CFN Post Game Analysis

In one of the best-coached games in college football's 138-year history, Steve Spurrier's A-game was trumped by an A-plus on the part of Tommy Tuberville. South Carolina's fight and execution were slightly exceeded by Auburn in an SEC classic that left losing fans applauding and the winning fans sighing with relief.

It was that kind of a night in Columbia. Spurrier, the SEC's second-best coach of all time (behind Bear Bryant), traded wits with Tuberville, the best current coach in the conference and a winner of 20 of his last 21 league games. These two chess grandmasters dueled while their teams spilled their guts on the Williams-Brice Stadium gridiron. It was Autumn in Dixie at its finest, most elevated level, and in the end, Auburn made one more play than the Gamecocks to remain unbeaten.

How good was the coaching in this game? Tuberville--with a reputation as an agressive play caller exceeded only (in the SEC) by Spurrier--gave the Gamecocks' coach a taste of his own medicine in a remarkable third quarter. The double-edged genius of Tubs' chip-kick kickoff midway through the quarter--which enabled Auburn to string together two straight drives totaling 31 plays over the course of the full quarter, plus the first eight seconds of the fourth--lay in his awareness of two realities--one spatial, the other being psychological.

The spatial reality is that on kickoff return units across the country (not just South Carolina's), the front line (the four to six men stationed at the 45-yard line) almost always drifts backward before the ball is actually kicked. When the kicker starts out at, say, the 23 or 25-yard line, the up men on the return team are hovering over the 45. But by the time the kicker is at the 33-yard line, ready to hammer the ball, that same front line is at midfield, if not on the other side of midfield. Tuberville noticed this and pounced when he had the chance. That was the first truly brilliant dimension of Tubs' call.

But there was a second reason why Auburn's coach was so smart to order up this special (teams) play when he did: Tubs knew that he could hit Steve Spurrier where it hurt the most, frustrating the one coach in America who gets particularly exasperated when his offense can't get its hands on the ball. It's not just a fact, but part of the Spurrier legend (and his winning aura), that he can't stand it when his offense can't get on the field very often. Tuberville--knowing this, and also knowing that South Carolina's offense, behind a reborn and transformed Syvelle Newton (where has this kind of quarterbacking been for the Gamecocks?), had major momentum going into the locker room at halftime--wanted to cement his advantage and also wear out South Carolina's defense. It was a masterstroke on every possible level, with the especially delicious part being that Tuberville outdid the master at the master's own game.

And while Auburn did indeed parlay that chip kick into a touchdown, the equally amazing thing about that singularly mind-boggling third quarter was the fact that South Carolina's defense made Auburn earn every inch of real estate it strained to claim. Despite being on the field for 31 straight plays, the Gamecock defense--coached by coordinator Tyrone Nix--withstood the creative and nuanced play-calling of Auburn whiz Al Borges, who got his own groove on as the third quarter progressed. Far from getting blown off the field, Carolina's defense came within inches of conceding just three points during the whole third quarter, plus those first eight seconds of the fourth. But oh, that's basically what this game came down to: Auburn being better than USC by a matter of inches.

The game came down to a matter of inches--by which two Newton passes evaded the grasp of Carolina receivers in the game's dying moments--because the Gamecocks, after falling behind 24-10 with a gassed defense, managed to control the fourth quarter almost as decisively as the Tigers owned the third. With Newton running and passing like a born quarterback in a shocking coming-out party that was as emotionally mature as it was technically polished, Carolina marched smartly downfield for an easy score to Jared Cook to cut the lead to 24-17. The game was so evenly matched that it would have found overtime had not the same Jared Cook dropped a perfect ball from Newton in the final three minutes. Steve Spurrier found the kind of play-calling mojo that college football observers have known all too well over the years, and had No. 84 in red made a simple catch--this was a game decided by inches, after all--the SEC legend might have brought his South Carolina team into overtime against the second-ranked Tigers.

But it wasn't meant to be. On a final and decisive 4th and 2 from the Auburn 6 with 25 seconds left, Newton tried--for the last time--to throw a jump ball to uber-receiver Sidney Rice in the corner of the end zone, but double-coverage from Auburn was there to wrest the ball from Rice's grasp, and the Tigers survived Carolina's very best shot. On a night of brilliant play calling and top-flight intensity from both coaching staffs and their teams, Auburn made the final play, while Carolina came up one play short.

It was that kind of a game, a transcendent pigskin passion play in Williams-Brice Stadium. We might not see two coaches at the top of their powers in the same game at the same time for many more years to come. Auburn has all of its seasonal goals still intact; South Carolina now has a world of renewed hope for the rest of the 2006 season, and--for that matter--the Spurrier era. After a game like this, neither program can feel bad about its future; with coaches as stellar as Tuberville and Spurrier, only optimism can rule the roost... even for the losing Roosters.

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