Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A numbered series of true stories from an Auburn road trip, part 2: that Game, this Game



Preamble

Remember the LSU game? Remember how it was the game that would define the SEC West's collective season, between two top-10 teams that have more-or-less parted the division between them this decade (with only the accursed interlopers from Arkansas throwing spanners into the works)? Remember how Gameday showed up, how cautiously optimistic we all were despite the 3-2 quagmire in Starkville, how the Auburn defense was going to rise up and drag us to greatness like some hulking Icelander hauling a bus behind him on late-night ESPN2?

Football seasons always seem to last longer than they are, but I swear, that game must have taken place a decade ago, if it took place at all. The two teams we thought were coming out of the tunnel that night never showed up--not that week, not any week since. I was there, it was the only Auburn game I've been to in person in three seasons, and it still feels like a backlit mirage.

Which is why, after writing the first part of a planned two-part opus, I never got more than halfway through the second part despite sitting down to complete it more than once. Writing about the experience of the LSU game meant tapping into what the LSU game felt like it meant at the time--and as soon as the final seconds ticked off of Auburn's mindblowingly frustrating Tennessee escape, the LSU game's meaning-at-the-time was fraudulent. I'd planned on ending the post by sounding a note of optimism, but it's impossible to do that without it sounding hollow after, well, any result that Auburn's given us since then.

Until the Georgia game. That glimmer of hope would be excuse enough. But if there was ever any time to sound a note of optimism, however potentially deranged, the week a 5-6 Auburn team heads to Tuscaloosa to face a top-ranked and undefeated Alabama team is the time, right?

So I am, finally, looking back at that LSU game and the difficulties myself and three of my Michigan-rootin' buddies had in returning from it. Again, part 1 is here.

Game

1. We make our way up the our seats in the upper deck--dead on the 50, thank you Will--and if there's one feeling that will never, ever, ever get old no matter how times I experience it, it's clambering out of the tunnel after the long walk of concrete, steel, and lemonade carts and seeing a football field spread out beneath you in all its impossibly green glory. And if that field is in Jordan-Hare Stadium, well, forgive me if I think its green glory is even more impossible than most.

2. The student section erupts as the chorus to Livin' on a Prayer comes over the PA, and naturally my inner Rock Band frontman is rocking along, to the point that my outer Rock Band frontman might have whispered a few lyrics aloud. Oops. Will and I get to discussing the artistic merits of Bon Jovi; I'm essentially pro, he's firmly con. Without getting too deep into it, it's my opinion that if it's a good thing that there aren't too many areas of life where it's sensible (or even encouraged) to scream Take my hand, we'll make it I swear! Whoa-ohhh! Livin' on a prayer! out loud, it's also a good thing that there are a few areas where it is. College football is one of these. (That Auburn is now only a few days away from a game in which their chances will quite literally live on a prayer and nothing else hasn't exactly changed my mind. We'll give it a shot, at least.)

3. Over the course of planning our trip, I probably hadn't built any part of the Auburn experience up to my friends so much as the Waaaaaaaar Eagle! flight. With reason: whatever traditions and spectacle the rest of the country's football teams might be able to offer, only Auburn has this one, and as traditions and spectacles go we all know it's a hell of a show. And if they've never seen it, I haven't seen it in three seasons, so when it's eagle time I'm about as pumped as I've ever been for anything football-related that's not actual football. So, um, as ungrateful as it feels to admit, I'm a little let-down by the actual flight. Nova sort of half-circled once and then made an immediate swoop for midfield. It's the shortest flight I can remember seeing at Jordan-Hare and ... and ... I don't know, just not as spectacular as it ought to be. Worse, I'm in that mode by this point where every single thing from the volume of the crowd in "Two Bits" to the rate of the sun's setting to whether my shoes are tied with appropriate tightness is some kind of omen on Auburn's chances tonight. As freaking sweet as watching Nova devour a handful of mice at midfield on the Jumbotron was, I don't think her aborted flight was the good kind of omen.



