By Mike Easterling
Steve Wilson was playing for Auburn in the early 1970s when the Tigers upset Alabama in the unforgettable “Punt, Bama, Punt’’ game at Birmingham’s Legion Field. But while that legendary 17-16 win in 1972 certainly holds a high spot in Wilson’s Iron Bowl memories – it was his senior season, after all – a comeback 33-28 victory in ’70 might have provided his proudest moment against Alabama.
In that game, an injury-ravaged Auburn erased a 17-0 deficit behind quarterback and future Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan and an explosive offense that also featured All-American receiver Terry Beasley.
“We were banged up and only had like 10 or 11 starters left,’’ said Wilson, a local attorney who lettered for the Tigers from ’70-72 in an era when freshmen weren’t eligible to play varsity. “We were down 17 to nothing and Beasley had been knocked out.’’
In ‘70 Auburn, which entered the season unranked despite posting an 8-3 record that included a 49-26 over Alabama the previous year, rose to No. 6 in the Associated Press poll after starting the season 5-0.
A 17-9 loss to LSU dropped the Tigers to 12th, but they climbed back to No. 8 after routing both Florida and Mississippi State. A 31-17 loss to unranked Georgia followed, and Auburn limped into the Iron Bowl at No. 11 against the unranked Crimson Tide.
“We had gotten upset by LSU, then we started getting a lot of people hurt,’’ said Wilson, a Lee High School graduate who played linebacker. “Georgia knocked us out of the Sugar Bowl. We played a 4-4. I think we had three healthy linebackers left for the Alabama game.’’
But the Tigers also had an offense that finished with a Southeastern Conference record for most yards in a season at 4,850, breaking the mark set by Georgia in 1942 by 125 yards. And that offense went to work after Alabama went out to that 17-0 lead in the first half.
Sullivan, who won the Heisman his senior year of ’71, began moving the Tigers and they moved to within 17-10 before halftime.
Auburn pulled even at 17-all midway through the third quarter, and Alabama went back ahead 20-17 early in the fourth before Auburn again tied the game at 20-all.
The Tigers went ahead but the Crimson Tide, behind All-American running back Johnny Musso’s 221 rushing yards, scored and was successful on a two-point play to go ahead 28-27.
Auburn, however, wouldn’t be denied and forged ahead for good with just under four minutes remaining when Wallace Clark scored on a 3-yard run.
“Beasley came back and Sullivan got hot,’’ Wilson said, “him and Beasley and (receiver Dick) Schmalz and all of them.’’
Sullivan finished with 317 passing yards.
Auburn went on to defeat Ole Miss, quarterbacked by Archie Manning, 35-28 in the Gator Bowl and finished the season ranked No. 10.
Wilson would just as soon forget the ’71 Iron Bowl, the only one his Tigers lost in his four years with the program. The Tigers entered the game undefeated and ranked fifth following a 35-20 win over Georgia, a game that sealed the Heisman for Sullivan, but third-ranked Alabama spoiled things with a numbing 31-7 victory.
Auburn lost 40-22 to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl to cap the season.
“We had never seen the wishbone,’’ Wilson said. “We lost to Alabama and Oklahoma and they both ran the wishbone.’’
By the time Auburn and Alabama met for the ’72 Iron Bowl and the Tigers again faced the Tide’s wishbone, Wilson said Tigers defensive assistant Sam Mitchell had “figured it out.’’
Without the likes of Sullivan and Beasley, who had moved on to the NFL, and others in what had been a high-powered offense Auburn entered the season with tempered expectations. But, as Wilson said, the Tigers had “a great defense and a tremendous kicking game.’’
Those two things helped Auburn’s squad earn a revered place in the program’s history, one of its iconic nicknames and another favorite Iron Bowl memory for Wilson.
Auburn, despite an 8-1 record blemished only by a 35-7 setback at LSU and a No. 9 ranking, was a heavy underdog to the second-ranked Tide.
For three quarters plus it appeared Alabama would survive and possibly play for a national championship. But Auburn, down 16-0 and then 16-3 in the fourth quarter, made Iron Bowl history with two blocked-punt touchdowns that live on in series lore.
Bill Newton, along with Wilson one of only 11 seniors on the team and the latter’s roommate on road trips, blocked the first one with David Langer scooping up the ball and scoring from 25 yards out to make it 16-10.
In an almost identical replay, Newton blocked another Tide punt and Langer again picked up the loose ball and scored from 20 yards out.
Auburn held on for the 17-16 win, went on to defeat Colorado 24-3 in the Gator Bowl and finished 10-1 and ranked No. 5.
“We’ve been the Amazins ever since,’’ Wilson said. “That’s the tag that stuck.’’
But for Wilson, that ’70 Iron Bowl has also stuck. “It was a hell of a comeback,’’ he said.