Auburn nets another miracle in victory over No. 1 ‘Bama

AUBURN, Ala. — Move over, Cal, Stanford and the poor, unsuspecting member of the Cardinal marching band who got trampled in the end zone, circa 1982.

This was the single greatest ending to a college football game. Bar none.

On Saturday night, with the SEC West title on the line, along with a berth in next week’s conference championship, No. 4 Auburn pulled off a stunning 34-28 upset of top-ranked Alabama — highlighted by a pair of touchdowns in the final 32 seconds, including Chris Davis’s 100-yard scoring return off a missed field goal with no time left.

To call this game, that surreal ending a classic would frankly be an insult.

No, when rehashing the absurd events that led up to Davis’s game-winning run for glory — with the capacity crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium erupting in earthquake-like fashion — there is simply no peer to a conclusion that simultaneously had everything and nothing to do with the national championship picture.

After all, Iron Bowl victories are held in high esteem for decades upon decades, regardless of records or future consequences.

* * *

It’s a rare day when Nick Saban is the subject of universal second-guessing. But with the Tide leading by seven late in the fourth quarter (5:34 left), the head coach passed on a reasonable field goal opportunity, the worrisome result of placekicker Cade Foster missing two doable attempts earlier in the game.

Instead, Saban directed his offense to go for the jugular on 4th and 1, potentially icing a hard-fought game that was seemingly in Alabama’s grasp from the midpoint of the second quarter.

“We missed a couple (of earlier) field goals. We had fourth down and less than a yard,” reasoned Saban in the post-game media scrum. “I do not ever like to say I do not have confidence in our players, but we have been a very good short-yardage team all year. It just did not work out that way.”

Saban added: “So, myself and a lot of other people will probably say that we should have kicked a field goal there … (but) you cannot take for granted that we could have made it. That is the game.”

Auburn stopped Alabama’s run attempt and took command of the ball, only to go three-and-out and punt the ball back to the Tide, which opened their penultimate possession inside Tigers territory.

With 1:54 remaining, Alabama lost two yards on three plays, thus affording Foster the chance to kick the clincher from 44 yards. But the senior was thwarted once more, with Auburn blocking the kick and then benefiting from a 15-yard penalty off the modest 3-yard return.

That set the stage for perhaps the most feverishly deliberate drive in Auburn history.

* * *

Auburn knows it needs a touchdown, not a field goal. Right?

This was the rhetorical question posed by fellow scribe Knox Bardeen in the press box, as Auburn (11-1, 7-1 in SEC play) methodically moved down the field, with hopes of executing the game-tying score.

With time winding down, the Tigers bled the clock with six consecutive runs to Tre Mason (164 yards, one TD), totaling just 26 yards. After Mason’s last touch of the night, securing a first down, Auburn still had 39 yards to end-zone paydirt … and only 39 seconds to get there.

But there was a method to Auburn’s madness of successively riding Mason up the gut. For each straight-line maneuver was creating an opportunity for quarterback Nick Marshall (223 total yards, three TDs) to fake a run option and take off down the left edge — just like he did on the Tigers’ opening score, a 45-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.

By all accounts, that was the plan. On the shotgun snap, Marshall deked toward Mason, took off on a horizontal path to the left … and after suckering in two Alabama defenders, hurled a firm pass to an unmanned Sammie Coates, who strolled into the end zone, tying the game at 28.

“It was getting close. I know it was under a minute and we had a read-option right there,” recounted Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. “It was one of those things like, ‘Do we throw the football?’ but I felt like we were getting rhythm …”

Before the final play call, “(Marshall) looked back and said, ‘Let’s run the same play.’ He knew we were thinking and made a great throw,” said Malzahn.

Saban was detailed and quite honest in the assessment of Marshall’s game-tying touchdown pass.

“We were playing man-to-man coverage on (Coates),” Saban recalled. “The quarterback runs his own pull. We actually had bracket coverage on the guy, but the safety is supposed to come out on top of an outside release … and the corner is supposed to stay with the guy.

“The corner did not stay with the guy. You have to have tremendous discipline to play against (Auburn’s) offense.”

For those who opted to take a bathroom and/or coffee break at that juncture, in preparation for an Overtime For The Ages … here’s hoping that respite was a quick one.

With 32 ticks left and the ball on its own 29, Alabama (11-1, 7-1) set out for a deep pass over the middle, but the Auburn rush forced Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron (277 yards passing, three TDs) to discard the ball out of bounds.

A 9-yard run from sophomore T.J. Yeldon then created an unwitting quandary for Saban and Co., eliciting a timeout. If Yeldon had collected only four of five yards, perhaps the Tide just packs it in for overtime.

Instead, they opted for another rush from Yeldon, who rumbled 24 yards and into Tigers territory — but with no time on the clock.

The replay review actually called for the ball to be spotted at the Auburn 39 with one second left. At the time, no one could have guessed this, uh, successful bout with Instant Replay would hinder Alabama’s bid for an unprecedented third straight national title.

