Alabama Crimson Tide: Cade Foster
AUBURN, Ala. -- For a team of destiny, the play that would come to define Auburn's magical season started off in an ironic way as it looked as if luck might not be on its side after all. The clock read all zeroes in Jordan-Hare Stadium as Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon went out of bounds, sending a tie game into overtime. But officials double-checked, reviewed the play and put one second back on the clock -- just enough time for the top-ranked Crimson Tide to run one final play.
Disgruntled, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn thought to himself, "You know, we haven't had a whole lot of luck with reviews anyway," as Alabama took the field for its shot at a game-winning field goal. Malzahn toyed with telling his special-teams coach to go for the block, but he knew he wanted to call a timeout to ice the kicker and survey his options anyway. Better go a different route, he decided.
"If they missed the kick, what was the worst that could happen?" said Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead.
"Put CD back there," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford recalled hearing Malzahn say during the timeout, pulling safety Ryan Smith off the return in favor of Chris Davis, a speedy cornerback and part-time punt returner. Malzahn called Davis, a senior who has gone through his fair share of ups and downs, "a champion" in his book. On Saturday night with the wind blowing in his face and a title hanging in the balance, Davis was.
Cody Mandell fielded the snap and dropped the ball into place for Griffith, who swung his right leg through cleanly. The ball floated on line for what seemed like an eternity to the orange-and-blue-clad fans standing in their seats. Then it dipped short and to the right, where Davis waited with open arms.
"I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run," Davis said.
Alabama simulated field goal returns like Davis' every Friday during the season. "We just imagine," said tight end Brian Vogler, who is responsible for sealing the outside edge of the line during kicks. But there's never anyone actually there to return the ball, he said.
"You practice it so many times and when it happens you're not expecting that kind of speed," Vogler explained.
Davis started to his right up the center of the field before turning back left toward the sideline. He knew if he got to the edge the bigger guys for Alabama wouldn't be able to catch him. Vogler, all 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds of him, took a bad angle, leaped at Davis, and missed.
"I was running down the field expecting a blindside [hit] out of nowhere," Vogler said, "and when I finally got the opportunity, I was kind of in shock I hadn't gotten laid out."
Adrian Hubbard, Alabama's 252-pound linebacker, didn't stand a chance either as he whiffed on the tackle.
Smith, in a stroke of irony, was a key part of the return as he laid out Alabama offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio.
"I made a good block," Smith said excitedly. "Y'all go check it out."
Mandell, the punter and holder, got one hand on Davis' jersey, but wound up only touching history rather than stopping it. Davis never broke stride as he passed Mandell and found daylight, running freely into the end zone for the game-winning score before being hugged to the turf by his own teammates as the stadium erupted in applause.
"When I looked back, I said I couldn't believe this," Davis said. "When I was running, I said, 'God is good.'"
It was like it happened in slow motion, McCarron said. His helmet on and his emotions hidden from view, he sprinted off toward the locker room as fans rushed the field.
"It's almost like a video game," McCarron said. "That's something you do on 'Madden.'"
"I was just shocked," said Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. "I didn't think that big of a play would have been caused by that."
Said Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae: "I lost it. I ran and found myself on the other sideline and got to see some of my guys and hugged them. It was just an amazing experience, one that will last me for a lifetime."
The floodgates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium became a crazed sea of blue and orange fans celebrating what will go down as the most memorable Iron Bowl in history. An Auburn staffer would have to save Malzahn from being hit by Aubie, the Tigers' crowd-surfing mascot, during a postgame interview.
Meanwhile, Davis was being suffocated at the bottom of a dog pile.
"It was hard to breathe," he said. "I knew it was coming. What else do you expect when you're doing something like that? I'm proud of my teammates. It might seem like I'm the hero in this moment, but they also are too -- offense and defense and special teams. We fought together and we got the W."
"If you weren't there," Ford said, "I can't really explain it to you."
