c.2013 New York Times News Service
ATLANTA - The Auburn Tigers had a hard time explaining it themselves. It made them pause, then shake their heads from side to side, as they stopped to ponder the spectacle of what they did this season.
The Tigers were 0-8 in the Southeastern Conference, and 3-9 overall, in 2012. The coach who took them to a national title in 2010, Gene Chizik, was fired after the disheartening season. They entered this 2013 season with no apparent solution for their most troubled position, quarterback.
Yet on Saturday, Auburn stood on the Georgia Dome turf as SEC champions, with a 12-1 record. The third-ranked Tigers ripped through No. 5 Missouri, 59-42, in the SEC championship game behind Tre Mason's 304 rushing yards, an SEC title game record. After the game they were lobbying to be included in the Bowl Championship Series championship game Jan. 6 - a possibility that became a likelihood after Michigan State defeated No. 2 Ohio State, 34-24, in the Big Ten title game.
"It's hard to explain," center Reese Dismukes said when he was asked to explain how Auburn turned things around so quickly.
Receiver C.J. Uzomoh said, "Well," and he paused for a moment. "We bought into what Coach Malzahn was telling us," He added.
Fullback Jay Prosch said, "The crazy scientist. He did it."
Gus Malzahn, Auburn's first-year head coach, unleashed his whirling, eccentric offense of options and reverses and sweeps on Missouri, the SEC's second-best run defense, and Missouri crumbled. Missouri (11-2) was giving up just 119 yards rushing per game, but Mason carved through what was regarded as the best defensive line in the conference on an Auburn-record 46 carries to help his team to 677 total yards.
Mason, a 5-foot-10, 205-pound junior scored four touchdowns, including a fourth-down plunge from the 1-yard line with 11:09 to play that put Auburn ahead, 52-42.
Still, no one relaxed at that point because this was Auburn, which in its last two games had beaten Georgia on a deflected pass and defeated No. 1 Alabama when the Crimson Tide missed a field goal in the game's final second and Chris Davis returned the kick from the back of the end zone for a score.
"It's been a little too much on the heart for our fans," Uzomoh said. "I think that was enough the last two weeks."
After Mason's touchdown Saturday, Missouri tried to convert a fourth-and-1 from its 13 and failed. Auburn took the ball and promptly handed it to Mason, who barged in for a score that put the game away, 59-42, with 4:22 to play.
Auburn was so dominant with its rushing offense that Malzahn was adamant his team should make the BCS title game, even before Ohio State's loss.
"We're the SEC champ, I believe we've won the last seven years," Malzahn said. "We play the toughest schedule of any of the teams there. And we're playing our best football."
Auburn's best football was too much for a Missouri defense that prepared all week to control gaps and not let Auburn's offense control the pace. Missouri had some hope early when defensive end Kony Ealy knocked the ball away from Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall for a fumble.
Missouri succeeded in taking Marshall out of the game and making him hand the ball off, but Mason was not a bad alternative. He averaged 6.6 yards a carry and put himself in the Heisman Trophy conversation.
"It was some of the biggest holes I've ever seen, I've ever run through," Mason said.
Malzahn crossed up the Missouri defense play after play as Auburn scored on four of its seven possessions in the first half to take a 28-27 lead into intermission. When Missouri went to a three-man front, Auburn ran plays outside. When Missouri went to a four-man front, with its ends set at the edge to prevent runners from getting outside, Malzahn called plays to go inside.
Over and over, Auburn's offense thinned out the Missouri defense, and Mason sprinted through holes. He had 195 yards rushing in the first half, just 16 yards short of the SEC championship game record.
Missouri stayed close because of its offense, which was averaging 38 points a game. Missouri trailed, 45-42, at the end of three quarters because it could run and pass, amassing 534 yards of total offense in the game. Running back Henry Josey rushed for 123 yards and James Franklin threw for 303 yards, but that was not enough to overcome Auburn's relentlessness with the ball.
"We talked all week about not giving up a gap and playing our assignments," Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines said. "Then we gave up gaps."
Auburn simply had too much variety on offense. If Mason was not gashing Missouri inside, Cory Grant was dashing outside for 65 yards. Marshall, the quarterback, who started his college career at Georgia as a defensive back before transferring to Auburn last spring, revved up in the second half as the defense bore in on Mason, and he finished with 101 yards rushing. He also completed 9 of 11 passes for 132 yards.
"It's been one of the more unique experiences I have ever been a part of," Malzahn said. "We strained the dog out of our players in the spring. In the fall camp we were very physical, and folks came together."