Tuscaloosa, Ala.--Auburn's offense had already been dealt enough misery this season so when senior wide receiver and team leader Courtney Taylor went down this week with a strained hamstring they just shrugged their shoulders and moved forward. After all it was Iron Bowl week, the biggest week of the year.
They could tell themselves that but with quarterback Brandon Cox and running back Kenny Irons still banged up and starting tight end Cole Bennett gone for the season it was going to be tough for the Tigers against Alabama on Saturday but that's when teams find their identity. It took 12 weeks for Auburn's offense to do just that but what emerged against Alabama was a tough group that persevered and willed itself to victory.
"It changed us some," Borges says of Taylor's absence. "He got hurt Wednesday. We had two guys hurt in two days with Mike McLaughlin getting hurt Thursday. A pulled hamstring is a pulled hamstring and Mike stretched his Achilles. We had to shift gears. We were going to run the football which we can do anyway but there was a lot stronger emphasis.
"We're not a real dynamic football team but we're an efficient team and we've got a lot of heart," he adds. "We have a way of making the plays when we need to make them. We're not the most entertaining team I've ever coached but at the end of the day we have a way of getting it done. We've got 10 wins. In this conference that's a heck of a deal."
It wasn't a huge offensive day in terms of numbers but in the end the biggest number was 22 because that's the number of points the Tigers needed to win the game over a game Alabama team. Once again the team that won the rushing battle won the game as Auburn rushed for 124 yards to 112 for the Crimson Tide. While the running game was big to keep the clock rolling, it was the passing game that was the difference in Auburn winning and losing Saturday.
Bothered by a bum knee that has hobbled him off and on for the better part of two months, Cox started off slow and while his day wasn't huge by any stretch of the imagination what it wasn't was bad. That's the one thing the Tigers had to avoid after the junior threw four interceptions last week. Borges says that Cox's 6-14 day for 137 yards was exactly what Auburn needed to get the victory.
"You don't panic with him," Borges says of Cox. "There's no screaming or yelling, none of that. You just tell him what the problems are. The biggest thing is trying to control your own frustration. Sometimes I run into that situation. If I can do that and he still believes that I and we believe in him then usually he comes through. He did today."
Carl Stewart caught two passes for 60 yards in the win.
Two of the biggest plays in the game came courtesy of Cox and the passing game. After an Alabama touchdown that gave the Crimson Tide a one-point lead in the third quarter, Auburn answered back with a score later in the period thanks to two perfect throws by the lefty. The first came on a wheel route to Carl Stewart out of the backfield that Borges says they didn't install in the offense until this week.
"We had been running what we call a ghost play where we fake the reverse or we hand the reverse off," Borges says. "We run it all year but we felt in this game somewhere in there we had to build a play-action pass off it if they were chasing the ghost. I thought about calling it a couple of times in the first half but we just weren't efficient throwing the ball. Once Brandon started feeling a little better then I just waited until we got the ball in the right position. Fortunately it worked."
The second accounted for Auburn's final score as the Tigers caught Alabama in the perfect defense on a third down play and Cox hit Prechae Rodriguez for a 22-yard touchdown in front of the Alabama student section. Stewart then hit Lee Guess on a halfback pass for the two-point conversion to put Auburn up seven and give the Tigers the final margin.
"It was huge," Borges says. "It was on third down and we caught them in a blitz. We ran a little slant and go and he went up and got it. Brandon got hit but he cut it loose and gave him a chance to make the play. It was huge."
Auburn's regular season comes to an end in Tuscaloosa with the Tigers finishing the regular season 10-2 with Arkansas representing the Western Division in Atlanta. Borges says that although this team didn't meet its goals he's proud of the way they fought through adversity to come out on top.
"It's been one thing after another," Borges says. "We lost our starting tight end, our starting center for four or five games, the quarterback has been gimpy and Kenny hasn't been full speed since the first game. I'm saying this now because it's over and that was the last game. I don't cry about injuries because nobody is sympathetic to injuries but what those kids accomplished in light of the fact we had some injuries. I think it's absolutely incredible."