“If they don’t win the national championship, the biggest thrill they get is making sure we don’t win it. To come back and beat them in that scenario, I just don’t know if that can be topped. I just don’t know of another comeback I’ve ever seen quite like that one.” - Phillip Lolley, defensive backs coach 2009-11
A dense fog hung over Tuscaloosa when Auburn’s players walked out of the southwest tunnel of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Some walked alone and listened to music, while others chatted with teammates in a futile attempt to relax. As the team walked around the field, Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” and The Steve Miller Band’s “Take the Money and Run” played over the sound system. Waiting a few feet above the tunnel was the ferocious Alabama student section. Kickoff was nearly two hours away, but the students were out in full force. Some threw beer. Some shouted profanities. Many were escorted out of the stadium well before kickoff. Police officers moved some students back a few rows to avoid the threat of a thrown object injuring an Auburn player.
“Alabama, man,” said Josh Bynes, a senior linebacker and captain on the 2010 team.“When you come in that stadium, they all know your background. They gone go on Google. They gone find every ounce of bad dirt, all kind of things they can find out about you, and put it on a big ole poster.”
Bynes knew what to expect. He had played in many big games during his time on the Plains, including three Iron Bowls. Others had never experienced that type of hostility.
The Tigers had played on the road three times in 2010, taking trips to Mississippi State, Kentucky and Ole Miss. The largest crowd was 70,776 in Lexington. The crowd in Tuscaloosa exceeded 101,000.
“I was nervous as hell, man. That’s what you call a road game. I mean, you could feel the hate,” said Jeff Whitaker, a freshman defensive tackle. “Eighteen years old, walking out there thinking like that, I was looking for my mama. We’d been on the road all year, and I was thinking well, I done been in a road game. That was a road game that for me personally was a welcome to college football.”
Auburn couldn’t prepare for the environment, but the players knew what they had to go through. They had known for months.
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Four days before the Kentucky game, Auburn was notified its star quarterback Cameron Newton was under investigation. One month later, ESPN.com released a story detailing the alleged pay-for-play scheme involving Newton’s father Rev. Cecil Newton, a Chicago-based agent, Mississippi State and Auburn. Auburn was 9-0 and ranked third in the AP poll. Two wins and a bye week later, the No. 2 Tigers strolled into Bryant-Denny at 11-0,with the songs directed at the younger Newton blaring. It was no secret to the players and coaches what the game meant. A trip to the national championship game was on the line, but just as importantly, it was the Iron Bowl.
“Numerous fans said ‘We don’t care. Beat Alabama. That’s an undefeated season right there,’” Bynes said. “That shows how important that game is.”
After a physical two weeks of practice that included visits from Auburn greats such as running back Bo Jackson, the Tigers were ready.
“Guys were locked in. We knew that we were prepared,” said Nosa Eguae, a freshman defensive end. “We knew it wouldn’t by easy by any means, but we knew if we could go out there and play our game then we would be victorious.”
The desire to ruin Auburn’s dream season was stronger than ever for the Alabama faithful, but Auburn had been a tightly knit team since day one. As the Tigers huddled after their traditional pregame prayer, they vowed to not allow the opposition — or its crowd —to rip them apart.
“That was probably one of the closest teams I’ve ever been a part of,” Whitaker said. “When we went out, downtown and stuff, you didn’t see five people. We were thirty-deep. We always looked out for each other.”
The team broke the huddle and retreated to the cramped visitors’ locker room at Bryant-Denny. After warmups and final preparations, the Tigers took the field amidst a shower of boos.
Just before kickoff, sophomore cornerback T’Sharvan Bell paused and gazed at the sea of crimson and white that enveloped him.
“I just remember everything slowing down a little bit. It kind of seemed surreal, with everything on the line and everything that had gone on that season, to almost be to that moment,” Bell said. “I got goosebumps, and I’m like this is it. It’s time. These people hate us, and we hate them. This is our time to step up to the big stage and show the world what we have.”
The moment had arrived. The Tigers were ready — or so they believed.
“It happened so fast, and it was all our fault,” Whitaker said. “Especially as a defense, we was looking at (Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones) running free, and we let (Alabama running back Mark Ingram) walk in the end zone.”
The feeling that Auburn was self-destructing wasn’t unique to the Auburn sideline.
“To tell you the truth, looking back on it, Auburn made a bunch of mistakes,” said Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy. “They had a blown coverage. We had a few decent drives, but they had several mistakes that we were able to capitalize on … That obviously allowed us to distance ourselves in the first half.”