4. Other assorted pregame reactions: Speaking of Two Bits, if you have two good legs and don't stand up and holler, what's wrong with you?; I didn't realize they even made hype videos for the band, much less hype videos that had me genuinely fired up for Auburn's marching band, at least until it stopped and I woke up out of the trance with the vague lingering feeling I should have learned to play the trumpet; and tonight we don't only get the Fog of Intimidation, we get the Fireworks of Your Impending Doom. Tremble before Auburn, ye mere smokeless mortals!

6. And now Auburn comes out of the tunnel, and there is a roar, and win or lose, the thousand miles we have driven to get here have been worth it, every single one. It always will be. War Eagle. War Eagle Forever.

7. Kickoff, finally. After a quick first down, LSU is tackled for loss. 2nd-and-long. Sack. 3rd-and-even-longer. Even in the upper deck, the noise is substantial. There is no chance they make this first down. None. And they don't.

8. The pregame consensus that the defenses would more-or-less own the offenses and that special teams would play a critical role plays out over the course of the first quarter, as both teams exchange a series of punts and the eventual swing in field position from LSU's superior punting nets them a long field goal try after only a couple of first downs. It's good. Damn.

9. Damn damn: Auburn punts from midfield, Holliday fumbles the punt onto his own freaking goal line almost, Auburn has to have it--they have to have it, they were right there!--but they don't. Holliday gets back on it. Auburn has gotten no bounces to this point of the season. You can look it up: opponents fumble, they recover, Auburn fumbles, the opponent recovers.

10. Tony Franklin's offense has, to put it politely, not won over the Auburn loyalists in the upper deck. There's a former frat guy standing in the tunnel and talking to someone a few rows above us, making clear that he feels Auburn needs to line up and "knock someone on their ass" Even more entertaining is an elderly gentleman a few rows down and to our left. Every time the offense sets and then unsets to get the new call from the sideline, he throws up his hands and gestures angrily at the field in the universal signal for "Consarn this crazy contraption! It's never going to work!" It's a gesture that works whether directed at Auburn's new offense or his new universal remote control. Long way to go in winning the PR battle, Tony.

11. Is this a drive? That will help. A long pass to Hawthorne, wide open downfield. A long run by Tate around the right end. A pass interference call on Trott in the end zone. Tate up the middle to the goal line! Tate, TOUCHDOWN! 7-3! Who knows, maybe that's all the scoring we'll need?

12. Todd throws the interception we all knew was coming at some point tonight. He just looks too much like Cox for the spirit of Evil Brandon to not inhabit him from time-to-time. Not to mention that seeing him live, it's obvious his arm really is wholly inadequate. I know Franklin's system doesn't require a lot of zip, but Todd has no zip at all. He has less than no zip. He has antizip. Someone should teach him how to throw a knuckleball, 'cause otherwise, he's never going to make it in the big leagues.

13. The defense forces a three-and-out after the pick. Truly, they are the unending chain of demons Grotus warned us about. A couple of punts later, LSU takes over for their final drive of the half. Auburn is unsettled--a player runs onto the field at the last second. LSU seems to notice this and take advantage, snapping quickly. A flag flies. But Auburn is in position anyway--Jarrett Lee pumps once on the screen, maybe he pumps again, floats it out in that direction anyway ... McKenzie's got it! McKenzie's going to score! My friend* has seen the flag and is convinced it's for a 12th man, an oasis of calm in a storm of celebration. He explains hurriedly to me it's not a touchdown. I explain hurriedly back I don't think LSU was set and it is. Here comes the signal ... TOUCHDOWN! 14-3 at the half! Maybe it's a good thing we stuck a tight end at defensive end! We're going to win the game!

14. I mean, we are, right? The offense, sad as it is, can put three points on the board. No way the D allows two TDs for the tie. No ... way. Not today. Not when we're here. Not in front of this crowd. Like that very first third-and-long: it's not happening.

15. Auburn takes the opening kickoff of the second half. Todd runs for a first. Lester is in and looks a substantial improvement on Tate, slashing through holes. They drive inside the 20. Maybe they're going to get that three points quickly, huh? No. Huge sack. Horrific punt. LSU begins their ensuing drive further upfield than Auburn's deepest penetration. Essentially a turnover.

