AUBURN, Ala. — The officiating crew gathered the captains of the teams that simply refused to win and began overtime with the greatest punchline of the 2022 college football season.
"Congratulations on a great game so far."
After a second half that featured 12 consecutive punts and a fateful fourth-and-1 failure seemingly spelling the end for embattled coach Bryan Harsin, Auburn football had just been taken off life support. For the time being, anyway. Missouri kneeled out the last minute in order to kick a chip-shot field goal, then Harrison Mevis missed it from 26 yards.
Harsin was fighting for his job Saturday, 17 games into his Auburn tenure. He might not have fought hard enough, but Auburn escaped regardless, 17-14 in overtime, thanks to a series of Mizzou mistakes ending in Nathaniel Peat's fumble into the end zone on what would have been the walk-off touchdown for Missouri (2-2, 0-1 SEC).
Instead, player of the game Derick Hall recovered in the end zone, and Auburn (3-1, 1-0 SEC) won despite producing 129 yards of total offense after the first quarter.
Auburn got back to its running roots, but blocking is abysmal
Harsin seemingly answered the cries for running back Tank Bigsby to get the ball more frequently after his nine carries vs. Penn State. On the Tigers' first possession, they drove 59 yards on 14 plays − all runs, capped by a Robby Ashford 11-yard QB draw. Bigsby had seven carries on the drive, and by the end of the first quarter he had surpassed his total from the previous week. His 10th carry went for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Auburn didn't pass until its 17th play.
But Auburn's lack of an offensive line caught up with Bigsby. Missouri, which was credited with three tackles for loss against Abilene Christian, had twice as many by halftime against Auburn. Nick Brahms' replacement at center, Tate Johnson, struggled. Then he got injured. Jalil Irvin was option No. 3. The situation did not improve.
Auburn couldn't get any push in its run blocking, especially through the A gap, and pass protection continued to be a fatal flaw. Play-calling is limited by what Auburn cannot do in the trenches.
Auburn edges stepped up in big spots, but run defense buckled again
After failing to sack Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford, Auburn desperately needed a momentum boost from its defensive front. Colby Wooden provided one early with a sack. Edge rushers Hall and Eku Leota added three combined. Pass rush was inconsistent but mostly clutch.
But Mizzou gashed Auburn with gap-scheme runs. Eli Drinkwitz's play-calling spread out Auburn's defense with side-to-side plays. Running backs Cody Schrader and Nathaniel Peat combined for more than 100 yards in Missouri's methodical (but rare) scoring drives.
Auburn's coverage stepped up. Cornerback Jaylin Simpson was in coverage on a pair of crucial third-down incompletions in the second half, redeeming himself after not getting started. D.J. James started in his place and had a pass breakup. Nehemiah Pritchett's tipped pass on a slant led to Auburn's first interception of the year.
Bryan Harsin's 'fourth-and-1 mentality' backfires with bitter irony
The motto of the Harsin era inside Auburn's facility has been a "fourth-and-1 mentality" at all times. It was put to the test against Missouri, and Harsin stuck to his guns with his job on the line. It backfired.
In the first half, the Tigers found themselves in three fourth-and-1 situations on offense. They went for it every time and converted every time. Twice, Bigsby barreled forward for the yardage. The third time, Robby Ashford got the first down with a quarterback sneak.
With less than two minutes remaining, the situation arrived again. Auburn had fourth-and-1 at the Missouri 29. After a timeout and maybe with an earlier missed field goal in mind, Harsin sent the offense back on the field. Bigsby tried to leap over the pile, but Auburn's offensive line gave out immediately with linebacker penetration. Bigsby tried to pick himself up and run to the outside. He was dragged down.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Auburn football, Bryan Harsin escape Missouri on overtime miracle