AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn had nothing to lose.
Knotted at 28-all with archrival Alabama on Saturday night and only one second remaining on the clock, coach Gus Malzahn felt confident the game was headed to overtime, especially given the situation: the Crimson Tide was facing a difficult 57-yard field goal.
Just in case the kick fell short, however, Malzahn decided to put his electrifying punt returner, senior cornerback Chris Davis, in the end zone to possibly run it out. And just as it has in nearly every game this season, Malzahn’s decision paid off, as Davis fielded the short kick in the back of the end zone.
One hundred and nine yards later, the No. 4 Tigers (11-1, 7-1) had their second improbable victory in as many weeks, knocking off the top-ranked Crimson Tide, 34-28.
Not surprisingly, the only thing racing through Davis’ mind on his return was to make sure to find a way across the goal line on the last play of the game.
By any means necessary.
“‘Just run,” he said. “That’s what I thought: ‘Just run and try to make something happen.’ That’s exactly what I did. It’s a miracle. Like I say, ‘God is good.’”
From there, pandemonium ensued.
As Davis recalled, fellow corner Jonathon Mincy threw him to the ground, followed by a number of other teammates. At the same time, the stands emptied, setting off a raucous on-field celebration.
“We’ve got the best fans in college football, and they are in it with us,” Malzahn said. “We’re all in this thing together. That’s the great thing about Auburn. I’m just happy for them, our players and our program.”
Much like the Georgia victory — which required a miracle, 73-yard tipped touchdown catch by Ricardo Louis — Auburn players were stunned by the manic ending.
“Words can’t explain the feelings that are going through me right now,” senior defensive end Dee Ford said. “I’m just so happy that whatever took place tonight happened.”
How did the play actually set up?
“I just knew they had big guys on the field to protect for the field goal, and I knew that I had a chance to outrun those guys,” Davis said. “I tried to (run) it up one way and hit it the other way, and it worked.”
It’s a play that will go down in Iron Bowl lore; Davis said he still hadn’t had a chance to realize what that meant. And the Birmingham, Ala., native also made another candid admission.
Unlike many kids who grow up playing football, he said he had never been one to fantasize about moments like these, where his name would go down as a hero in one of the most intense rivalries in all of sports.
“You know, I wouldn’t say I dreamed of it,” he said. “But it’s a great moment and this will go down in history. This will be something I look back and tell my son about.”
At the same time, it overshadowed another epic play made earlier in the fourth quarter by Alabama. Stuck at its own 1-yard line, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron connected with sophomore receiver Amari Cooper on a 99-yard touchdown pass, the longest in school history.
And it couldn’t have come at a more important time for the Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1), as it gave them a 28-21 lead with just 10 minutes remaining. But Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall helped the Tigers tie the score at 28 with a 39-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Sammie Coates with 32 seconds left after Auburn blocked a low field-goal attempt. The Tigers had moved 65 yards in under two minutes — all on the ground until that play.
The Tigers’ defense didn’t allow another point after that, however, getting a pair of fourth-down stops — including a blocked field goal — to set the stage for Davis’ heroics as time expired.
Jermaine Whitehead, for one, couldn’t help but note the irony; the Crimson Tide, it of the two consecutive BCS national championships and vaunted pedigree, couldn’t nail a single field goal Saturday night, missing all four.
When you’ve been as dominant as Alabama has been in recent seasons, Whitehead said sometimes things can get overlooked.
And the Tigers used it to their advantage Saturday night to clinch the SEC West Division title and move on to the conference championship game next weekend in Atlanta.
“When you’re used to winning by a lot, you can miss those parts in practice,” Whitehead said. “I guess they don’t work on it as much. Maybe they get the best players in the country but not the best kicker.”