16. Powers slobberknocks Andrew Hatch. He is out of the game. The guy who handed McKenzie six points is in. The turnover hurt, but perhaps now our teams are even even in this half?

17. Not far past midfield, Auburn blitzes. Lee is about to be crushed. Instead he floats a pass deep. I breath a sigh of relief. The pass is a duck. It will not come down near anyone. Except maybe that guy. That guy running underneath it. How could it float this long? Caught. Touchdown, LSU 14-10. What just happened?

18. Onsides kick. Successful. Ostensibly a second turnover. Auburn's D rises to a three-and-out. But I am shaken. I think the crowd is shaken.

19. Another seeing-eye deep ball from Todd somehow flutters past two sets of LSU arms into Dunn's hands for a big gain. It kickstarts another drive. Auburn moves across midfield. 4th-and-1. Play-action. There are sea urchins and earthworms and men in the luxury box who aren't even watching the game and most importantly LSU defenders who are not fooled. At all. Prayer to Trott, picked. Three third quarter turnovers, two precious Auburn drives wasted.

20. Only three plays from inside their 20 and LSU is deep into Auburn territory. They run the little counter flip. The flippee pulls up to throw. He throws towards the endzone. Touchdown. Meltdown. 17-14.

21. Auburn continues to try to run the ball. LSU continues to grind these runs into dust. Punt. Meanwhile, LSU rushes up the middle several consecutive plays and rushes through massive holes on all of the them. What is happening? What game is this?

23. Through what seems like sheer random luck at this point, LSU is stalled and kicks a field goal. Do we have a chance? Auburn takes over. Todd drops back. He throws downfield ... Hawthorne has it! Hawthorne is loose! Go! Go go go! 1st down inside the 20. There is a chance. Holy hell.

24. Well, maybe not. 3rd-and-long. Todd back. He throws--another duck. Like the one Lee threw in the third quarter ... a duck falling ... Dunn is there ... Touchdown. TOUCHDOWN! Touchdown! Byrum with the extra point ... good! 21-20, Auburn!

25. This was where we were last year. The exact same place. A late touchdown. A tiny lead. That loss began with a piss-poor kickoff. Auburn's defense this year begins with ... a decent kickoff. Then a rush that goes nowhere. Then ... incomplete. 3rd-and-long. They will not convert this. They cannot. And they don't. They punt.

26. Auburn needs only a first down to win the game, but I don't expect them to do it. For starters, they would have to run to pull it off, and they haven't been able to run all game. More importantly, the defense will be the ones to finish the game. They will have to be on the field ends as a competitive contest if Auburn's going to win. So it doesn't surprise me in the least when Auburn goes three-and-out.

27. Last year's kickoff has just been replaced by this year's 25-yard punt. LSU will start just on their side of midfield. Now is the time, defense. Now's the time, Auburn. Do this.

28. I stand up to cheer for our defense. My friend stands up. We scream. LSU begins by running up the middle for good yardage. We realize we are almost the only ones standing. What is going on? Stand up, Auburn fans. We stand up for 2nd-and-4. No one else does. We look around sheepishly. No one is standing with us. 2nd-4 on the final drive of the game and Auburn's defense is on the field. But we're not jerks. We sit back down. I can't believe it. One thing is for sure: I will never, ever be able to give my friends sh*t about Michigan's fans again. I am bewildered.

29. LSU drives down the field and scores a touchdown without having been held to so much as a third down. For the second straight year, Auburn's special teams and defense have been given a chance to win the game. For the second straight year, they have failed to do so. It hurts. I figure Tubby must have been as stunned as any of us--he forgot to use his remaining timeouts.

30. After the touchdown, Auburn fans begin leaving our section and, as I look across the stadium, many other sections. Not in droves. The majority of fans are staying. But LSU quite honestly scored too quickly--with Tubby standing around doing nothing they could have bled the clock completely dry. Auburn has time for a miracle, a miracle that Auburn's alleged fans will not see. Why the hell are you people leaving?

