Instant Analysis: Cotton Bowl

Staff Columnist
Posted Jan 1, 2007

This postseason triumph for the Auburn Tigers looked a lot like the best victory from their regular season.

Auburn's biggest SEC win in 2006 came in an old-timey 7-3 slugfest against Louisiana State. Auburn's offense was stuck in mud for the whole game, but a gritty and resilient defense held the line over and over again. That's pretty much the formula Tommy Tuberville's team used in a trench war against Nebraska, holding off the Huskers despite a microscopic amount of offense.

Had Nebraska not gift-wrapped two touchdowns for the Tigers with crucial turnovers deep in Husker territory, Bill Callahan's crew might have walked away with a victory in this Dallas dust-up. But those two short fields gave Auburn an early lifeline in the first half, when Nebraska pounded the Tigers at the line of scrimmage. The Big Red flew out of the gates with superior energy and enthusiasm, surprising Auburn in a game that began before 11 a.m. local time. Yet, for all of Nebraska's dominance, two plays that went horribly wrong managed to create an even-steven score (14-all) going into the halftime break. Given a reprieve by two gigantic mistakes, Auburn--with its defense leading the way--took charge in the second half.

While Callahan--Nebraska's normally creative play-calling wizard--had his worst game of the year between the headsets, his share of the blame in this loss is limited because Auburn's defense answered the bell in the final 30 minutes of play. Even without a number of suspended players, including linebacker Trey Blackmon, the Tigers--in a performance reminiscent of their LSU conquest--repeatedly took care of business even when their offense struggled. Asked to protect a small lead time and time again, Auburn's defense began to blow up the Huskers' offensive line while sniffing out misdirection plays and flat passes.

With Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor unable to hit anything downfield, the Tigers smelled blood as their confidence surged. A flummoxed Callahan, under pressure to solve Auburn's defense, failed spectacularly in his attempt to come up with winning ball plays, especially on a baffling 4th and 12 pass--an out-of-bounds rocket by Taylor from a funky formation--that was called in place of a potential game-tying field goal attempt near the two-minute mark in the fourth quarter. Callahan struggled as his offense stumbled, but Auburn's resilient defense--blown away in the game's first 20 minutes--deserves an enormous amount of credit for elevating its level of play. As a result, a Tiger team whose offense never truly came together in 13 games still managed to improbably win 11 of them. That's a testament to the iron will of a gritty program under Tuberville, one of the most successful coaches in the college game over the past six seasons.

On a day that marked a new year, Auburn decided to go back in time. The Tigers' old-school victory wasn't a work of art, but they don't care about style points on the Alabama Plains.

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