Caldwell Column: Tigers Finally Get Burned

Auburn has been on the brink of disaster several times this season, but on Saturday the Tigers finally made too many mistakes to overcome.

Auburn, Ala.--All season long the Auburn Tigers have flirted with disaster, but for the most part Coach Gus Malzahn’s squad has been able to survive with the exception of a road loss at Mississippi State. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon at Jordan-Hare Stadium, the No. 3 team in the land got burned after playing with fire too many times.

Much of the talk about this game will center on the final two offensive possessions for Auburn that both ended in fumbles deep inside Texas A&M territory, but Saturday’s setback was a true team loss perhaps more than any we have seen from the Tigers in quite some time.

Auburn's problems started with the defense letting true freshman quarterback Kyle Allen get off to a hot start, including a simple pitch-and-catch for an easy touchdown on the first drive. On a second and six from the 40-yard line Auburn blitzed the freshman and he found a wide open Malcolme Kennedy over the middle for an easy 60-yard touchdown.

That play gave the Aggies confidence after playing terrible football for much of the last month. It would only get worse for Auburn on the first offensive play of the game for the Tigers.

Knowing his defense wasn’t going to stop Auburn's offense too often, Kevin Sumlin called for an onside kick, but it was booted out of bounds, giving the TIgers the ball at midfield. Instead of making the Aggies pay, Cameron Artis-Payne’s fumble was the second major mistake of the game. Turning the ball right back over to Texas A&M, Auburn's defense added to the mistake with a personal foul before giving up a 36-yard score.

Auburn allowed Texas A&M to get the early momentum and that meant fighting an uphill battle all day long. It proved to be too much for the Tigers to do, just like in Starkville, and once again turnovers were to blame.

Auburn’s offense did a good job for much of the day and got the Tigers back into the game, but a special teams disaster cost the home team dearly on the final play of the first half. Lining up for a 41-yard field goal to close the gap to eight points, Auburn instead had a huge breakdown in the kicking game as the Aggies came untouched off the edge to block Daniel Carlson’s field goal. When Deshazor Everett picked it up the football and ran it for the touchdown and the 35-17 Texas A&M lead. At that moment you could almost feel the air just sucked out of Jordan-Hare Stadium.

While the game didn’t end up a win for the Tigers, the group showed some serious toughness in the second half to even make it a contest. That started on the defense. Even though the Tigers gave up too many rushing yards to a team that doesn’t run the ball particularly well, Auburn allowed just two second half field goals to keep the Tigers within striking distance.

For a team that has thrived on making plays down the stretch to win games, Saturday’s finish with the two botched offensive plays was particularly surprising considering Auburn’s defense got the ball back to the offense with two opportunities to tie or win the game. Driving the ball from its own 20-yard line, Auburn’s offense was poised to take the lead with a second-and-goal from the Texas A&M two when disaster struck.

Nick Marshall and Cameron-Artis Payne have run the zone-read play thousands of times together over the last two seasons with many of those coming in the last few months. Of those 99.9 percent go off without a problem, but Saturday in the worst possible moment the two couldn’t decide on which player wanted the ball. It resulted in a fumble that kept the Tigers from taking the lead. Even though it looked as if Artis-Payne got back on the ball to retain possession, Auburn had to once again rely on the defense and delivered.

I’m sure many expected Auburn to take advantage of its final opportunity when the Tigers got the ball back for one final possession at the Texas A&M 42. Two plays put the ball on the Aggies’ 28 when the unfathomable happened. Auburn’s most experienced player and one of the top centers in the country, Reese Dismukes, thought he heard the snap call, but Marshall was only checking out of the play.

The final fumble was probably the final nail in Auburn’s chances for the SEC Championship and a berth in the college football playoffs. Now with two losses the Tigers will have to play for pride.

For the first time since Gus Malzahn arrived back at Auburn as the head coach the Tigers won’t be playing with the national championship still on the line. There is still a lot of football left to be played, but for the Tigers what matters is finding a way to put a very disappointing loss behind them and get ready for the Georgia Bulldogs. That will be a tough chore indeed.

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