31. Auburn picks up a personal foul flag and moves to midfield. Then LSU's end torches Ziemba, sacks, and it's basically over. Todd will not be able to convert 2nd-and-25, or 3rd-and-25, or 4th-and-25. He does not. Auburn loses.

32. There are longer walks out there, for certain, but I have led a stunningly fortunate life and the longest one I know is the silent, miserable one out of the upper deck, down the ramps, and into the sweaty nausea of night after an Auburn loss. It doesn't matter how closely you park to the stadium. Your car is never close enough.



Epilogue

This is the week of the Iron Bowl. This week, there is no walking out. There is no sitting down. You are an Auburn fan, or you aren't.

I'm not going to pretend that exhorting the Auburn fanbase into "being positive and getting behind our guys!!!!" will make any difference. Maybe, maybe, getting behind the guys would matter if the game was on the Plains. In Tuscaloosa, not so much. I don't think Auburn fans should realize that Auburn will head west with a real--if slim--shot at winning this thing and stop, for one week at least, the incessant nattering about Tubby's job security and offensive incompetence and disappointing defense because it'll help Auburn. I think they should stop because that's what Auburn fans ought to do.

Yes, the LSU game hurt. Yes, this entire season has hurt like a wound. For this week, for God's sake, suffer in silence. This is the Iron Bowl. Stand up, damn it. Cheer yourself hoarse, even if it's in your living room. Watch until one team or the other is kneeling on the ball. This is your Auburn football team. They deserve nothing less.

The road back

The trip back to Ann Arbor is almost a much, much more eventful one than we planned on. It's Sunday, and so with no Chick-Fil-A (sigh) we stop by a barbecue joint in Nashville for lunch. Ribs are the other thing I had to eat while traveling back home, and the ones we get live up to expectations, so this appears to be a good decision. I even get a photo snapped out back beside the pile of ash with the "Free Hickory Ash" sign stuck in it to commemorate the occasion.

What we didn't was that we'd arrived in Nashville smack in the midst of its gasoline panic while in pretty substantial need of gas. The first three (maybe four?) stations we find: all out, nothing there but yellow plastic bags on the handles and the numbers stripped off the signs. Oh, and clerks who tell us they don't have any idea where there might be more gas. By the time we hit the third one we're in serious danger of having to get out and push.

Fortunately one of my buddies, unlike the JCCW, has a cell phone that was designed after the millennium. He Internets up the numbers for the stations in the area, starts dialing, and finds one that says they have gas--for the time being. We get there to find two stations on either side of a highway not far from the Interstate, every pump at either station backed up three, four cars deep. (Apparently this wasn't so bad as lines in the Nashville gas panic went, though by the time we'd gotten the tank filled we and everyone around us clearly felt like this about it.)

Any normal person on any normal weekend wouldn't draw parallels between a gasoline crisis and their football team's recent defeat. But I couldn't help it: when we arrived at my friend's place late that night, and I thought back on how pumping gas felt like victory and escaping the Nashville city limits felt like triumph, I realized that perhaps--perhaps--the LSU loss would lead to better things. The Florida win in 2007 felt as good as it did because of the Mississippi St. loss. Upending Georgia in 2001 felt as good as it did because we'd just gotten our tails handed to us by Arkansas. Hell, all of 2004 felt the way it did because of all of 2003.

Of course, I didn't think at the time there would be so much pain followed by so little balm. But the comparison still holds. After this Season of DEATH and the Tide's season of rebirth, Auburn now has the opportunity to win what would likely be the single sweetest victory of Tuberville's tenure. To win bowl eligibility would be one thing. To win bowl eligibility against Alabama in a seventh-straight Iron Bowl victory would be another. To win bowl eligibility against top-ranked, undefeated Alabama in Tuscaloosa for a seventh-straight Iron Bowl victory would be little short of mindblowing. When it's seemed like you might not get home, just pulling into your driveway can be a hell of a rush.

So on the final few miles from my buddy's to my place, I rewound the CD I'd listened to on the way over:



Whoa-a-ho-ho! Whoa-a-ho-ho! We gotta stay positive!
Whoa-a-ho-ho! Whoa-a-ho-ho! We gotta stay positive!