It took at least an hour for players and fans to finally leave the field. The cleanup of their celebration would continue into Monday. Toomer's Corner remained painted white with rolls upon rolls of toilet paper prior to Malzahn's news conference that day at 11:30 a.m. In fact, most of the campus remained covered in the tissue.
When Davis went to his geology class that morning, he received a standing ovation. It was like a scene from a movie: the team that couldn't win a single conference game and fired its entire staff from the season before, suddenly beats the top-ranked team in the country and its star player goes to class to a round of applause.
Davis and his teammates better get used to it. This is their legacy now. No one who saw what happened that Saturday night in Jordan-Hare will ever forget.
The heat is still rising from some of the things that happened around the league on Saturday.
So let’s dive right in to our weekly look at who’s hot and who’s not.
SEC lobbying: The SEC is going to need some serious help to keep alive its national championship streak. Auburn and Missouri still have a heartbeat, and they will meet Saturday in the SEC championship game. The best scenario for the winner of that game would be for either No. 1 Florida State or No. 2 Ohio State to be upset in its respective conference championship game. Florida State faces Duke in the ACC title game and is a four-touchdown favorite, while Ohio State takes on Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and is a six-point favorite. In the meantime, you’re going to hear some pretty passionate lobbying from SEC folks about how there’s no way a one-loss SEC champion should be kept out of the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Already, Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said it would be a “disservice to the nation” if the Tigers were left out of the big game similar to what happened to them in 2004 when they were unbeaten and didn’t get a chance to play for the national title. If Florida State or Ohio State win this weekend then the winner of the Auburn-Missouri game is going to have to hope several voters in the coaches’ poll and Harris poll have a change of heart on their final ballots and vote a one-loss SEC champion ahead of Ohio State. Auburn, which is No. 3 this week in the BCS standings, probably has the best shot, but would need to win impressively over Missouri to leapfrog an unbeaten Ohio State team and then have the Buckeyes struggle this weekend. Even then, it’s not likely enough voters would change their minds. Should Auburn beat Missouri, it would be difficult to dismiss the Tigers’ resume. They would own four wins over top 25 teams in this week’s BCS standings, including a win over the team that has won the past two national championships. That would compare to two wins over top 25 teams by the Buckeyes, assuming they beat the Spartans.
Alabama’s streak: The Crimson Tide had won 15 straight games and two straight national championships. Going back to the 2009 season, when they won their first of three national championships under Nick Saban, it’s the kind of run we probably won’t see again anytime soon in the SEC. When historic streaks die, they typically die hard. Losing the way Alabama did last week at Auburn will cut deeply for some time.
Tennessee defensive end Corey Miller: Entering his final college game at Kentucky, Miller had five career sacks in 48 games. He exploded for a school-record 4.5 sacks in the 27-14 win over the Wildcats. And whose record did he break? Hall of Famer Reggie White had four sacks in a game as a senior at Tennessee in 1983. That’s some pretty impressive company.
Cowardly fans: It’s always a select few who screw it up for everybody else. But enough with hitting up players who miss field goals and lose key fumbles with nasty emails and messages, almost always behind the cloak of anonymity. Good to see the Alabama players come to kicker Cade Foster’s defense. Too bad some of these so-called “grown” fans don’t have the same kind of perspective the 20- and 21-year-old kids who are actually playing the game do about losing a football game.
Beating up on Vanderbilt in November: Once upon a time, Vanderbilt probably considered canceling the month of November. But not anymore. The Commodores have won nine straight games in the month of November, another telltale sign that this is a program that only gets better under James Franklin as the season goes on. Before Franklin arrived, the Commodores were just 3-32 in November in the previous 10 years. Defensively, Vanderbilt really turned it on down the stretch and played lights out in November. The Commodores suffered some key injuries and struggled early, but ended up 25th nationally in total defense -- their third straight season in the top 25 under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. And during this last month, Vanderbilt allowed just 11.8 points per game and 277 yards of total offense per game while forcing 12 turnovers. Opposing teams managed just one touchdown pass and 11 interceptions against the Commodores in November.
