By JOHN ZENOR, AP Sports Writer
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Gus Malzahn and Auburn have discovered the quickest way to redeem a frustrating season: beat Alabama.
The Tigers, who had sputtered at times offensively and fallen short against three top 10 teams, survived for a 48-45 victory over the then-No. 5 Crimson Tide on Saturday. The win eased a lot of the frustrations for fans, the team and Malzahn, who had drawn some fire for his play-calling and offense.
The team that couldn’t get over the hump against No. 1 LSU, No. 7 Florida or No. 4 Georgia cleared its final and most meaningful hurdle. The victory moved Auburn up five spots to No. 11 in the AP Top 25 and ended Alabama’s record string of 68 weeks in the Top 5. It also ended the injury-plagued Crimson Tide’s hopes of another playoff trip.
“When you look at this whole season, we knew it was going to be a gauntlet,” Malzahn said. “We played the toughest schedule in college football, and our guys hung in there. At times it was tough. They never flinched.
“Going into this game, we felt like we had the better team.”
It didn’t always seem like that. The offense and freshman quarterback Bo Nix had some struggles in those big games and the opening win over No. 13 Oregon.
The defense largely kept Auburn in each of those games, and in this one. The Tigers returned two interceptions for touchdowns against the Tide, overcoming a 515-354 deficit in total yards.
A team that had risen to No. 7 in the rankings and was nursing playoff hopes found the best way to soothe some of that disappointment. Auburn fans surged onto the field, covering it from end to end.
And presumably Malzahn ended any speculation about his job security.
“In this day and time in college football, the highs are high and the lows are low,” he said. “I mean, it’s easy to turn and point fingers. That’s what the whole world really wants you to do, but our (team) leadership hung in there and they didn’t flinch. We went through some tough times. I’m real proud of our staff, too.
“It’s been an up-and-down season, but we’ve finished on a high note. We’ve got a chance to win 10 games. That’s a real special thing, you know, here in the (SEC) West and playing the schedule we’ve played.”
Linebacker Zakoby McClain returned one interception 100 yards for a touchdown, and Smoke Monday scored on a 29-yard return. With wide receiver Anthony Schwartz injured on the game’s opening play, Shaun Shivers filled in and scored the final touchdown on his only carry of the game, an 11-yarder with 8:08 left.
Then Alabama’s Joseph Bulovas missed a 30-yarder. Auburn was able to run out the clock after the Tide was flagged for having 12 men on the field when the Tigers lined up their punter at receiver on fourth down.
“I mean, you couldn’t write it up any better, man,” said wide receiver Sal Cannella, who caught his first touchdown pass of the season. “The whole year’s been a grind. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs as a team.
“And this is one that really matters. We knew that and we knew just to have a good feeling about the year, we had to win this one. You couldn’t write it up any better, man.”