As bad as the defense was, the vaunted Auburn offense — which entered the game averaging over 505 yards of offense per game — was struggling just as much. Three drives amounted to nine plays and minus-3 yards of offense in the first quarter. As the Auburn defense returned to the bench following McElroy’s touchdown pass to Darius Hanks, defensive tackle Nick Fairley gathered the defensive line. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and at the team hotel in Birmingham the night before, players took turns sharing what they were thankful for. The defensive line had not done so, and Fairley thought it was the perfect chance to make up for the missed opportunity the night before. Some were a bit skeptical of the timing.
“Everybody was looking like listen, we’d be thankful for a touchdown right now,” Whitaker said. “Nobody trying to hear this today, man.”
But Fairley was persistent, and one by one — engulfed in a sea of crimson all the while — the linemen shared what they were thankful for.
“It’s just crazy how everything turns out. Right after that happened, it was just play after play after play that kind of either went our way,” Eguae said. “We kind of got that focus, kind of understood the moment. We didn’t make it more than what it was. We just focused on playing for each other.”
They didn’t know at the time, but someone in that huddle was about to make a play that would turn the tide of the game, the season and Auburn history.
The Crimson Tide opened the second quarter rolling just as it did in the first. Alabama was quickly marching down the field with its mind on a fourth — and possibly game-clinching — touchdown.
On first-and-10 near midfield, McElroy dumped a pass off to Ingram. Auburn linebacker Eltoro Freeman missed a tackle near the line of scrimmage, and Ingram raced down the right sideline. Trailing him was Auburn defensive end Antoine Carter. There was no way Carter — he of 4.79 40-yard dash speed — was going to catch the reigning Heisman Trophy winner without help. The help came in the form of safety Zac Etheridge, who tripped Ingram at the Auburn 30-yard line. Ingram stumbled, and Carter was able to track him down. While the senior dragged Ingram to the ground with his left arm, he used his right arm to punch the ball from Ingram’s grasp. The ball meandered down the sideline, drawing within inches of the white chalk. It stayed inbounds and eventually came to rest on the red carpet that was the Alabama end zone, where cornerback Demond Washington jumped on it.
It wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was a spark, and it was exactly what Auburn needed.
“It was all pursuit drill and hustle,” Carter said. “That changed the momentum. I think that play gave the team a lot of hope, gave the fans a lot of energy, and we went on from there.”
Ingram had fumbled only once in his career before the play — a span of 612 touches — but Carter was able to dislodge the ball.
“Antoine Carter’s play was probably by far the biggest play ever in the Iron Bowl, besides the (Kick Six),” Bynes said. “That play was pivotal, because you never know. What if he scores a touchdown? It may not have been a championship season.”
Instead of facing a 28-0 deficit, Auburn had the ball, hope and a renewed determination.
“When that happened, we said, ‘All right, they’ve had enough,’” Whitaker said.“When that play happened, that was when everybody was like OK, we gone win this game. We gone win it.”
Three drives later, wide receiver Kodi Burns — Auburn’s starting quarterback in the 36-0 loss in Tuscaloosa in 2008 — kept the drive alive early with a third-down catch over the middle. Burns had another reception later on the drive, and the Tigers finally cracked the scoreboard with their first explosive play of the day, a 36-yard touchdown pass to Emory Blake.
“Any time you can get a drive started off a third down and keep it going off of third down, it really helps the team, gives them confidence,” Burns said. “We went down and scored, and it changed the game.”
Another sustained Alabama drive had the Tide in the red zone with a chance to inflict a devastating blow before halftime. On second-and-goal from the Auburn 8-yard line, Fairley blew by Anthony Steen, Alabama’s backup guard who started the game because of an injury to senior Barrett Jones. Ingram attempted to step between Fairley and McElroy, but Fairley plowed through the running back and quarterback and jarred the ball loose, hiding on the ground for several seconds behind an unsuspecting Steen. Bynes raced in to jump on the loose ball, but Fairley crawled around Steen and beat him to it. Fairley’s sack, forced fumble and recovery kept the margin at 17 — still the largest deficit Auburn had faced that season — but the Tigers entered the locker room with heads held high.
Before the game, coach Gene Chizik told his team it would encounter adversity that day. Auburn had certainly encountered it, but the Tigers had survived, and the second half would prove to be a different story.
Halftime. Alabama 24, Auburn 7.
Auburn was down by three scores at the half, but the Tigers’ locker room was jovial. Players walked around patting others on the back, while Newton, Bynes, Carter and Freeman delivered speeches to the team and their position groups.
“We were frustrated, because we gave them points. They probably had one touchdown that was legit,” Bynes said. “We went into halftime, and guys like myself, Cam and our older guys, we just was laughing about the whole thing … We all said to each other, we’re going to come back and win this game.”
In the Alabama locker room, the players realized they had surrendered some momentum before the half, but they weren't worried. After all, they hadn't lost at Bryant-Denny Stadium since 2007, Nick Saban’s first season at the Capstone. McElroy had never lost a home game, and he didn’t intend to allow Alabama’s archrival to destroy the perfect record on Senior Day. However, as confident as Alabama was, they knew they had a 6-foot-6, 250-pound problem on the other sideline.