Preseason predictions: If anybody -- coaches, media or fans -- had Auburn and Missouri in the SEC championship game in August, I want to see the ballot. Auburn was picked fifth in the West and Missouri sixth in the East at the SEC media days. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel thanked everybody Sunday for picking the Tigers so low because it only served as motivation for his players. And get this: Neither Auburn nor Missouri received a single vote at the SEC media days to win the league championship. Let’s face it, though. Given the media’s shoddy track record for getting the eventual SEC champion right, if you’re picked to win it in Hoover, Ala., during the summer, you might as well plan on not winning it. Only twice in the past 18 years has the media correctly predicted the SEC champion. Still, had anybody picked Auburn or Missouri this year, that would have been a story in itself at the time. Auburn didn’t win a single SEC game a year ago and lost 38-0 to Georgia and 49-0 to Alabama in its previous two SEC games. Missouri won two SEC games a year ago in its first season in the league, and with so many injuries along the offensive line, looked overwhelmed at times.
The SEC saved the best for last. In the final week of the regular season, Alabama and Auburn played the game of the year in college football. The stakes were high. The rivalry is fierce. And the game was decided by a 109-yard field goal return for a touchdown on the final play of the game. How do you write a better script than that?
The matchup is now set for next weekend’s SEC title game, but let’s look back at five things we learned from Saturday’s action.
The ride continues: Auburn trailed Alabama for most of Saturday’s game, but the Tigers found a way to win in the fourth quarter, as they always do. It’s been that way all season, and it was no different against the nation’s No. 1 team in the Iron Bowl. What coach Gus Malzahn has been able to do in his first season on the Plains has been nothing short of remarkable. He took over a team that was 3-9 and winless in the SEC in 2012, and he has them playing for a conference championship. It’s reminiscent of the 2010 season, when Cam Newton led the Tigers to an undefeated season and a BCS national championship, but this isn't over yet. Saturday was a monumental victory for Malzahn and this Auburn team, but now they must start preparing for Missouri.
No three-peat: Alabama’s quest for a third consecutive BCS title fell short on Saturday, and the Crimson Tide had only themselves to blame. They had been able to overcome turnovers, penalties and other mistakes all season long, but the miscues finally caught up to them against Auburn. It started with a missed field goal. AJ McCarron and his receivers didn’t look to be in sync early in the game. Then there was a blocked punt. With all of those errors, Alabama still jumped out to a 21-7 lead. But in the second half, the Tide missed three more field goals, and the last one proved to be the difference-maker as Auburn returned it 109 yards for the game-winning score. UA kicker Cade Foster drilled one of the attempts only to see the points taken away by a false start penalty. The stakes were high, and Alabama failed to play its best football. It cost the Crimson Tide.
QBs to the rescue: LSU and Mississippi State both won in dramatic fashion this weekend, and both have reserve quarterbacks to thank for it. In Mississippi State’s case, it was regular starter Dak Prescott who took over in the fourth quarter and led the Bulldogs past archrival Ole Miss in overtime. Prescott missed the two previous games with an injury and wasn’t expected to play Thursday. But Dan Mullen rolled the dice, and it worked. Mississippi State became bowl eligible with the win. LSU turned to freshman signal-caller Anthony Jennings out of necessity when Zach Mettenberger got hurt in the fourth quarter. Jennings led a 99-yard drive in the final minutes, throwing a 49-yard touchdown to push the Tigers past Arkansas.
