AUBURN, Ala. -- The two most talented men on the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium won the Iron Bowl for No. 2 Alabama on Saturday. One is the junior running back who quotes the late USC coach John McKay and looks more and more like the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner. The other is the head coach smart enough to ride that running back into the SEC championship game.
On an early autumn day that somehow overstayed its visa, in a game that looked like a mismatch to anyone with no sense of history, Alabama defeated Auburn 29-13 because Derrick Henry ran for 271 yards and one touchdown. Of Alabama's 76 offensive snaps, Henry ran the ball on 46 of them, a school record.
"He was not asking to come out. He was asking to stay in," said head coach Nick Saban, whose Crimson Tide clinched their fifth SEC West championship in the past eight years. "And I asked him every time he came to the sidelines, 'Are you OK? Because we'll put somebody else in there.'
"He says, 'Coach, I'm good. I'm gon' win this game.' "
Alabama won because Adam Griffith made five field goals and because the defense limited Auburn to 260 yards, 77 of which came on a tap, tap and grab third-quarter touchdown catch by Jason Smith, another attraction in the circus that is Gus Malzahn's offense.
But most of all, Alabama won because Saban recognized what his team can do and makes sure it does it. Coaches talk about that concept all the time. But few of them actually pull it off.
"I like to play how our players can play," Saban said. "I liked the way we played last year when we had Amari Cooper catching 115 balls and running all over the place. I liked that. I like however we can play. This just happens to be the best way this team can play. Our best workhorse is a running back. ... I'm not a run-and-play-defense guy. I'm a score-however-you-can-score-and-play-defense guy."
Quarterback Jake Coker assessed his backfield mate and said, "He's weird. He's like a machine." In fact, after the national guys got through interviewing Henry after the game, he ran down the field, knees pumping, toward the locker room.
Henry, asked after he dressed if could play more, said, "I'm good. I'm good. The ball isn't that heavy."
That is a line Henry lifted, knowingly or not, from McKay, the USC coach who produced two workhorse Heisman backs, Mike Garrett (1965) and O.J. Simpson (1968). Saban is looking more and more like a coach who has produced his second Heisman back. Henry is one good performance against SEC East champion Florida from joining Mark Ingram (2009) as a Heisman winner at Alabama.
As a young assistant at Syracuse, Hall of Fame coach Jim Tressel once called a sprint draw for tailback Joe Morris nine consecutive times to score a touchdown. On the next drive, he opened with Morris running a sprint draw.
"I get on the phone," former Syracuse head coach Dick MacPherson said a few years ago, "and excuse my language, I said, 'Jesus Christ, Jimmy, don't we have another damn play?'
"He said, 'Yes we do, Coach. As soon as they stop this one, I'll call it.' "
There was something of that in offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's play calling on Saturday. But Saban's offer to Henry to the contrary, Alabama has no one else. Kenyan Drake broke a bone in his right arm against Mississippi State and couldn't play Saturday. Behind Drake is freshman Damien Harris, whom Saban deemed unprepared for game-deciding carries in the Iron Bowl.
So Kiffin called Henry's number again and again. The junior carried the ball 30 times -- after the half. He smashed through Trent Richardson's single-season rushing record of 1,679 yards with 117 yards to spare. Henry has rushed for 1,796 yards and has two games to play.
The way that ground-and-pound is supposed to work is the offense is content to gain one or two yards early, knowing that by the fourth quarter those holes will be bigger. Stanford has turned this game plan into an art form. But Henry didn't follow that script. He came out of the locker room, ran the ball 12 times in the first 18 minutes of the game and gained 88 yards.
Hey, you try tackling a 6-foot-3, 242-pound man 12 times in 18 minutes. By the fourth quarter, Auburn had no answer. The Tigers were spent. They weren't the only ones.
"Both sides were pretty worn out at the very end," said Alabama center Ryan Kelly, who went on to point out his team's fourth-quarter training is "unmatchable."
And the fact is, when Alabama took possession of the ball at its 19, ahead 22-13, with 7:49 to play, the Tide needed to bleed the clock. Henry ran the ball 10 straight times for 56 yards. He failed to convert a fourth-and-1 at the Auburn 31. But by the time the Tigers got the ball back, they had only 2:49 and one timeout with which to work.
"That was probably the most important part of the game," Saban said.
After Alabama got the ball back, and again faced a fourth-and-1, this time on the Auburn 25 with 33 seconds to play, Henry went around right tackle virtually untouched for his first touchdown of the game, extending his streak of consecutive games with a rushing touchdown to 17.
"What Derrick has done for this team," Saban said, "because this team needs him to do what he does, I would say, he's made as significant an impact on his team as any players we've ever had."
Henry might be the best running back in the FBS, and his head coach pretty much defined him as the most valuable player of the No. 2 team in the nation. He might not have a lot of versatility on the field -- he has only 10 receptions this season -- but when it comes to Heisman criteria, Henry's an all-purpose candidate.