We gotta stay positive, Auburn fans. We might be all right after all.

*Said friend has a blog. You can read his thoughts on his Auburn experience here.

3 comments:

Acid Reign said...

.....I don't get the leaving bit, either. I only got to go to two games this year. I sat through the torrential downpour at the USM game, and was one of maybe 20000 people to see the last play. At Arkansas, I was there through the last wounded duck, the intentional safety, all of it.

......When I'm not at the game, I'm at the TV, computer, or radio, till the end. No matter what. And I will be for this Iron Bowl, too. Even if we're behind 63-0. War Eagle!

......WAR EAGLE!

Philip Arnold said...

I'm going to admit to you as I have to many other Auburn folk; I despise the selection of songs and cheers played/sang in Jordan-Hare. I remember the first time I heard the opening bars to "Living on a Prayer" and feeling my heart fill with dread as I soon heard the screeches of sorority and non-sorority coeds alike belt those half-brained lyrics. "Welcome to the Jungle" always felt to me a bit patronizing that because our favorite team is called the Tigers therefore the stadium they play in is a jungle...who thinks like this?! Calling Ben Hill-Griffin Stadium "The Swamp" or Tiger Stadium "Death Valley" is one thing but what's wrong with just calling our stadium by it's name, Jordan-Hare? The only song I've ever enjoyed hearing was when the band would play Bruce Channel's "Hey! Baby" at the end of the game that Auburn had just won. To me this song could not be more perfect in simplicity and accessibility. The lyrics are easy and memorable and can be easily connotated as boastful and taunting. Now if we could only get all 88,000+ people to sing it at once, it would be up there with all of Anfield Stadium singing Gerry and the Peacemakers version of "You'll Never Walk Alone" before a Liverpool FC match.

Then there are the cheers. I cannot express my disdain enough for these awful, unoriginal things. I didn't like hearing them when I played football in middle school and high school (or at least ones similiar to Auburn's) and I certainly didn't like hearing them when I went to Auburn. Were these cheers really meant to be around for as long as they have been? That will always one thing those euro soccer fans will have over us (other than the rioting and stabbing/blugeoning of opposing fans), they have cheers not just for the team but also for particular players. The closest thing I ever saw to that was back in 2002, my freshman year at Auburn (at least I think it was 2002 I can't remember now), when a group of what I assumed were upperclassmen belted out a cheer they had made up just for Carnell Williams. It went something like this:

I say what we ride?
Cadillac!
I say how we ride?
Cadillac!
I say what we ride?
Cadillac!
I say how we ride?
Cadillac!

After a few times of this it didn't take long to get a good bunch of the lower half of section 19 to sing this cheer. It sure beat the hell out of listening to "Track'em" for the 200th damn time that day. I wish there were more original and creative people like those inebriated gentlemen as I know I don't possess the ability to come up with anything close to that.

I won't get into shakers and the inumane things I would do to the person who thought having these at the game was a good idea, bah! Anyways, been reading the blog for since right before the beginning of this season and have really enjoyed it. War Eagle!

Acid Reign said...

.....Well, as an old 1980s Hair Metal, and Rednekerson rock guy, I have to agree with some of that! Nickelback on the sound system, as it was this year, is an abomination, truly. GNR's "Welcome to the Jungle" isn't exactly what I'd like Auburn to project, either. "Eye of the Tiger?" Soft core radio-ready pop.

.....Frankly, in this century, the best was when the Auburn video folk were blasting Traci Lords/Juno Reator's "Control," while showing previous year highlights. The irony of a porn star's contribution to Industrial music being used in the "Bible Belt," to ceremonialize this state's second religion, football, was priceless!

.....And that's not to mention that "Control" has a GREAT couple of hard-hitting musical phrases! Nothing on the Mortal Kombat soundtrack was an actual song, just snippets of sound.

....."Control" being blasted to the Auburn spectators, "porn that God was cool with," (War Eagle Reader's quote from today, not mine!) yeah, that first quarter of the 2005 Alabama/Auburn game was my best Iron Bowl memory ever!