Finally, some Good Auburn Luck
What had been South Carolina's most profoundly cursed SEC series is now the subject of a two-game winning streak. And we owe it all to Mike Bobo.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Auburn game.
I’ve been thinking a lot about an Auburn game.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the 1996 Auburn game.
Ever since I wrote about Duce Staley’s senior season — the 1996 season — I’ve been thinking about how it was, in many ways, nearly identical to the 1994 season. Nearly identical to the widely beloved and mythologized 1994 season. Nearly identical to the widely beloved and mythologized 1994 season, save for one crucial detail. Unlike the 1994 season, the 1996 season did not end with a bowl game that the Gamecocks won. It did not end with a bowl game that the Gamecocks won because the Gamecocks were not, in 1996, invited to a bowl game.
In December 1996, the Liberty Bowl had to decide between 7-4 Auburn and 6-5 South Carolina. The Liberty Bowl chose 7-4 Auburn, the Tigers possessing the advantages of a better record, a head-to-head win over South Carolina, and being Auburn. While there was nothing that could have been done to fix South Carolina’s not being Auburn, the overall record and head-to-head advantages were nearly reversed.
In October 1996, reeling from consecutive losses to East Carolina and Mississippi State, the Gamecocks produced one of their best performances of the season. They traveled to Jordan-Hare Stadium as 19-point underdogs and dominated the Auburn Tigers.
On almost every snap of the game, USC dominated the Auburn Tigers.
On 125 of the game’s 131 snaps, USC dominated the Auburn Tigers.
On six of the game’s 131 snaps, USC dominated USC. Auburn had some agency in the dominating, it must be said. But on each of the six plays, the domination — self-directed and otherwise — was notable for how easily South Carolina might have avoided it.
South Carolina started its first drive of the game at the Auburn 24 after recovering a punt blocked by John Abraham. On the first play of drive, South Carolina executed a trick play.
South Carolina attempted a trick play.
Auburn blew up South Carolina’s attempt to execute a trick play.
Anthony Wright pitched the ball on a sweep left to tailback Duce Staley, who flipped it on a reverse going right to receiver Jason Pomar, who threw back to Wright, who was waiting on the right sideline, three blockers and one Auburn defender between him and the goal line 24 yards away.1
Got all that?
Auburn safety Martavius Houston did. He broke through the blockers, dropping Wright for a 6-yard loss.
The Gamecocks gained two yards on second down and 12 on third down. But 14 is less than 16.
So USC settled for a 32-yard field goal.
So USC attempted a 32-yard field goal.
So Reed Morton missed a 32-yard field goal.
South Carolina only punted twice during the entire game. The first time, Auburn returned it 79 yards for a touchdown.
Auburn only attempted 20 passes. Twice, USC sacked Dameyune Craig. Once, Arturo Freeman intercepted Dameyune Craig. On nine other occasions, Dameyune Craig ran with the ball.
No. Eight occasions.
The ninth time — what Arturo Freeman thought was going to be the ninth time — Craig bootlegged out of the pocket, and Arturo Freeman stepped forward to contain him. Arturo Freeman stepped forward to contain him and, in so doing, abandoned his previous task: covering wide receiver Tyrone Goodson. Dameyune Craig threw the ball to Tyrone Goodson, and Tyrone Goodson scored a 51-yard touchdown.
Despite some grievous mistakes, South Carolina nevertheless played well enough to find itself, late in the fourth quarter, in possession of both the ball and a 24-21 lead. Auburn quickly relieved the Gamecocks of the former and, soon after, the latter.
On 3rd & 6 from the South Carolina 22, a blown pass-blocking assignment resulted in Anthony Wright being the victim of a blindside sack. The fumble was recovered by Auburn; three plays later, the Tigers were in the end zone.
The final missed play was the one that finally ended all possibility of an upset. Fourth down, eight yards to go, ball at the Auburn 34-yard line, with 35 seconds on the clock and quarterback Anthony Wright in the pocket.2
Wright's first read was senior wide receiver Corey Bridges on a sideline route. Covered. Wright checked option two, receiver Ben Fleming on a crossing pattern right to left over the middle, near the 10-yard line. Fleming had a step, maybe two, on his defender, cornerback Brad Ware. The pass was in Fleming's hands for a split second. And then it fell to the ground.
