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Saban praises Alabama for ‘gut-check’ performance in wildly entertaining Iron Bowl

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The Iron Bowl is never boring.

With revenge on its mind, Alabama started slowly before eventually running away with a 55-44 win over Auburn Saturday in the highest scoring Iron Bowl ever.

“Somebody asked me how would you characterize this team,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “I would say that they do a great job from a competitive character standpoint of always making plays in the game when they need to make them. They seem to always be able to be resilient enough to play through adversity, which we certainly did today.”

The best rivalry in college sports did not disappoint.

Auburn’s fearsome offensive attack propelled the Tigers to a 26-21 lead at halftime. Gus Malzahn’s squad gashed the Tide in seemingly every possible way, from runs up the middle and on the edge, to long pass plays over the top to their two star receivers.

Alabama entered the game allowing an average of 283 yards per game. Auburn piled on 345 yards in the first half alone, which is more yardage than a Saban-coached Alabama team had ever relinquished in a single half.

At halftime, Saban urged his team to settle down and regroup.

“I just told the players at halftime, ‘We have 30 minutes,’” Saban said. “‘A lot of you guys have a lot of goals and aspirations. This is a gut-check as to what kind of heart you have, what kind of character you have and what kind of competitor you are in how you go out and play the second half of this game. I believe in you, I think we can win and I think we will win if everybody makes a commitment to doing their best in the second half.’”

It worked.

Alabama came back from a 12-point second half deficit and went on to outscore Auburn 34-18 down the stretch, at one point notching five consecutive touchdown drives in the second half.

Auburn’s achilles heel proved to be its poor performance in the red zone. The Tigers racked up big yardage by repeatedly marching the ball down the field, but struggled to punch it into the end zone, kicking five field goals inside Alabama’s 20-yard-line.

Alabama’s turnaround was fueled by Blake Sims and Amari Cooper, but prior to their second-half tear, Sims threw three interceptions — bad interceptions, as Saban put it — and looked overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment. It is the first time a Saban-coached Alabama quarterback had three interceptions in a game. Backup quarterback and perennial “grass is always greener” candidate Jake Coker even began warming up on the sideline early in the second half when the struggling starter seemed unlikely to turn things around.

“I didn’t have a very good first half,” Sims said after the game. “We came in to halftime and the team said, ‘It’s okay Blake, keep playing, we are behind you 100 percent.’”

With his teammates rallying around him, Sims’ confidence never seemed to waver, even after a string of mistakes. His resiliency was a key factor in his ability to bounce back and lead Alabama to the win.

Several long-held Iron Bowl records were toppled Saturday night in Tuscaloosa.

The 99 combined points scored is a new record for the game. The previous high was the 75-point 1969 Iron Bowl. The two teams also combined for an Iron Bowl-record 1,169 yards of total offense.

Even the non-record-setting numbers were huge.

Alabama gave up 630 total yards — 456 of them through the air — but still managed to pull away and win by 11 points.

“There are a lot more points being scored in this day and age in college football than ever before,” Saban said of the high scoring affair. “The way we’re headed in college football, there’s going to be games like this, and we’re going to have to win games like this.”

Going into this game, both teams knew they could run the ball. But, as predicted, the passing attacks ended up being responsible for the majority of the yardage and points.

Auburn’s receiving tandem of Sammie Coates and Duke Williams was lethal for the majority of the game, making circus catches and dominating Alabama’s secondary. Coates finished with 206 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 40 yards per catch. Williams finished with 121 yards.

Alabama’s Cooper tied his own school record for receiving yards in a single game. He finished with 13 catches for 224 yards and three touchdowns and passed D.J. Hall for most Alabama career receptions (207). He also became the all-time Alabama leader for touchdowns in a season with 14.

Cooper was already considered a favorite to appear at the Heisman Trophy ceremony, and his performance Saturday night on the biggest regular-season stage of the year likely punched his ticket to New York.

Alabama lost the battle over turnovers, time of possession, total plays and yardage on Saturday, but the Crimson Tide won the game. It was their 43rd Iron Bowl victory. They now move on to face another team of Tigers — Missouri — in the SEC Championship game in Atlanta.

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