“We knew that we were going to have to score more than 24 to win it, just because Cam is so good of a player,” McElroy said. “At some point, he was going to make a few plays. It was inevitable.”
The same quarterback who worried Alabama gave Auburn all the confidence it needed. The Tigers knew if the game was close late, Newton — who went on to become the third Heisman Trophy winner in Auburn history — was going to find a way to win it.
“We understood that we had the best football player on the field, and if we can go out there defensively and do what we need to do — do what we’re supposed to do — that we were going to be successful,” Eguae said. “That was kind of the mindset, and there was kind of a swagger about that.”
Auburn was set to receive to open the second half, and the offense knew if it could score and cut the lead to 10, Auburn was back in the game. What the players didn’t know is just how fast that score would come.
Some fans hadn't returned from their run to the concession stand for a cup of halftime hot chocolate when the 75th Iron Bowl truly became a ballgame.
Auburn’s philosophy was simple: a 17-point deficit is possible to overcome, but a 10-point deficit is manageable, maybe even commonplace for a team that had already overcome three previous double digit deficits that season. In Auburn’s eyes, a touchdown on the first drive didn’t mean the Tigers had a chance — it meant they were going to win.
They scored their touchdown, and it didn’t take long. On the second play of the half, Newton lofted a pass down the left hash to wide receiver Terrell Zachery. Alabama safety Mark Barron read the play perfectly, but there was a problem:Barron had torn his pectoral muscle in the first half. He refused to come out of the game, but he was playing with one arm. Zachery and Barron leaped for the ball, but Zachery came down with it. He strolled 35 yards into the end zone, and Auburn had the game it wanted.
“College football and these games — a lot of times big games like that — it’s about momentum,” Burns said. “We had a lot of things go our way: different fumbles that Alabama had, interceptions, us catching some fluky plays. But that’s part of college football; that’s part of the game. In a national championship, you have to have a little luck, and we had it on our side that day.”
The offense was finally rolling, and the defense followed suit. After Newton scored on the ground to make it 24-21, the defense took the field looking for its third consecutive three-and-out. Alabama handed the ball off to running back Trent Richardson on first down, and he was met at the line of scrimmage by Auburn linebacker Craig Stevens. The defense flew to the ball, and it resulted in eight white helmets driving Richardson back five yards.
“It made for an awesome picture,” Eguae said.
Alabama felt the momentum shifting, as did the 101,821 fans who suddenly found themselves squirming uncomfortably in their seats.
“When you’re playing in the game, it’s an emotional game obviously and it’s high stakes,” McElroy said. “When you get out of rhythm and it’s such a game of momentum, it’s hard to get going.”
The defense forced another Alabama punt, and the game was shaping up perfectly for Auburn. The offense was rolling and the defense was containing the Alabama offense that had torched it in the first half.
Then disaster struck.
Instead of calling for a fair catch on the punt, Auburn wide receiver Quindarius Carr decided to return it. He was crushed by Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw, and the ball popped free. Alabama recovered on the Auburn 27.
After all the work Auburn had done to climb back into contention, it appeared it might all be for naught. The defense ran back onto the field without rest, but it was able to hold firm. Carr’s mistake cost Auburn only an Alabama field goal, a huge confidence boost for the team and coaches.
“When they kicked that field goal and went up by six, at that point, I said a touchdown and an extra point beats them, and I know it’s going to happen. You could just start to feel it,” Lolley said. “When we held them to that field goal, I said,'These guys are focused. They’re fighting with everything in their body, and they’re going to find a way to win this thing.'”
As the third quarter turned to the fourth, the bleak day turned to night in Tuscaloosa. The Tigers were still down by six, but it was a completely different game than when they were down by 24. The fourth quarter would be theirs. It had been all year.
“We knew at the end of the day that we were going to find a way to win the football game,” Eguae said. “When the fourth quarter came, that was our quarter to finish games, and it was a little bit of an edge. We were always ready to finish games in the fourth quarter.”
As the fourth quarter began, AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” rang over the sound system. The attendees in crimson and white sensed the tension and were louder than they had been all day. Their defense rewarded them with a third-down stop near midfield, but the Auburn offense stayed on the field.
“You want to go for it?,” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn asked Chizik.
Chizik’s response came quickly and decisively.
“Go for it.”
Auburn called a timeout to discuss the fourth-and-3 play, but Newton lined up for a pooch punt when the Tigers returned to the field. Only, he didn’t punt.
Newton fired a strike to Darvin Adams — the sure-handed leader at wide receiver — for nine yards and a first down. Down by six on the road, it was a gutsy call. But Chizik believed in his players, and the players believed in their galvanizing leader.
