Auburn delivers indelible BCS moment in stunning Alabama
AUBURN, Ala. -- They didn't want to leave. That's what happens when the craziest finish in the history of college football unfolds on the sleepy Alabama plains. It kicks off a party that's a graduation celebration, wedding reception and sorority formal all rolled into one primal scream. Photos flashed straight to Instagram. Elderly couples hobbled on the field and pecked lips. Families posed for Christmas card pictures. In one mad dash down the left sideline, Auburn's Chris Davis sprinted straight into college football lore. His 109-yard return of Adam Griffith's 57-yard field goal attempt gave No. 4 Auburn a 34-28 victory over No. 1 Alabama as time expired.
As Davis waltzed into the end zone escorted by two teammates, he delivered the BCS generation its indelible Doug Flutie moment. (One that even trumped Ricardo Louis' unlikely 73-yard touchdown catch to cap Auburn's 43-38 victory over Georgia two weeks ago.) Only this one had a more improbable finish, and impossibly higher stakes.
Davis' dash capped a furious comeback that saw Auburn score 13 points in the final 32 seconds. The only thing that matched the veracity of celebration was the magnitude of the situation. In one stunning twist, Auburn ended Alabama's chance to win its third consecutive national championship, clinched a spot in the SEC title game and launched the Tigers into the BCS title conversation. "God is good," Davis said after the game, with divine intervention seemingly the only possible explanation.
Auburn linebacker Kris Frost cried tears of joy as he wandered the field in disbelief. Davis needed four Auburn officials to surround him for his postgame ESPN interview. Offensive lineman Tunde Fariyike shook his head and gazed to the sky: "That's all God," he said.
Who knew it would take the man upstairs to finally end the numbing efficiency of Alabama coach Nick Saban's process? Saban has emerged the as the collegiate version of Bill Belichick, a sideline genius whose teams win with crushing monotony. Yet in the sport's biggest rivalry, with everything at stake, Saban's in-game coaching backfired at the worst possible time.
Saban's decision to attempt a 57-yard field goal instead of throwing a Hail Mary with one second left will be second-guessed in Tuscaloosa for the rest of the century. Saban slammed his headset in disgust after Davis sprinted down the sideline, as if he knew his hubris did in the Crimson Tide. The kick marked first meaningful collegiate attempt for Griffith, a redshirt freshman known for long-distance kicks. It only happened because a review ruled that 'Bama tailback T.J. Yeldon stepped out of bounds with one second left in the fourth quarter.
"First time I ever lost a game that way," Saban uttered in a monotone after the game. "First time I have ever seen a game lost that way."
While Saban's late-game decision backfired, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn made an adjustment for the ages. Initially, he sent safety Ryan Smith back to the goal line in case the Tide's field goal try fell short. "I was on the edge," Davis said, "the scoop and score guy."
However, after Malzahn called timeout, he put Davis back on the cusp of the goal line instead. "I can't explain it, to be honest," Davis said, noting that Smith seethed at the switch. "I thank coach and them for the opportunity to return that missed field goal."
Saban's other decision that proved costly came with just under six minutes remaining. Alabama faced fourth-and-one from the Auburn 13-yard line, and Saban elected to go for it instead of attempting a short field goal to potentially put the Tide up by 10. Kicker Cade Foster had already missed two field goals at that point -- he had a third blocked -- but Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson stuffed Yeldon for no gain.
"That was not a great way to lose the game," Saban said, "especially for a team that I have a tremendous about of respect for."
Auburn's drive to tie the game was nearly as miraculous as its finish. With 2:32 remaining and the score fixed at 28-21, the Tigers got the ball back and ran six straight times for 26 yards. They showed no particular urgency until the seventh play, when quarterback Nick Marshall finally passed, running an option left and flipping the ball to Sammie Coates when both the Tide safety and cornerback bit on the run.
Coates caught the ball about eight yards past the line of scrimmage and said he saw "nothing but green." He coasted to the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown with 32 seconds left.
The game appeared headed for overtime, a fitting destination for a contest that had all the trappings of an instant classic before the final glorious moment. Auburn rallied from a 21-7 first-half deficit behind the production of Marshall (126 yards) and tailback Tre Mason (164 yards) and used tempo running to gash Alabama for 296 yards. (Alabama hadn't allowed a rushing total that high since Georgia Southern rushed for 302 yards in a 45-21 loss to the Tide on Nov. 19, 2011.)
With the score knotted at 21 early in the fourth quarter, 'Bama quarterback AJ McCarron delivered what appeared to be the game's biggest highlight. Backed up on his own one-yard line, McCarron lofted a pass into the chilly night that Amari Cooper snared at the 38-yard line and darted into the end zone for a 99-yard score. In most years, that would have resonated as a defining play of the entire college football season. Tonight it was a footnote.
"Football is just a game," McCarron said after the game, as he shifted nervously from his left foot to his right, surrounded by a bank of cameras. "It's not life. At a time like this, people need to realize the sun is going to rise tomorrow."
Auburn not only ended Alabama's run for three consecutive championships, but it may have also cannibalized the SEC's chance to capture an eighth straight national title. If the conference's streak ends on that play, at least its run of dominance burnt out instead of fading away.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive's actions before the game showed he knew exactly what could happen. He rooted openly and loudly for Michigan to beat Ohio State in the press box, emoting "Go, go, go" as Michigan capped its final drive of an eventual 42-41 loss earlier in the afternoon. Realizing people were watching him watch the game, Slive joked at one point, "No cheering in the press box."
Florida State and Ohio State are now the undefeated BCS favorites, as a debate will be unleashed this week whether a one-loss SEC champ should play for the national title over an unbeaten Buckeyes team. When Michigan lost to Ohio State after a failed two-point conversion attempt, Slive tossed his coffee cup in the trash. "No hypotheticals," Slive texted after the game when asked about the SEC streak in jeopardy.
While they'll be hand wringing in SEC offices in Birmingham all week, those concerns didn't seem to matter amid the bedlam of Jordan-Hare Stadium. When the field finally cleared 90 minutes after the game, all that remained atop Jordan-Hare's grass was empty nips of Fireball and Jack Daniels, orphaned gloves and earrings and the shards of orange pom-poms. Police finally ushered the crowd off the field and into the chilly night, the moment transferring from reality to memory. Fans drifted away celebrating an 11-1 campaign just a year removed from a nightmarish 3-9 season.
Missing on the field were large chunks of grass, tucked into pockets and purses. They'll be planted around the Plains to make sure this moment lives on forever.