Summer is for vacations at the beach, barbecues with friends, and watching classic football games of your favorite team in anticipation for the upcoming season. Those classic games help to fill the void until the new games start up in August. Now through the end of summer, Mark Schofield will be rewinding the tape to bring you breakdowns of those classic games to get you through the dog days. First up is the legendary 1982 Iron Bowl.
“Bo Over the Top”
Say those four words to any Auburn Tigers fan and, chances are, you can step back and watch the twinkle in their eyes grow before as they prepare to regale you with tales of glory from years gone by. You’ll be treated to stories about a freshman running back and the long awaited victory over a bitter rival. Should you mention that phrase to an Alabama Crimson Tide fan, the response will be less enthusiastic, with perhaps some bitter words about a few failed short yardage situations, and maybe even a parting shot or two at the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Regardless of which side of the Iron Bowl fans are on, all who witnessed it will tell you that the 1982 version of the game was one of the more memorable in the rivalry’s history.
But before the game’s final climactic minutes, the stage needed to be set. Entering the 1982 season, the Crimson Tide had won nine straight Iron Bowls, with the last Auburn victory coming on December 2, 1972. There were pieces, however, in place to turn the Tigers’ program around. Auburn had recently hired a new, young coach in Pat Dye, who had strung together winning seasons at two smaller programs, East Carolina and Wyoming. This would not be Dye’s first experience in the tough Southeastern Conference, as the new head coach cut his teeth as a graduate assistant at Alabama, under Bryant himself.
One of the more talented in-state recruits during the 1981 recruiting season was a running back from Bessemer, Alabama, just one hour outside of Tuscaloosa. It was widely expected that this RB would sign with the Crimson Tide, but when word came from Coach Bryant that he might not see the field until his junior season, the recruit turned his eyes to the only other school he was considering. Enter Coach Dye, who promised the young player that Auburn was a team on the rise – and that the running back would have a chance to contribute as a freshman.
That sold Bo Jackson on Auburn.
Both teams entered the game with 7-3 records. Coming off of back-to-back 5-6 seasons, Auburn was making a little bit of noise in the SEC. The Tigers had even nearly upset then-#1 Georgia, falling to the Herschel Walker-led Bulldogs 19-14. The Crimson Tide entered the 1982 Iron Bowl off back-to-back losses to LSU and Southern Mississippi, making the Tigers a seemingly unlikely favorite in this game, given the recent history between the two schools.
The game was played under cloudy skies at Legion Field, in Birmingham, in front of a national television audience. The venerable Keith Jackson provided the play-by-play for the afternoon for ABC, alongside color commentator Frank Broyles. Despite the fact that both teams relied heavily on the run, featuring triple-option, wishbone-style attacks, the Crimson Tide struck first through the air. Facing a 2nd and 10 at the Auburn 22, Alabama lined up in a flexbone look using 31 personnel, with quarterback Walter Lewis (#10) under center, and a receiver split to each side of the field. The Tigers base 5-2 defense showed Cover 3 in the secondary:
Lewis took to the sky on the play, faking a halfback lead play to the left before retreating into the pocket to throw. Alabama used a Yankee Concept on the play, with tight end Jesse Bendross (#88) running a dig route from the left and wide receiver Joey Jones running a post pattern from the right:
Jones sets up the route well by using a dino stem, faking to the outside to simulate a corner route before breaking to the inside on the post pattern. The play action look, coupled with the dig route from Bendross, draws the free safety forward. Once Jones gets inside of the cornerback, he has just enough room at the back of the end zone to snare the throw from Lewis, get a foot down, and open the scoring:
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Auburn then knotted the scoring at seven, thanks in part to the blocking from their star freshman RB. Facing a 3rd and goal just inside the Alabama 9-yard line, the Tigers line up in the wishbone using 30 personnel with quarterback Randy Campbell (#14) under center. Alabama counters with their base 5-2 defense, with both outside linebackers just outside the tackles, cheated down toward the line of scrimmage:
Jackson (#34) lines up at right halfback and the play is a delayed counter to Lionel “Little Train” Lewis (#6), the left halfback. Watch the block from Jackson that takes out both inside linebackers, creating enough of a crease for Lewis to slice into the endzone to tie the game:
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The video also gives a look at the old 5-2 defensive front, and how it served as the precursor to the modern 3-4 defense. Look at both defensive ends, who line up off the line of scrimmage in a two point stance, similar to a 3-4 defensive front.
