“Knock somebody out. If you deliver the lick first, eventually they’re going to start playing soft. They’re going to try to play careful. Don’t go out there and wait on them to hit you. Hit them first."
That’s what legendary Auburn running back Bo Jackson told the Tigers in a pregame speech before they took the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Nov. 23, 2002, and that’s exactly what the Auburn defense did that Saturday afternoon.
If the Tigers were to win the Iron Bowl it was going to be because of the defense. The Auburn offense had lost star tailback Carnell Williams to a broken ankle earlier 2002 season against Florida, as well as fullback Brandon Johnson and tailback Ronnie Brown against Georgia.
“The school down the road,” as Dennis Franchione referred to Auburn, got the ball first and opened with tight end Cooper Wallace at fullback and Tre Smith at tailback. Wallace was a freshman tight end and Smith was a freshman tailback. Both were on down the depth charts all season, but were forced into action in huge roles in the Iron Bowl.
Things were looking grim for Auburn, which was just 7-4 following an agonizing last-minute defeat to Georgia the week before. The Tigers’ were beaten up offensively, and defensively had allowed 549 total yards with 328 coming on the ground in a 31-7 Alabama win at Jordan-Hare Stadium the previous year.
Many Auburn fans questioned whether Tommy Tuberville was the right man for the job, and a third loss in four years to the Tide wouldn’t sit well with those in charge of the decision making.
The Tigers showed right away that they weren’t coming into this game to lose to the 9-2 and ninth-ranked Crimson Tide. After a Smith nine-yard dash on the opening series, offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino pulled out the stops on third and one. Lining up in the jumbo package, sophomore quarterback Jason Campbell faked the handoff to Smith, hid the ball behind his back and found tight end Anthony Mix down field for a 46-yard gain to the Alabama 29. Campbell was sacked later by end Kindal Moorehead, one of many seniors on the Alabama defense, on a third and nine to force a Damon Duval punt. However, the Auburn offense sent the message that it wasn't making the journey up the road to lose.
Fittingly, senior safety Travaris Robinson made the first tackle of the day for the Auburn defense on a Santonio Beard run off left tackle. It was just the start of things for Robinson, who finished with 12 tackles and the game of his career. The next two plays Karlos Dansby and Robinson did just what Jackson had told them to do in pregame--deliver the first lick... and the second.
On a quarterback keeper Tyler Watts got leveled by Dansby. The next play on an option pitch, Robinson turned tailback Shaud Williams into a human pin ball on his way to the turf.
Dansby lowers the boom on Tyler Watts.
The Crimson Tide made its way into Auburn territory, but Dontarrious Thomas sacked Watts on the AU 37 and instead of playing for the field goal or field position, Franchione went for a fourth and 10. Watts found Williams in the flats, but he was forced out by Junior Rosegreen well short of the marker. It was a sign of things to come for the Tide.
Auburn didn’t waste any time moving the ball on its second turn. On a handoff to the right, Smith picked up great blocks from tight end Lorenzo Diamond and tackle Marcus McNeill, and Wallace sealed the hole as Smith dashed 51 yards down to the Alabama 16-yard line before getting tripped up in a sprint for the end zone by Hirschel Bolden.
Following another Smith run for two yards, Campbell dropped back and found Robert Johnson on a crossing route. The big tight end was still much more nimble than the Tide’s Nautyn McKay-Loescher, who was left watching at the 10-yard line as Johnson trotted his way into the corner of the end zone. Duval’s extra point put the Tigers in front, 7-0.
Alabama quickly drove back on Auburn with an out to receiver Zach Fletcher, a 15-yard Tiger personal foul, and a 13-yard run on the option by Williams. However, the Tide got backed up on a hold, lost more yardage on an attempted reverse pass and had the option blow up in their faces as end Reggie Torbor manhandled guard Justin Smiley and nailed Watts for a five-yard loss.
Lane Bearden, with a torn ACL, punted to Roderick Hood, who didn’t hesitate and cut up field to midfield for a 36-yard return. Petrino would spread the Tide defense out with five-wide and then pound away on the ground with Smith as the Tigers moved to the UA 30. Campbell hit Ben Obomanu on a drag for another 17 yards and the Tigers were again threatening at the 13-yard line. On a second-and-eight play, Campbell took the snap from the shotgun, felt the heat coming from all directions, and calmly found Johnson standing all alone at the goal line. He caught it and stumbled backwards into the end zone for this second score of the game. With 15 seconds remaining in the first quarter, Auburn was ahead 14-0 and its first three drives accounted 142 yards. Not bad with a pair of unknowns in the backfield against the nation’s top-ranked defense.
Alabama’s next possession lasted just five plays resulting in another Bearden punt and the Tigers started from their own 17-yard line. With the Crimson Tide defensive finally respecting the Smith and the Auburn running game, Campbell found Marcel Willis for 18, Devin Aromashodu for seven and Johnson again for nine to move into Alabama territory.
Campbell again showed why his teammates called him “The Future” as he dropped back, couldn’t find an open receiver, tucked it and ran for 19 yards to the 25. On second down he found Johnson wide open over the middle, but this time he bobbled it, tipped it, and wound up playing the role of the defender. Instead of a possible touchdown for Johnson, linebacker Derrick Pope nearly made the interception. Duval, who struggled with his accuracy as a senior in 2002, drilled a 40-yard field goal to put the heavy underdog Auburn Tigers in the lead 17-0.