With new kicker Adam Griffith entering the fray, his 57-yard attempt to win the game was short with a slight fade, admirably falling a few yards shy of the crossbar.

That prompted Davis to cleanly field the ball and begin sprinting down the left side, armed with a long line of blue-clad blockers — as if Auburn had magically practiced this precise scenario two or three times during the week.

“The first thing I’m looking at is, ‘Does it have enough distance?’ recalled Malzahn. “I saw it didn’t have enough distance, and my eyes kind of got on Davis. (The Tide) had their field-goal team out there, and it had some big guys on it.”

It wasn’t a fair fight, for the Crimson Tide special teamers-turned-defenders weren’t in position to make a tackle down the left side. And once Davis broke through the first wave of would-be tacklers, the remaining 50 yards were free and clear of any Alabama defenders.

“It was one of those crazy plays; it (was) almost like a video game,” said McCarron.

* * *

In a season full of twists and turns, upsets and agonizing near-misses, on-field debates and off-field controversy, it’s funny how none of that really applied to college football’s No. 1 team, heading into Saturday.

It was also absurd that, in this age of high-tempo offenses and spread formations, such innovations had little in common with a program that was humbly, but heartily chasing history.

Before the unforgettable finish at Jordan-Hare …

**The Crimson Tide trailed for a grand total of 9 minutes, 5 seconds — easily their longest sustained deficit since Sept. 14 (against Texas A&M).

**For the first time all season, Alabama also had to share the lead during the second half (21-all, 28-all).

**And during the latter half, the Crimson Tide had to negotiate the start of two drives from their own 1:

The first possession, when pinned at the 1, respectfully ended some 70-plus yards later without a score. The second chance nearly sealed Alabama’s berth in the SEC championship … and McCarron’s place in Iron Bowl lore.

Midway through the third quarter, with the score knotted at 21, the Crimson Tide were desperate for a little breathing room, after gaining just one yard in two opportunities, deep in their own zone.

On third down, and with the Auburn defensive line charging hard from both edges, McCarron fielded a low snap out of a shotgun set, took a hard step forward and lofted a rainbow pass to sophomore Amari Cooper for 54 yards.

Logic dictated that Auburn had learned a valuable lesson from Cooper’s reception, even though Alabama’s drive eventually fizzled out, thanks to a missed field goal from 33 yards (Foster).

Fast forward to the 10:42 mark in the fourth quarter: After Auburn had stealthily downed another punt at the 1, logic dictated Alabama would go the conservative route right, feeding off Saban’s personality.

But McCarron dropped back to the point where his heels might have been cooling near the back line of the end zone and tossed another picture-perfect rainbow to Cooper, who corralled the ball, evaded two Auburn defenders and cruised in for a 99-yard touchdown.

Alabama now led 28-21.

Cooper, one of the heroes from Alabama’s thrilling victory over Georgia in last year’s SEC championship — the last time the Tide were seriously threatened late in a game — would finish this night with six catches, 178 yards and one score.

For McCarron, this could have been his Heisman moment. After all, even quarterbacks of a two-time national champion still need a signature play to excite the masses and secure college football’s most prestigious award.

But alas, McCarron’s heroics at the 10:42 mark would not surpass the amazing touchdowns in the final 32 seconds.

* * *

In a two-week span, Auburn has required the help of two miracles — Ricardo Louis’s Hail Mary touchdown grab to beat Georgia on Nov. 16 and Davis’s 100-yard return of Alabama’s missed field goal as time expired — to clinch the SEC West crown and a spot in the conference title game (Atlanta).

Understandably, Malzahn and his players might need a few hours to ponder the enormity of the last 14 days.

“I really didn’t let my mind go there until I shook (Saban’s) hand, and I was thinking, ‘You know that we are going to the SEC championship game.’ It was a lot of fun. It’s what you coach for,” said Malzahn, whose Tigers still harbor realistic thoughts of a national title.

* * *

In The Iron Bowl’s illustrious history, only three little words are needed to describe the 1972 classic: Punt, ‘Bama, Punt!

In fact, the saying remains a popular bumper sticker on many cars throughout southern Alabama.

From 1964-71, Auburn won only two of the eight clashes with Alabama, falling by 24-plus points three times during that span. And from 1973-81, the Crimson Tide reeled off nine straight Iron Bowl wins.

The Tide also opened the ’72 campaign with 10 straight victories — by an average margin of 26.1 points — and a No. 2 ranking in The Associated Press poll, heading into the Iron Bowl.

Auburn, which didn’t score more than 27 points in any game during the ’72 season, was held scoreless for the first three quarters against Alabama. But all the hoopla surrounding this upset would be reserved for the fourth-quarter action:

Down 16-3 and the clock winding down, Auburn’s Bill Newton and David Langner pulled off the extremely rare feat of converting punt blocks into back-to-back touchdowns — with Newton registering both blocks … and Langner tallying both scores.

So, what does a special-teams-driven classic from 41 years ago have to do with Saturday night?

For the companies that conceive and construct bumper stickers, reflecting current trends from sports and pop culture, Run, Davis, Run certainly has a nice ring to it.