TUSCALOOSA — Gene Chizik struggled to find positives from Auburn’s most horrid season in decades, but the embattled coach found one after the Tigers’ 49-0 loss to rival Alabama on Saturday.
That running back that started for Michael Dyer and starred in Auburn’s Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over Virginia after last season?
That sophomore who never got the ball enough earlier this season?
Yeah, Tre Mason finally got the ball enough to finish with 1,002 yards for the season.
“That’s one positive,” Chizik said after Auburn’s brutally bad showing in the Iron Bowl wrapped up a 3-9 Auburn season, in which the Tigers lost all eight SEC games.
Mason, indeed, was the lone bright spot for Auburn on a day when Alabama posted its second-highest point total in series history. He carried the ball 21 times for 82 yards.
He had more rushing yards than Auburn had passing yards (71) and passed the 1,000-yard mark for the season on the game’s final play, a 5-yard run.
This after Alabama quarterback Blake Sims took a knee on fourth down at Auburn’s 8-yard line, and officials stopped the clock at 11 seconds for a change of possession.
Mason’s season total brought his career total to 1,163 yards, including his 64 yards on nine runs against Virginia on Dec. 31 of last year.
“It’s satisfying,” Mason said. “I set personal goals. I try to reach every goal that I set. It’s just a blessing to have those 10 guys around me to help me reach those goals.”
One can’t help wondering if it could have happened sooner and if giving Mason the ball more earlier in the season might have changed one SEC game result.
His 22 carries and 124 all-purpose yards helped Auburn beat Louisiana-Monroe for the Tigers’ first victory this season. He also had 22 carries for 152 yards in a rout of New Mexico State.
But those were non-conference games.
When Auburn had chances to win SEC games this year, Mason was used surprisingly little. He had just nine carries for 54 yards in a 12-10 loss to LSU and just 16 carries for 85 yards in a 17-13 loss at Vanderbilt.
In a 24-7 loss to Arkansas — a game that was close until the fourth quarter — he had just six carries for 32 yards.
He expressed a desire for more carries during the season, and it seemed odd that he wasn’t getting them, considering Auburn’s stated goal to be a more physical running team.
While Onterio McCalebb was a threat on misdirection and end-around plays, Mason was clearly Auburn’s best between-the-tackles, every-down kind of runner.
Mason got 21 runs Saturday and posted the third-highest rushing total against Alabama this season. Alabama entered Saturday with the nation’s third-best rushing defense.
But like McCalebb and wide receiver Emory Blake, Mason found himself a good player surrounded by a weak team with questionable coaching.
That’s why, even on Mason’s night to pass 1,000 yards for the season, he spent more time answering questions about the team’s and coaching staff’s failures.
As he did on his opportunities to rush the ball, he answered as best he could.
“It’s really frustrating, but we dug ourselves into a hole,” he said. “Next year, we just have to put the pieces to the puzzle together.”
Maybe next year, Mason will be a bigger piece.