No SEC in the BCS: It was a wild weekend in the SEC, but Saturday’s Iron Bowl could leave the conference out of the BCS title game for the first time since 2005. Alabama was the favorite to reach Pasadena and win a third straight national championship, but the Tide’s aspirations fell short against Auburn. Now it will likely be Florida State and Ohio State at the top with both Auburn and Missouri on the outside looking in. The SEC’s only hope is that either the Seminoles or the Buckeyes lose next weekend in their conference championship games or that the winner of the SEC title game will have a strong enough résumé to overcome one loss and jump an undefeated Ohio State team. If not, the league's seven-year reign might be over.
Starting off slowly: There's something about the first quarter that Alabama's offense doesn't like. Even against inferior competition, the Tide struggle to score points early. We saw it against Mississippi State last week and we saw it again with Chattanooga on Saturday. All told, Alabama has scored 13 points in the first quarter of its last three games. Thankfully for AJ McCarron and the offense, their defense has come ready to play, shutting out opponents over the same period of time.
Future starter?: Cyrus Jones could have started. So could have Eddie Jackson. John Fulton would have been the sentimental pick to start at cornerback opposite Deion Belue on senior day. But in the end it was true freshman Maurice Smith trotting out to start at cornerback in the first series against Chattanooga. He played well, too, keeping the Mocs receivers in check and failing to draw a penalty. Whether he'll start moving forward this season is unknown, but Saturday's game may wind up being looked back on this offseason when fans and prognosticators analyze Alabama's cornerback situation in 2014.
Special teams: We've written at length about Alabama's offense and defense, so now seems like a good time to point out just how good the special teams have been. The forgotten unit has more than held its own this season. Cody Mandell has been one of the best punters in the nation, Cade Foster has been more than reliable kicking field goals and the coverage teams have kept the field position battle in Alabama's favor. But the big difference this year is the number of big plays out of the special teamers. Christion Jones> returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown against Chattanooga, his third touchdown returning kicks this year, and A'Shawn Robinson later blocked a field goal attempt, setting up another score. All told, Alabama has seven non-offensive touchdowns this season, the most since 2008.
There surely was another less vital player who could perform what seemed to be a menial task, right?
"No, Coach knows I don't care," is all McCarron said. "That's what he asked me to do and I'm going to do it. I'm not bigger than anybody else."
McCarron, a fifth-year senior and a Heisman Trophy contender, has been a part of special teams for years now. But he's not the only All-SEC talent playing on a unit usually reserved for rookies and lifelong backups. C.J. Mosley, Alabama's All-American linebacker, covers punts, and T.J. Yeldon, UA's leading tailback, does the same. Vinnie Sunseri and Trey DePriest, two starters on defense, made their bones on special teams.
They don't do it because they have to. They do it because there's pride involved. They do it because it's important.
"I used to look at it as one play," DePriest said. "It's one play, give it all you got for one play. You never know when you're going to be needed, and since special teams is a one play thing -- you run down there, do what you need to do and get off the field. And when the next special teams is up, you go out there and do it again."
Said Mosley: "We always treat special teams like a game-changing momentum changer."
Alabama's special teams play has been especially good this season, becoming arguably the most consistent part of the top-ranked Crimson Tide's game. Where the offense and defense have had their ups and downs, the third, lesser-known unit, has been steadily impressive, coming in eighth nationally in yards per punt (46.95) and yards per kickoff return (28.0). On kickoff coverage, Alabama is 20th nationally and second in the SEC, allowing an average of 17.73 yards per return.
Big plays have been a part of special teams, too. Sophomore linebacker Dillon Lee's blocked punt return for a touchdown against Colorado State marked the third special teams score and the fifth non-offensive touchdown of the year for Alabama, far outpacing any season in recent memory. Two interceptions have been taken to the house and return specialist Christion Jones already has a touchdown on a kickoff and a punt return.
"We practice every day, we focus on that," Sunseri said. "Coach Saban says to practice like you want to play and we hustle down field every day and want to make sure we don’t give up any plays in practice, because whatever you do in practice rolls over to the game. Doing those things right and getting full position is always huge."
