The 30-minute Drive remains an elusive and improbable dream, but I’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge Auburn’s contribution to this field of science. Join me for a fond recollection of the night the Tigers held onto the ball for an entire quarter against South Carolina on a September night in 2006?
THE CAST OF CHARACTERS
Auburn’s head coach, Tommy Tuberville, is destined for a sedition-adjacent future in the District of Columbia. Steve Spurrier, smirking on the opposite sideline, has just completed his own disastrous turn in our nation’s capital. One of them will be sent there by the will of the people, while the other was handpicked by Daniel Snyder. What I’m saying is bad decisions come in all shapes and sizes.
Just keep in mind, throughout all of this, that the coach watching helplessly as he cannot call an offensive play in for what must have felt like an eternity is Steve Spurrier. I am honestly proud of him for not sitting down with his back to the field, opening a book, and asking an assistant to alert him “whenever we get the bright idea to get the dang ball back.”
Will Muschamp’s here too, though he has nothing to do this quarter, since his unit never sets foot on the field. (He’ll have his own clock misadventures at South Carolina one day, don’t fret.) No, the hero of the night is his colleague, Al Borges, commander of the Auburn offense and, as of this writing, the last Michigan OC to beat Ohio State.
Tonight, he writes his magnum opus.
THE RAW NUMBERS
In this third quarter, Auburn accomplishes the following:
- 137 yards of offense
- 50% of third downs converted (3 of 6)
- 30 plays
- 2 drives
- 1 fourth down conversion
None of that looks especially impressive, and that’s kind of the point. You can’t sit on the ball for 15 minutes making huge gains and touchdowns. Ten of the 30 plays Auburn runs in this period fail to gain positive yardage, and for purposes of this unusual accomplishment, all ten are necessary.
But none of them matter without the most crucial ingredient in the stew, the fulcrum upon which two possessions span the length of a quarter:
THE SURPRISE ONSIDE KICK
Imagine the most graceful heron ever born on this planet. Picture it in your mind, swooping and gliding over a mirror-still lake at sunrise, the pinks and purples of the sky bouncing off the water and onto the heron’s feathers and beak as it cuts through the air. Close your eyes and suppose this heron beginning to sing the most achingly wonderful aria in perfect tune, filling your chest with joy and your eyes with happy tears.
This onside kick is more beautiful than all that shit.
On this date in 2006, Auburn beat South Carolina 24-17 in Columbia. The Tigers controlled the ball for the entire 3rd quarter thanks in part to this onside kick. #FlashbackFriday pic.twitter.com/iyI8Z6Yq0Z— The Auburn Vault (@AuburnVault) September 28, 2018
It’s the connective tissue that binds two drives and makes this one-sided quarter possible. So beautifully done that an Auburn player can stop, wait to receive it like a baby punt, bobble it, and watch a teammate recover the ball without a Gamecock ever even grazing the leather. I am leaving a family heirloom to this kick in my will.
Go ahead. Watch it one more time, and then we’ll continue.
SEVEN OTHER IMPORTANT PLAYS (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)
- John Vaughn kicks a 25-yard field goal. This concludes Auburn’s first possession, a drive that eats up 8:38. Had this kick missed, the Tigers couldn’t have continued their temporal feasting – South Carolina would have immediately taken over on offense, with no chance for an onside kick.
- Brad Lester returns the post-halftime kickoff for 11 yards, and a holding penalty moves Auburn back to their own seven. A long journey takes time (nearly nine minutes, in this case). An average or even good return shaves a play or two off Auburn’s first possession – which, as we’ll see, might have been fatal.
- Brandon Cox completes an eight-yard pass to Robert Dunn on 4th and 6 at the Gamecock 30. A turnover on downs gives South Carolina the ball, as does a punt in all likelihood. A field goal doesn’t necessarily, but it would have to be made and followed by a second, less-surprising onside kick. Going for it was the safest way for Auburn to keep possession.
- Brandon Cox completes a 12-yard pass to Lee Guess on 3rd and 11 at the Auburn 16. This is the fifth play the Tigers run in the third quarter, and a failure to convert here almost certainly leads to a punt, ending this adventure before it can even get properly started.
- Carl Stewart runs for no gain on 2nd and goal at the South Carolina 1. When this ball is snapped, the clock still has 51 seconds left in the quarter. Had Stewart scored, Auburn would have fallen just short of complete possession in the third.
- Kenny Irons runs for no gain on 3rd and goal at the South Carolina 1. This time, the clock’s down to 0:12 at the snap, but a rushing touchdown wouldn’t burn up all the remaining time.
- On 3rd and 21 from the South Carolina 33, Cox completes a 25-yard pass to Courtney Taylor. Actually, I want to examine this play as part of a larger whole:
EXPEDITION TO NOWHERE
Most of the third quarter follows a pattern. Auburn stalls out, hits a play or two to keep the chains moving, stalls out again, and then picks up a first down again. It’s a little like watching someone who just learned to drive stick in a minivan with very sensitive brakes.
But Auburn’s second drive contains a sequence that defies the rules of time and forward progress, and it gives them the final push they need.
Remember that wonderful onside kick? It comes with one downside: The offense starts with really good field position, which does not make the job of chewing clock any easier. Auburn’s first drive took up more than half of the third quarter, but it started at their own seven. This one’s beginning around midfield, and there are still over six minutes to go before the quarter ends.
The first play, an 18-yard pass, puts Auburn at the South Carolina 34. And then the Expedition to Nowhere begins.
Here, I made you a map.
- 3 yard run
- 1 yard run
- Incomplete pass
- 8 yard completion (that’s item three in the previous list)
- 8 yard holding penalty
- 5 yard sack
- 2 yard run
- The converted 3rd and 21 I was waiting to talk about
When Play 1 starts, the clock’s at 5:51. When the ball is snapped on Play 8, it’s down to 2:02. Cox finds a receiver to keep the drive going, but the real miracle is that Auburn has managed to grind away almost four minutes while only winding up with a net gain of one yard on seven plays.
And that, dear reader, is how Auburn kept the ball for the entire third quarter against South Carolina in 2006 while only scoring three points.