (46). He scored on a late 25-yard jaunt to ice the game. Saban said subbing was really not an option, even in Henry’s opinion. Saban explained, “Derrick was not asking to come out. He was asking to stay in. I asked him every time he came over to the sidelines, ‘Are you okay?’ And he says, ‘Coach, I’m good.’
“We really would like for someone else to run the ball, but it got tough to take (Henry) out. It seems like he gets stronger as the game goes on. He’s the go to guy, and it’s hard to take him out at the end. He certainly finished the game like we needed him to. My hats off to (Henry) as a competitor. He really inspires everybody on our team, the way he competes, the way he plays, and the toughness he runs with. What a spirit.
“There’s been a lot of great players play at Alabama, and a lot of great running backs. We’ve had some guys that were first and second round draft picks that are playing in the NFL. This team needs (Henry) to do what he does, and I would say he’s made as significant an impact on his team as any player that we’ve ever had.”
When the game was on the line, the Tide fed Henry 14 straight times at one point. Asked if he coerced his offensive coordinator into that strategy, Saban said, “Lane (Kiffin) knew we needed to run the ball. I think when there was (7:49) to go in the game, even though we didn’t score and we didn’t make it on fourth down, we milked the clock down to 2:46, and that was probably the most important point in the game. It’s hard to take a guy out when you don’t have another experienced guy like Kenyan Drake, and hopefully we’ll get him back sometime soon, but we’re not going to push him back. We have two freshmen (Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough) who have not played a lot. We need to play them more, but it’s tough to put them in that situation.”
Asked about Griffith’s perfect game (7-7 on kicks, eight touchbacks) compared to how things ended for the then-redshirt freshman two years ago, Saban eschewed the question. “I don’t really think about that,” he said. “I’m just happy for this team, this day. That (Kick Six) game will be something I never forget, but it wasn’t Adam’s fault. He did a great job today, and I’m not talking about just making the field goals. He was great on kickoffs. He really did a nice job of finishing the (regular) season for us, and he was certainly as good as you can be today.”
Quarterback Jacob Coker finished 17/26 passing for 179 yards and a touchdown to Ardarius Stewart where Coker avoided two would-be sackers before firing the strike. He also escaped a pair of other possible sacks to rush for 13 net yards on three tries. “It says a lot about the kind of competitor that (Coker) is,” said Saban. “He’s very athletic for his size. They had some pretty good athletes rushing. (Carl Lawson) is a pretty good player, and (Coker) made him miss on that (touchdown pass).
“When you have a quarterback that can scramble, that’s one of the things that breaks down the back end (of the defense) more than anything. It’s really hard to stay with your guy. (Stewart) got behind him, and Jake made a great throw. I think Jake has played extremely well for us. He certainly did a great job today. We had another chance to make a big play with (Stewart), and he just couldn’t quite hang on to it. We have a lot of confidence in Jake, and what he can do. He did a great job of getting us in the right play a bunch of times today, and that’s why we were able to run the ball effectively, especially at the end of the game.”
Asked if one reason he liked his team so much was the way it plays defense and runs the ball (as, for instance, former Tide Coach Gene Stallings), Saban said, “That’s not necessarily how I like to play. I like to play however our players can play. I liked how we played last year when we had Amari Cooper catching 115 balls and running all over the place. I liked that! I like however we can play. This just happens to be the best way this team can play. Our best workhorse is a running back (Henry), and we’ve got an offensive line that has made a tremendous amount of improvement this season. We don’t get a lot of negative plays (recently). Jake (Coker) is really good at the play-action passes, and throwing the ball down field. We do the things our players can do well.
“I’m not a run and play defense guy. I’m a score however you can score, and play defense guy. You’ve always got to play defense.”
Asked about Jason Smith’s 77-yard touchdown catch where he tipped the ball to himself, Saban said. ”We had the momentum in the game right there. (Up 19-6 with 4:26 to go in the third quarter). It was third down and (12). We played ‘cover two.’ We didn’t make the right (coverage) check on the empty (backfield) side, and the players were a little confused, so we busted, but Geno (Matias-Smith) still had a chance to make the play. He undercut the ball, and when the guy tipped the ball, there was nobody left. It was a big play for them. It was the one play we gave up in the second half. It could have been critical in the game. It certainly made us bear down and continue to compete. We knew this was going to be a 60-minute game.
“That play reminded me of the play they made against Georgia the same year they made the kick return against us (in 2013). It was a good play, and it counts seven (points).”
Next things next, Saban said, “To win the (SEC) West is an accomplishment. To have the opportunity to play for the SEC Championship against a very good Florida team is certainly an opportunity that this team deserves, has worked hard for, and it’ll certainly be a challenge for us.
“Their legacy as a team is going to be about how they finish, and I think they understand that.”