There hasn't been a more overlooked part of Alabama's recent championship run than special teams. Year in and year out the play has been above average, thanks to rookies and veterans alike.
The way Alabama has recruited, hauling in top-three classes each year since 2008, there have been an abundance of four- and five-star talents ready to make a contribution right away. And rather than wait idly on the sidelines for a starting position to come open, they've turned to special teams. Derrick Henry, the No. 1 athlete in the 2013 class, is on kickoff coverage, along with four-star tailback Altee Tenpenny.
But the most impressive youngster has been Landon Collins, who came to Alabama as the No. 1 safety in the country a year ago. He has developed into a tackling machine on kickoff and punt coverage, earning praise from coaches and teammates alike.
"He was a monster," punter Cody Mandell said. "He was like a human cannonball, to be honest with you."
"You see him, he's crazy," safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. "He's a great player, great tackler. He gets down field and makes big plays."
Collins had a chance to start alongside Clinton-Dix at strong safety this season, but ultimately lost the job to the more veteran option in Sunseri. Instead of sulking, Collins has continued to give everything he has to special teams. As starting cornerback Deion Belue put it, "The only thing you can expect from him is 110 percent."
"A killer mindset," Collins said of how he approaches special teams. "It's a dog eat dog world, I say to myself. I want to make any play possible, regardless of the fact of what I'm doing."
And that, in a nutshell, explains why Alabama is so good on a unit that's so often overlooked. All-Americans and five-star talents don't view special teams as a burden, but rather as an opportunity. When Collins shoots downfield and blows up return men like a heat-seeking missile, it draws as big a celebration as any from the sidelines.
Even a veteran quarterback like McCarron understands the importance of special teams. He doesn't have to hold Cade Foster's kicks. No one would second guess a player of his stature staying on the sidelines for extra points and field goals. But McCarron doesn't shy away from the extra work and neither do his teammates.
"He's the best there is," said UA kicker Cade Foster. "For him to be able to drive us down there and get us in position and still be able to focus on a hold blows my mind. Really thankful that he can do it because I wouldn't want anyone else."
The defense is capable: The secondary is still thin. Beyond Deion Belue, there's not much experience at cornerback. John Fulton certainly isn't the answer, hence true freshman Eddie Jackson getting the start there ahead of him. But in spite of throwing a rookie to the flames, Alabama's secondary showed the ability to play well against Ole Miss thanks to Belue's emergence as an on-ball defender and a deep group of safeties that includes Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Landon Collins. Ole Miss had the players at receiver and tight end to make Alabama's secondary look bad. But instead, the back end of Alabama's defense shined against the Rebels.
Hope of a running game: Alabama's running game is still somewhat inconsistent, and the loss of center Ryan Kelly for the next few weeks certainly won't help in that respect. But against Ole Miss, the Tide running game finally got going. The offensive line, with Chad Lindsay in at center, was able to push the line of scrimmage and help open holes for T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, both of whom rushed for 100-plus yards and a touchdown each. The ability to run the football opened up the passing game in turn, allowing AJ McCarron to work effectively off of play action.
Finally, a complete game: OK, maybe it was just one complete half when you look at the struggle to put the ball in the end zone the first two quarters, but still, Alabama finally showed how good it can be at all three phases of the game simultaneously against Ole Miss. The offense moved the ball well, the defense was dominant and special teams was above average with Cade Foster kicking three field goals and Ole Miss never getting anything going in the return game. It was a game all coaches on Alabama's sidelines could be pleased with. And more than anything, head coach Nick Saban could look at his team's effort and be proud. "Our players did a really, really good job of being relentless out there with their effort, their toughness, the way they competed," Saban said, finally not having to throw in the caveat of some missing element in some phase of the game.
During the course of the action, a few players stood out as worthy of a coveted helmet sticker.
