Source: USA TODAY
AUBURN, Ala. — They say lightning never strikes twice in the same place, but it’s really a myth. All you need is the right amount of heat, the right amount of cold and little bit of cosmic luck to attract a jolt from the sky.
On a little patch of Alabama land covered by steel and concrete and the belief of 87,451 fans, those elements clashed in perfect harmony Saturday night in a way that changed the course of history.
Two weeks ago, one of the greatest finishes to a college football game anyone had ever seen happened here, a win so miraculous for No. 5-ranked Auburn it was instantly canonized as the “Prayer in Jordan-Hare,” an event without equal in the history of its great program. But out of the clear nighttime sky, as Alabama’s quixotic 57-yard field goal sailed toward the goalpost with no time left on the clock Saturday, here came the cold, here came the heat and here came the hope.
The most memorable play in a generation for Auburn has been replaced by perhaps the greatest play in college football history. In a season of miracles for the Tigers, there has never been – and never will be – one bigger than Chris Davis’ 109-yard return to dethrone No. 1 Alabama, 34-28.
“What it was like?” Davis said. “Like I keep saying, God is good, God is good.”
As the 78th Iron Bowl ended and pandemonium erupted, with a dogpile of Auburn players in the end zone and thousands of fans rushing onto the field, there was mostly disbelief. About the entire game, which had turned wild even before the last play. About the stakes for Alabama, which seemed headed toward a third consecutive national title. About what it meant for Auburn, which has turned 3-9 last season into 11-1 and a trip to Saturday’s Southeastern Conference championship game in its first year under Gus Malzahn. But mostly about the massive amount of destiny that seems to be riding with the Tigers this season.
“We talked about that we wanted to keep it close, and if we could get it to the fourth quarter playing at home, with our crowd, we would find a way to win,” Malzahn said. “You know, the way we won the last two weeks is really unbelievable.”
All season, Auburn has won close games, pulled through in fourth quarters with an array of great plays and good fortune. When Auburn’s Ricardo Louis caught a 73-yard touchdown on a deflection with 36 seconds left to beat Georgia, 43-38, it set up Saturday’s game as the mother of all Iron Bowls, the first time the two in-state rivals had met as top-five teams.
By all rights, though, that’s where it should have ended for Auburn. As Alabama took a 21-7 lead and then went in front again 28-21 on A.J. McCarron’s 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper with 10:28 remaining, the Tigers’ amazing and commendable pluck was right on the verge of getting steamrolled by the Bama machine.
But even the best, most prepared, most precise team in college football can make mistakes. And the greatest coach in the modern history of the game is susceptible to brain cramps every now and then.
Make no mistake: As much as Auburn won this game, Alabama coach Nick Saban blew it. Multiple times, too.
Saban’s first inexplicable decision came with fewer than 6 minutes remaining. Moments after Alabama took a 28-21 lead, Malzahn made what appeared to be a desperate call, going for it on fourth down and less than a yard from Auburn’s own 35-yard line. Alabama stuffed quarterback Nick Marshall’s option attempt, putting the Crimson Tide in position to go for the kill.
But instead of electing to kick a 30-yard field goal for a 10-point lead, Saban – perhaps spooked by kicker Cade Foster’s shank from 33 yards with 14:04 remaining and his miss from 44 in the first quarter – went for it. That gave Auburn new life, as freshman defensive end Carl Lawson smothered T.J. Yeldon in the backfield.
“Well, we missed a couple field goals. I don’t ever like to say I do not have confidence in our players, but we have been a very good short yardage team all year,” Saban said. “It didn’t work out that way.”
Alabama had another opportunity to put the game away with 4:26 remaining, getting the ball at Auburn’s 25 after a punt return. Once again, the Tigers’ defense stiffened, forcing a 44-yard field goal attempt that Robenson Therezie blocked, giving Auburn one more chance to tie the game with 2:32 left.
That drive, however, is almost now a footnote – even though it was brilliantly executed by Marshall and running back Tre Mason, who used a series of running plays to get past the 50-yard line and then set up the tying touchdown. It came when Marshall – who appeared ready to take off and scramble – stopped just before the line of scrimmage, freezing Alabama defenders and finding wide open receiver Sammy Coates for a 39-yard touchdown with just 32 seconds remaining.
“We were just ready to go to overtime,” Davis said.
Think fate isn’t on Auburn’s side?
Officials actually signaled that regulation ended after Yeldon ran to the Auburn 38 before being shoved out of bounds; only after video replay did they put one second back on the clock. It turned out that was just enough time for Alabama to make a momentous decision: It would send freshman Adam Griffith out for a 57-yard field goal.
“The wind was behind him, one second left, so you’re thinking what could go wrong if he gets it up?” Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs said. “The worst thing you think is it may get blocked.”
Clearly, that wasn’t the case.
Initially, Auburn was going to play a safe field goal coverage so that they’d have at least one man back to prevent a fake from beating them. Then, after a time out, Malzahn sent Davis into the end zone as essentially a return man in case the kick came up short – which it did, right into his arms.
“We were planning on scoring,” safety Ryan Smith said. “(Davis) set the return up perfect and we made the blocks that was possible for him to take it the whole way. It’s unexplainable.”
Most unexplainable is that Davis was hardly touched. After catching the ball and running right, he cut back to the left just past the 10-yard line. Alabama tight end Brian Vogler had a shot at him at the 20, but Davis escaped his grasp and sprinted to the sideline where only holder Cody Mandell could have caught him. But it was too late. Alabama, which put eight linemen on the field, didn’t have the right personnel to catch Davis once he got free.
“First time I have ever lost a game that way, first time I have ever seen a game lost that way,” Saban said. “We had the wind behind us, but we still should have covered it. The game should not have ended that way.”
But it did. And as Alabama’s hopes of extending its dynasty were crushed, Auburn’s players were trying to get back to an emotional locker room where Auburn legend Bo Jackson was leading the team and coaches in the fight song.
Even if Auburn goes on to win a national title, this was a moment and a game that will never, ever be topped.
“As odd as it is, it’s something we’ve become a little accustomed to after the Georgia game,” Jacobs said. “And we’re headed to Atlanta, so stay tuned – you may see something else.”
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