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November 18, 2006
Auburn 22, Alabama 15
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. ? Fear the thumb?
Alabama should have feared itself instead.
The Crimson Tide had only themselves to blame for their fifth consecutive Iron Bowl loss. No. 15 Auburn forced four turnovers Saturday on its way to a 23-15 victory over Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Auburn's victory gave the Tigers their first five-game Iron Bowl winning streak since 1954-58. Auburn fans had anticipated this possibility by making "Fear the Thumb" their year-long slogan.
"I guess I'll walk around with a thumb up on Thanksgiving break," said Auburn cornerback David Irons, whose interception in the final minute sealed the victory. "Maybe the turkey I'll be eating will have a thumb."
The Tigers (10-2) celebrated their victory afterward by raising open hands aloft as they raced toward the Auburn section of the stands. The more creative players also wiggled their thumbs.
And they had every reason to celebrate their history-making victory.
Neither team had won five consecutive Iron Bowls since Alabama captured nine in a row from 1973-81.
What explains the growing separation between the programs?
"They do their playing in the newspapers," Auburn defensive end Quentin Groves said. "We do our playing on the field. They did a lot of talking. Once you talk a lot, you're trying to make up for something."
Pardon Groves and Irons for sounding a bit boastful. They had just played leading roles in their team's most important victory of the season.
Auburn scored its first two touchdowns after a pair of sacks by Groves resulted in fumbles that gave the Tigers possession deep in Alabama territory. Irons knocked down a pass in the end zone to end Alabama's last major scoring threat before sealing the victory with an interception in the final minute.
"The turnovers were what hurt us," said Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson, who went 18-of-33 for 252 yards with two touchdown passes, two fumbles and an interception. "That was a big thing."
Turnovers and red-zone failures haunted the Tide (6-6) on a day when it appeared they might end Auburn's dominance of this rivalry.
Auburn continued its recent tradition of taking an early lead in the Iron Bowl by racing to a 14-3 advantage midway through the second quarter. Wilson responded with a pair of touchdown passes that gave the Tide a 15-14 lead early in the third period.
Instead of creating scoring opportunities for itself, Alabama's offense merely made things easy for Auburn. The Tigers amassed a total of 89 yards on their three touchdown drives.
"With a sack or turnover, it shortens the field," Groves said. "It's easier to drives 15 yards than drive 85 yards."
"We didn't have a lot of style points," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said, "but when you play good defense and you cause turnovers, you have a chance."
Alabama never gave itself a chance because the Tide turned the red zone into the dead zone.
On its first series of the game, Alabama had first-and-goal at the 3-yard line before settling for Jamie Christensen's 24-yard field goal. The inability to capitalize fully on scoring opportunities hurt them again in the final period.
Alabama had a golden opportunity for a tying touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Jeremy Clark recovered a Kenny Irons fumble to give the Tide the ball at Auburn's 40-yard line with 11:52 remaining.
The Tide instead never even got into field-goal range.
On the very next play, Auburn linebacker Will Herring knocked the ball loose from wide receiver Keith Brown. Auburn defensive tackle SenDerrick Marks pounced on the loose ball at the Auburn 30 to end the scoring threat.
Alabama made a much more serious threat on its next series. Wilson's 25-yard sideline pass to Nikita Stover gave the Tide a first down at Auburn's 13-yard line midway through the fourth quarter.
That's as close as the Tide would get.
Herring threw Jimmy Johns for a five-yards loss on first down before Wilson threw two consecutive incompletions. Wilson then threw a fourth-down pass toward Stover in the right corner of the end zone, but Irons knocked the ball down to end the threat.
"It's all on us," Alabama fullback Le'Ron McClain said of the Tide's red-zone failures. "We just can't get the job done. It's not the coaches. We just have to execute. They are going to call the play, and we just have to run it. When they call it and we don't get it, that's our fault."
By the time Irons picked off a pass to end Alabama's final hopes with 1:17 remaining, the Tigers were already preparing to wiggle their thumbs.
Consider that gesture by Auburn a fitting analysis of Alabama's performance.
Whenever the Tide had a chance to grab control of the game, they were all thumbs.
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