K Cade Foster: Give credit to Foster for giving Alabama the early lead with three field goals, two of which were beyond 40 yards. His nine points were the only points scored in the first half. The Tide offense moved the ball well but struggled to finish drives at the start of the game. Foster, though, was there to pick up the slack.
LB C.J. Mosley: Alabama's defense responded in a big way against Ole Miss, holding the Rebels scoreless with a slew of fourth-down stops. Much of the credit goes to Mosley, who quarterbacked the defense from his middle linebacker spot, organizing his teammates while making all the checks at the line of scrimmage. He wound up second on the team with seven tackles.
RB T.J. Yeldon: Really, this spot could go to Kenyan Drake as well. But since Yeldon was the starter, we'll give the nod to him as he helped get Alabama's running game back on track with 121 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. When Yeldon was out with a bruised butt, according to UA coach Nick Saban, Drake filled in admirably, rushing for 103 yards and a touchdown.
Crimson Tide kicker Cade Foster talks about spending some time in the offseason with former NFL kicker Morten Andersen, the league's all-time leading scorer.
Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee says the next four to five days are critical in the Tigers' quarterback battle.
Mammoth Mississippi State defensive tackle Nick James is learning how important technique is to having success in the SEC.
In the wake of Johnny Manziel's latest controversy, Ole Miss players and coach Hugh Freeze have mixed views on whether players should receive stipends.
Robert Nkemdiche is already practicing with the Rebels' first-team defense.
Georgia defensive line coach Chris Wilson has little patience for players who aren't getting the job done correctly.
LSU players voted to allow running back Jeremy Hill to re-join the team shortly after a judge decided not to send Hill to jail for violating his probation.
Texas A&M's hiring of the law firm that helped defend Auburn and Cam Newton in 2010 speaks volumes about the Aggies' game plan in dealing with the Manziel autograph situation.
Here's an Aggies season preview from GigEmNation.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones is making sure his players don't get bored or comfortable at practice.
Members of the Vols' secondary are tired of the critics and are ready to prove them wrong.
Florida coach Will Muschamp said the Gators' tight ends, who struggled in the spring, are making progress.
The Gators are also trying to develop depth at safety, which is why Muschamp isn't taking the easy way out and sticking Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins into the starting lineup.
South Carolina's former defensive coordinator first saw the potential in linebacker Cedrick Cooper. The Gamecocks' current defensive coordinator is just as enamored with him.
Arkansas began camp on Monday. The Razorbacks will have a new quarterback, and Brandon Allen says he's ready to take over for Tyler Wilson.
But with so many players to choose from, how do you determine the best athletes to compete in the rivalry, the ones who have shown up and played their best when the two schools met on the football field each year?
TideNation writer Alex Scarborough and GeauxTigerNation writer Gary Laney did their best to answer that difficult question.
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No. 43 Cade Foster
Senior place kicker
Expectations for 2013: Foster turned the corner in a big way as a junior, rebounding from a shaky sophomore season in which he was largely blamed for a key loss to LSU in which he missed three of four field-goal attempts. He used that setback to fuel a 2012 campaign in which he made four field goals of 40 yards or more and put a whopping 46 kickoffs back for a touchback. With Jeremy Shelley now gone, the question is whether Foster can go from the Tide's long-range kicker to the starting place kicker in every way.
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Punter Cody Mandell experienced a renaissance as well. The junior from Texas increased his yards per punt and went from two punts of 50 or more yards in 2011 to 12 this season. More importantly, he landed six more punts inside the 20-yard line.
1. Rushing attack: When Alabama needed it most, the running game came through. With Texas A&M ahead big in the first quarter and the Alabama offense seemingly lost, coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator turned to the running game. Alabama pounded the ball one play after another with Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon to get its first touchdown of the game and continued to work off the run to score again before halftime.
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Since Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007, he has only signed seven players from the state of Texas. The most notable recruiting battle with the Aggies came while Saban was putting together his first full recruiting class in 2008.
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Here's five storylines for the game ...
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