That scamper knotted the game at seven, but Alabama would shortly tack on a field goal to retake the lead. Late in the second quarter, the Crimson Tide forced another Auburn punt, but after Bob Harris intercepted a Lewis pass, the Tigers were set up with solid field position. They capitalized shortly thereafter, on this Campbell triple-option keeper:
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I included this in part to show off the full cage mask sported by the Auburn quarterback, something you really do not see much of these days:
Alabama took control of the game in the third quarter thanks to two long scoring drives. The first drive ended with a touchdown, but the two-point conversion attempt failed. After forcing another Auburn punt, the Crimson Tide marched deep into Tigers’ territory once more and, holding onto a 19-14 lead, faced a critical 3rd and goal just inside the Auburn five yard-line. Bryant turned to his other quarterback, Ken Coley (#11) for this drive, who lined up under center with the Crimson Tide in the wishbone once more:
Alabama tried the triple option to the right side. After taking the snap, Coley faked the dive play to his fullback, and then continued down the line of scrimmage to read the edge defender, the defensive end. Watch as #93 stays home and doesn’t overcommit to the quarterback, taking away the pitch option and forcing Coley to cut inside where the inside linebackers are waiting:
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The QB is dragged down to the turf, setting up a tough decision for Bryant. After some debate, he sends out the field goal team, and the Crimson Tide extend their lead to eight with the successful kick.
But early in the fourth quarter, Bo started to warm up. Despite the Alabama defense slowing him most of the game, the freshman RB got loose on this big toss play with just over eleven minutes remaining in the contest:
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Jackson has a convoy in front of him as the Tigers pull both guards in front and he picks up lead blocks from both Lewis and fullback Ron O’Neal (#36). Once he reaches the second level, Bo uses a burst of speed to break one tackle and race deep into Alabama territory. This replay angle shows how both guards, plus his fellow halfback, sprung Jackson free:
Auburn cannot capitalize fully on the play, and is forced to kick a field goal with just over nine minutes remaining to cut the Alabama lead to 22-17. Then, their defense forced a relatively quick three-and-out from the Crimson Tide, giving the Tigers the football back with seven minutes remaining. Starting in their own territory, Campbell led Auburn into the red zone on a drive that included a huge third down conversion where the Auburn signal-caller used not his legs, but his arm to move the chains:
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Facing 3rd and 14 following a sack, Campbell delivers a strike to Mike Edwards (#89) on a deep out pattern to keep the drive alive. The QB delivers this throw with pin-point accuracy, leading Edwards right to the sideline to extend the drive.
A few plays later, it looked for a moment that the game was over. Campbell threw an interception deep in Crimson Tide territory, but the INT was nullified due to defensive pass interference, setting up the Tigers with a 1st and goal at the Alabama nine-yard line. But after a false start penalty, Auburn faced a 1st and goal at the 14-yard line. After an incompletion, a short Jackson run, and a pass to Jackson that saw him tackled just inside the one-yard line, the Tigers faced 4th and goal with the game on the line and needing a touchdown.
During their timeout, Coach Dye was huddling with his offense when his freshman running back had an idea. Jackson had been a successful high jumper in high school in addition to starring in both baseball and football, so naturally the RB told the coach “I was a high jumper in high school. Why don’t I go over the top?”
Dye listened to his freshman and sent the offense back onto the field for one more play:
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The touchdown gave the Tigers a one-point lead, which they failed to extend with the two-point conversion try. A frenetic final few moments came to a close when the Crimson Tide could not convert a 4th and long with 20 seconds remaining, and the Tigers were able to run out the clock. It was their first Iron Bowl victory in a decade, and the team carried their young head coach off of Legion Field.
It was also the last Iron Bowl for Bear Bryant. Alabama went on to defeat Illinois in the Liberty Bowl and, a month after retiring in the wake of that victory, Bryant passed away.
For Auburn, the victory over their in-state rival propelled them to a bid in the Tangerine Bowl, and the Tigers went on to defeat Boston College and finish the season ranked #14 in both the Associated Press and the Coaches Polls. The win also set the stage for their success the following year, as they finished 11-1 and secured their first SEC Championship since the 1950s. The 1983 Tigers also finished the year ranked #1 by the New York Times, following a 9-7 victory over Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. Auburn entered the bowl season ranked third in the country, and despite the two teams ahead of them losing their bowl games, Miami leap-frogged the Tigers from #5 to #1 in the AP Poll and from #4 to #1 in the Coaches Poll to be determined national champions.
But that run began with a single play, known forever as Bo Over the Top.