“In that situation, you’re trying to win a national championship, so why not? Why not go for it?,” Burns said. “He chose to go for it, and it paid off.”
Five plays later, Auburn faced a third-and-4 in the red zone. Newton rolled to the right, stopped on a dime and threw back to his left. Waiting on the other end was tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen. The go-ahead touchdown was special at the time, but it would become even more so three and a half years later.
Lutzenkirchen passed away in a car accident on June 29, 2014, and teammates hold his reception and dance in the Bryant-Denny Stadium end zone as one of their fondest memories of him.
“It was a special deal,” Whitaker said. “Everybody knows the Lutzie [dance] now. With what has happened over the last couple of years, that moment is even more special now … That’s a great way to remember him.”
Though Lutzenkirchen was only a sophomore in 2010, he was considered a team leader by many. The team trusted him to make a play with the game on the line, just as he had many times before.
“Who else could have made that play for us? Who else could have capped off an Iron Bowl victory from 24 points [behind]? Nobody but Philip Lutzenkirchen,” Eguae said. “He epitomized what it was to be an Auburn Tiger … He was beloved by the fans, and he was beloved by us too. There was still time left in that game, but you knew when that happened that we were going to find a way to make sure they didn’t put any points on the board and we’re going to figure out a way to make sure we won the game.”
Following Auburn’s score, Alabama put together its longest drive of the second half. The Tide marched to the Auburn 34-yard line before stalling. With Alabama facing a third-and-12, Bell trotted onto the field and looked back to the sideline to see the play. ‘Storm,’ a Nickel blitz, was the call. Alabama was slow coming to the line, and Bell knew it was his opportunity to help seal the win.
"The play clock was winding down, and I was like, ‘He’s got to snap this ball, it’s going to be a delay of game, or he’s gone call timeout,’” Bell said. “I kind of timed it up to where I was right there on the snap count. He snapped it, and I kind of got a jump on the tackle.”
Bell slammed McElroy to the ground for a 4-yard loss, and the quarterback suffered a concussion on the play. Alabama was forced into its fourth and final second-half punt, and Newton had the ball once again with a chance to seal the game, his legacy and his team’s place in the Auburn record books.
Around five-and-a-half hours after he and his team emerged from the southwest corner to the Alabama students’ raucous welcome, Newton jogged onto the turf for a final time. He had converted another fourth down on the previous drive to drain the clock, and the Auburn defense forced four consecutive incompletions from backup quarterback A.J. McCarron to seal the largest comeback win in school history.
The sound system no longer sang the songs that had mocked Newton before the game. Instead, Bryant-Denny was nearly silent as he took a knee on the game’s final play. After shaking hands with several Alabama players, Newton raced to the small pocket of orange and blue in the stadium’s lower bowl.
Burns ripped his helmet off and ran to join him.
Carter attempted to grab the cheerleaders’ Auburn flag and run it around the field, but the idea was quickly shot down by his coaches.
“You just wish everyone from Auburn could have been there and seen the looks on the fans’ faces and the players’ faces,” Bell said. “Clearly they counted us out, and after being up 24-0, they thought they had that game won … It was just an unbelievable feeling to win the way we did at their stadium.”
As the Crimson Tide faithful made their way to the exits, McElroy lumbered to the locker room. That fateful day in November is one he remembers occasionally, but one he has never relived.
“I’ve never actually went back and watched it. It’s just too painful,” McElroy said. “It was probably one of the most disappointing games Alabama ever had to deal with. It was definitely the most disappointing game of my career. It’s one that still will probably always bother me a little bit.”
For Auburn, it was a comeback representative of the season, and on a larger scale, the revival of a program.
For Burns, Bynes, Carter and others, the game was especially sweet. After beating Alabama in Auburn their freshman year, the seniors had endured a blowout loss in Tuscaloosa and a heart-breaking defeat at home. Though the pain of the two losses never totally faded, the 2010 Iron Bowl was a satisfying way to leave the rivalry.
“It was amazing, especially celebrating in Alabama, in Tuscaloosa,” Bynes said. “To come back in that way and win in that kind of fashion and to celebrate on their field, it’s just one of those moments when we knew for a fact, all right, we’re going to the national championship.”
Auburn would go on to capture an SEC championship and a national title, the program’s first since 1957. But when the players think back to the cold, dreary November day in Tuscaloosa, that’s not what they remember. The comeback on the home field of the defending national champions was about much more.
“As players, you realize what it means to the people in that state. You realize what it means to the people who have played before you,” Burns said. “It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than Cam Newton. It’s bigger than Bo Jackson. It’s bigger than anyone that’s played there. It’s about the people who love Auburn. It’s about the family and what winning that game means to those people.”
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