Finally, the right fit
Oft-criticized Auburn QB Campbell comes of age in Borges' new offense
Posted: Saturday September 18, 2004 9:23PM; Updated: Sunday September 19, 2004 6:18PM
AUBURN, Ala. -- Jason Campbell began his postgame press conference with a surprisingly stern look on his face, showing only the slightest emotion, giving the obligatory quotes about his teammates. But as the number of reporters dissipated and the questions grew more personal, you could see the magnitude of the moment setting in.
Campbell thought about his five years as everyone's favorite talk-show target. He thought about all the close ones in the past that got away -- the missed field goal against Florida, the miracle fourth down play by Georgia, the dropped touchdown pass against Ole Miss. And he thought about having finally gotten over the hump.
"Maybe," he said, "they'll finally lay off me some."
In unquestionably the most important performance of his career to date, Auburn's much-maligned fifth-year quarterback orchestrated the game-winning touchdown drive Saturday to knock off defending co-national champ LSU. Campbell converted a 4th-and-12 play to get to LSU's 14, then, with 1:14 left, threw a 16-yard touchdown to receiver Courtney Taylor that, after Auburn got a second chance at its extra point, was the difference in a 10-9 victory.
It was only fitting that Campbell, the player most associated with Auburn's repeated disappointments of the past few years, would be the one most responsible for its breakthrough.
"It's a huge confidence-builder for us," Taylor said, "knowing once we get in a bad situation, we've got a guy who's going to lead us out."
Like everything else in Campbell's career, this one would not come easy. Facing a relentless and creative LSU defensive front that repeatedly knocked him to the ground, the Tigers saw one opportunity after another slip through their fingers Saturday, trailing by the same 9-3 deficit from early in the second quarter until nearly the very end. Auburn's defense held LSU's offense at bay time and time again, while Campbell kept going out and taking his punishment, surviving to finish a modest-yet-respectable 16-of-27 passing for 170 yards.
The Tigers' vaunted running-back tandem of Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown did their part as well, rushing for a combined 137 yards on 27 carries. But Auburn's ground game and defense have been a known quantity for four years now. What made this game different than all the near-misses before it was the presence of a quarterback who could take advantage of his athleticism, make smart decisions and, when it mattered most, produce the big plays.
"You've got to have a mobile quarterback against a front like theirs," said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, himself the brunt of criticism over the years. "When they blitz up the middle on 4th and 12, Jason has the presence to get outside and throw sidearm to get the first down. A young guy wouldn't know to do that."
Campbell arrived at Auburn in 2000 as one of the highest-rated quarterback prospects in the country. Though his career numbers have been decent (4,599 yards, a 62.3 completion percentage), for the most part he'd been considered a disappointment who hadn't progressed as well as expected. Part of the problem, however, was out of Cambell's hands: Auburn has had four different offensive coordinators in four years.
Through Campbell's first three games this year, however, it's clear he's far more comfortable in the Tigers' latest system. Last season, opponents with strong defenses (USC, LSU, Georgia Tech, etc.) were able to stuff eight men in the box and effectively shut down Auburn's vanilla attack. Under Al Borges, the West Coast guru whom Tuberville hired over the offseason, Auburn's offense is far more creative, with countless formations and constant shifting among the ends and backs. Campbell has the freedom to check off as often as he wants.
"I think it suits his skills," Borges said. "We get him out of the pocket a little more. And as a fifth-year senior he's been exposed to so much football, I don't think you can throw him for a loop on anything."
Considering how much heat last year's offensive coordinator, Hugh Nall, took for his play-calling, Auburn fans likely consider Borges as much of a revelation as Campbell, but when asked about his role Saturday, Borges deflected any potential compliments. "It's not the calls -- the calls are overrated," Borges said. "It's Jason."
Don't tell that to Campbell, though, who is well aware of the effects of being in the wrong system.
"I've been criticized for things I didn't have any control over -- I just did what the coaches asked," Campbell said. "You've got to be in a system that fits you. When coach Borges came in, by the second or third week of spring, I knew we were clicking."
Williams, the Tigers' Heisman Trophy candidate and fellow senior, has been with Campbell through every step of his rocky road. Brown is Campbell's roommate and close friend. Both running backs were literally beaming afterward when talking about their quarterback's big day.
"It means a lot," Williams said. "All the criticism he took, most folks would have run out of town. For Jason to turn around and lead us to a game-winning touchdown ..."
Nothing else needed to be said.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.