Led by Robinson, Torbor and tackle Spencer Johnson, the flat Alabama offense was forced to punt again. A perfectly thrown Campbell pass over the middle into coverage found its way into the hands of Willis, who was tackled at the Alabama 38-yard line. Auburn was on the offensive once again, but Alabama’s defense finally rose to the occasion and forced an Auburn punt. With freshman gunslinger Brodie Croyle in relief of Watts, more of a runner, Alabama moved into Auburn territory near the end of the half. However, faced with another fourth down outside of field goal range, Croyle threw to Williams in the flats, who fell down a yard short of the first down. Campbell took a knee twice and Auburn went into the locker room with a three-possession advantage: 17-0.
Alabama’s first possession of the second half was similar to all of its possessions in the first 30 minutes. Playing in third and long situations, a Watts throw intended for receiver Triandos Luke was tipped by DeMarco McNeil and broken up by cornerback Horace Willis. However, Alabama would get the ball back after the only significant mistake of the day by the Tigers. Buying time looking for an open receiver, Campbell threw to Smith late of the middle, but the ball was tipped at the line by Jarrett Johnson and picked by Waine Bacon.
The option pass, which had been part of the Tide’s offensive repertoire all season, was good for 17 yards on their first play as Watts found Sam Collins. Several plays later Williams took an option pitch around right end down to the Auburn seven-yard line, and Beard punched it in from the one to give Alabama its first ever points against the Tigers in Tuscaloosa. Alabama had been held scoreless against Auburn in Tuscaloosa in a 48-0 defeat in 1895, 17-0 in 1901, 9-0 in 2000 and in the first half of the 2002 Iron Bowl. Finally the streak was over, but Auburn was still ahead 17-7 midway through the third quarter.
Smith, who had 99 yards rushing in the first half, picked up 14 more behind McNeill to get things started. Going five-wide again on third and 10, Campbell found Willis on a quick out, and the senior wideout raced 28 yards down to the Alabama 32. However, the drive stalled and Duval missed a 47-yard field goal wide left.
Alabama’s offensive strength all season had been on the ground with Watts, Beard and Williams. They continued to try to get the running attack going against the Tigers, but Dansby would have none of it as he was able to cover Watts pre-pitch and Williams post-pitch all by himself to again have the Tide playing behind the chains. Franchione again called on his offense on fourth and five, and again Watts dumped it off to Williams in the right flats. However, Rosegreen, Willis and Thomas were there to push him out and end the possession.
Alabama’s offense got the ball back quickly and kept it with Watts and the running game down 10 points still with 13 minutes to go. It was too early to insert Croyle and change the schemes, but the Alabama coaching staff had no problems gambling on fourth down. Watts was sacked by defensive end Bret Eddins to start the drive and the Crimson Tide was eventually faced with a fourth and two from its own 37. Watts ran the option to the right where he was downed by Auburn middle linebacker Mark Brown at the 38-yard line, about a yard and a half short of the first down. For some reason the ball was spotted at the 40 and the Tide kept possession. After a hold put the Tide in a bind, the pressure was put on Croyle’s shoulders to lead the Tide back, but on third and 11 Robinson came straight through the offensive line, put Croyle on his back just as he lopped a pass down field, and Willis was in coverage to force the punt.
Auburn chewed up four-plus minutes before Duval punted out of the end zone. Alabama’s first play from its own 20 was a screen to Williams, who had a ton of green grass and blockers off the right side. However, Thomas slipped the block of Smiley and made an exceptional open field tackle. Three plays later, another fourth down attempt resulted in 41 yards down to the Auburn 23 as Dre Fulgham slipped past Carlos Rogers over the middle. Croyle was sacked on the next play for a 10-yard loss by Brown, and Rogers made up for the big play with an interception on fourth down.
Smith and the Tigers offense chewed more clock and the Tide got the ball back with 1:44 remaining. After a false start to begin the drive, three passes for minimal gains left Alabama with fourth and seven from the Auburn 36. However, it was a day for the Tiger defense as Thomas tipped away Croyle’s last ditch attempt over the middle.
Just as he did to end the first half, Campbell took a knee twice and the Tigers counted the seconds away.
Auburn 17, Alabama 7.
Coach Fran made a quick exit, stage left, from Tuscaloosa looking for a better coaching job in the Big 12.
The head coaches of both teams went opposite directions after the Iron Bowl, both literally and figuratively. The Tide, which wasn’t bowl eligible due to NCAA probation, finished the season at Hawaii and Franchione left Alabama for Texas A&M. However, after five mediocre seasons, he may be be coaching his final game for the Aggies on Friday against the Texas Longhorns.
Auburn headed to Orlando for a New Year’s Day bowl in the Capital One against 10th-ranked Penn State. Brown returned to action and ran for 184 yards on the Nittany Lions as the Tigers won 13-9 and finished with a No. 14 ranking. The 2002 Iron Bowl was also the first of an open-ended five-game winning streak for Tuberville in the Tigers vs. the Tide.
Game Of My Life Auburn
Premium Subscription Signup
Subscribe to Magazine Only