“It should have been a catch,” Fleming said. “I just dropped the ball, that's all.”
Auburn’s victory was like the almost-impossible electoral college scenario where you only win 11 states, but they are the 11 most populous states and, therefore, worth 270 votes and the presidency. Auburn lost 125 plays, but they won six. The most vitally important six.
Contriving to lose in this fashion does not make South Carolina special. Every weekend, this is how dozens of college football games are lost. The fact that Alabama ever loses requires that this is the case.
What has made South Carolina feel uniquely cursed is the sheer reliability with which they lose games they played well enough to have won. Or lose games that they could have won if only they’d been able to stop the opponent from running the same play to the same player over and over and over and over.
What might have happened if Brad Scott had made it two bowl games in his first three years? What might have happened if Stephen Garcia had, in 2011, been kicked off the team one week earlier? If Jared Cook had caught the damn pass?
As maddeningly stupid as the 1996 Auburn game feels to me, the 2021 Auburn game must feel — to Auburn fans — just as stupid. The 2021 Auburn game must feel — to Auburn fans — even more stupid.
Where the 1996 game was lost on six plays, the 2021 Auburn game was lost on one. Where the 1996 Tigers won the presidency with just 11 states, the 2021 Tigers lost despite going up 269-to-nothing.
It is, of course, somewhat of an oversimplification to say that a five-touchdown game was decided by a single play. And yet, is it possible to imagine a scenario in which Shane Beamer’s offensively challenged Gamecocks overcome a 14-0 deficit without the opponent at least once gifting USC with the ball deep within its own territory?
This game was all set up to be the exactly the kind South Carolina had lost so many times before. The one where the opponent wins even though it can only do one thing particularly well — in this case, hand it off to Tank Bigsby. Despite knowing what’s coming, South Carolina just can’t stop it.
Despite knowing what’s coming on 4th & 1 from Auburn’s own 35, South Carolina just can’t stop it.
Except, at the dumbest possible moment, Mike Bobo elected to do something other than the one, unstoppable thing. He kept Tank Bigsby — Tank Bigsby, of the 7.5 yards per carry average — on the bench for 4th & 1 from his own 35. If Tank Bigsby had …
a) been on the field
b) been handed the ball
c) failed to gain a single yard
… it would have been only the second time in the entire game that all of these things had happened on the same play.
But, as it turned out, handing the ball to Tank Bigsby was not even a threat South Carolina was required to defend against. And how could it have been? Tank Bigsby had been subbed off for the play. What happened instead was the throwing of a low-probability deep ball by the quarterback with the lowest completion rate in the SEC.
Afterward, TJ Finley and Tank Bigsby radiated a specific kind of exasperation instantly recognizable to anyone who’s had a work project ruined — not because they’re bad at their jobs — but because their boss is an idiot.
South Carolina has won 587 football games. Often, the winning happened because South Carolina was the better team. Often, South Carolina wasn’t the better team but just happened to play like it on that particular day. Vanishingly few of the 587 wins have come at the hands of the opponent making the worst possible decision at the worst possible moment. Vanishingly few of the 587 wins have come even though South Carolina could only do one thing particularly well — in this case, hand it off to ZaQuandre White. This time, despite Auburn knowing what was coming — the only thing that could possibly be coming — they just couldn’t stop it.
The difference in the game was that South Carolina kept doing the one thing that worked, and Auburn did not. And the person responsible for that decision is Mike Bobo. There are better, more morally satisfying ways to win football games. There are not many ways to win a football game that are more funny than this one.
With that, I gladly pass the baton to the Auburn bloggers of the year 2046. Let them wonder how the Bryan Harsin era might have ended up differently if he hadn’t hired Mike Bobo.
This time, the extremely stupid Auburn game is the reason we are going to a bowl game.
Bob Gillespie, “Scott might wonder what if,” State, The (Columbia, SC), October 6, 1996
Kamon Simpson, “A missed opportunity: Auburn pulls out 28-24 win,” State, The (Columbia, SC), October 6, 1996