This was before the game, before the ritualistic shouts of "War Eagle!" boomed across the Orange Bowl, even before Auburn departed the Loveliest Village for a Friday night contest with the University of Miami. Shug Jordan, the Southern gentleman who has spent 40 of his 64 years on the Plain as a player and coach, sat in a golf cart, squinting across the practice field. The defense was over here, the offense over there, the field-goal kickers out yonder. And everywhere an assistant coach was barking orders.
"The players were embarrassed and ashamed of their efforts last year," Jordan was saying of Auburn's late-lamented 6-6 season. "It wasn't just that we lost, but it was the way we lost. This year there's a different attitude. I can see it. I'm real high on this team. I think some good things will come of it. I didn't realize this until we beat Tennessee last Saturday, but that one gave me a big lift. This team has possibilities that intrigue me."
There is a newness to the Tigers, not unlike the gloss on the 1972 team that unexpectedly finished 10-1 despite the absence of '71 stars Pat Sullivan and Terry Beasley. There are three new assistant coaches and four others with new assignments. The Veer offense is new, too. But the defense is as familiar as Shug himself. "Our defense is fine," Jordan said, "but that's sorta normal." The broom that swept the dusty corners of Auburn's program last spring left the defense undisturbed. Oh, there was some experimenting with a 5-2 alignment, but it was quickly decided that the old 4-4 refrain would be good enough.
Good enough entering the Miami game, it turned out, to rank first nationally overall, second against the rush, third against scoring and seventh against the pass. The 10 points collected by Louisville (16-3), Chattanooga (52-7) and Tennessee (21-0) came on a field goal and a kickoff return.
Impressive, yes, but not enough to intimidate the man who had quarterbacked Miami to victories over Houston (20-3) and Tampa (28-26). "Their defense is supposed to be the greatest thing that ever happened to them," Miami's Kary Baker said before the game. "Well, I'm sure we're going to score. We can run and pass on them, both. We sure aren't going to win 0-0."
As Baker and 33,490 spectators soon found out, the Hurricanes would not win 0-0—or win at all. They lost, 3-0. The Tiger defense allowed only 166 yards of total offense, intercepted three passes, recovered a fumble to set up the field goal and permitted passage beyond midfield only three times. Here is the extent of the damage the Hurricanes were able to inflict on Auburn:
In the second quarter Miami reached first and 10 at the Tiger 20 on a 60-yard drive. Five plays later, following a penalty, two incomplete passes, a sack of the quarterback and a bobbled snap by the punter, Auburn took over at the Hurricanes' 41. Push 'em back, push 'em back, w-a-a-y back.
Later that same period Miami had a second and one at the Auburn 36. Reserve Linebacker Carl Hubbard dropped a runner for an eight-yard loss, Baker threw an incomplete pass and, on fourth down, Cornerback Jim McKinney pulled in an interception.
The third Miami opportunity unraveled late in the game. By this time, Auburn's ground-bound ball-control offense had produced a 24-yard field goal by Greg Gillis. McKinney's fumble recovery after a tackle by Linebacker Bobby Davis made it possible. But now, Baker's sharp passes moved Miami from the 23 to a first down at the Auburn 36 with slightly more than a minute to play. In quick succession, Tackle Gaines Lanier knocked down a pass at the line of scrimmage, End Liston Eddins harassed Baker into an incompletion and Linebacker Johnny Sumner dropped back into the curl area to intercept a pass, taking it smack in his shoulder pads.
"If they had scored," an Auburn offensive assistant said afterwards, "we'd have had to score again. Well," and he paused for a moment, "I'm just glad they didn't." Jordan, meanwhile, was waving a sheet of paper in the air and rejoicing, "These final statistics are amazing."
Even Baker was properly respectful. "Their defense didn't make a mistake," he said. "They don't give you anything. What you get, you earn."
This may be the best defense seen around Auburn since the 1957 unit aided another inconsistent offense by allowing just four touchdowns in an unbeaten, national-championship season. Shutout victories by seven points or less occurred four times that year.
The principal characters in this year's swarming, stingy bunch make for an oddly assorted family. Though nine are seniors, only three of them were regular starters last season. Two, End Rusty Deen and Safety Mike Fuller, came to Auburn to play offense. Sumner was a walk-on, joining the team as a 160-pound freshman. Now he is a 204-pound senior.
Probably the most outstanding is Linebacker Ken Bernich, who led the Tigers against Miami with seven tackles. Bernich does not like it when someone mentions his resemblance to that TV cartoon character, Dudley Doright. "Dudley's a good guy," he huffed, "and I play defense." Bernich remembers spending "some pretty dismal afternoons last year. We hit the bottom of the barrel and it hurt, physically and mentally. The only good thing about last year is the chance we have to redeem ourselves this year. Over the summer I had a lot of sleepless nights thinking about that.
The usual theories were summoned up to account for Auburn's troubles in 1973. Injuries, inexperience, lack of depth. And, in fact, Friday's game was the first since mid-1972 for which Auburn could field the same starting lineup for the second week in a row. But the players believe there was something more decisive. "Last year," says sophomore Quarterback Phil Gargis, "everybody had their own little game to play. We weren't thinking as a team." Fullback Secdrick McIntyre, another sophomore, says, "People were looking down on each other. There was even fussing in the huddle."
So far in '74, it has been one big happy family, with player-only team meetings and Bible classes. It rankles no one that the defense is carrying an unequal share of the load. "That's all right," says Fuller. "The offense has made a lot of progress and we understand they just haven't made it all the way. We have so much confidence in ourselves on defense, we feel we can get by with whatever they put on the board."
Miami has better balance than Auburn, and against a lesser defense it almost certainly would have won. The Hurricanes should finish with their first winning season since 1967, despite a pattern remarkably similar to last year's. First there was a dramatic upset triumph. Then a closer-than-expected victory. Next, a narrow loss to a highly considered opponent.
"Last year we went downhill fast," says Offensive Guard Joe Wysock. "We have to prove to ourselves we can be consistent for an entire season."
Friday night against Auburn, or, more precisely, against Auburn's defense, was a tough time to begin trying.