AUBURN, Ala. -- The cards were stacked against Auburn on Saturday. Georgia had just scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to take a 38-37 lead, and the Tigers faced a 4th-and-18 from their own 27-yard line with less than 30 seconds left. The situation looked bleak.
But Auburn remained confident. The Tigers were confident before the drive started, and wide receiver Ricardo Louis was confident he could make a play on fourth down.
“I told coach I wanted the ball,” Louis said. “I told him the whole game that I wanted the ball in my hands. Whether it was running or catching the ball, I wanted the ball in my hands. I told Nick [Marshall] before the play to throw me the ball, and I made a play.”
It was a play for the ages. Marshall launched it about 50 yards in the air, and it look destined to be an interception. However, it was tipped by one of the two Georgia defenders who were in the vicinity, and Louis snuck past them, caught the tipped ball and ran into the end zone.
It seemed improbable, but the Auburn players never doubted they were going to win the game.
“This team is very unique,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “There was a lot of tension and pressure since the momentum had swung, but they had bright eyes in the huddle. It was really unbelievable. We’re all in this thing together.”
It’s been that way all season for Auburn. It’s been that way ever since Malzahn arrived on campus in December. He was handed a team that finished 3-9 a year ago and was asked to turn the program around, change the mentality.
It started with a game-winning drive to beat Mississippi State back in September. After slipping up against LSU the next week, the Tigers have now run off seven straight wins, including a come-from-behind victory at Texas A&M and Saturday’s thriller. Auburn sits at 10-1 with a chance to win the SEC and an outside chance to reach the BCS title game.
“This team has the ‘it’ factor,” Malzahn said. “That’s just the bottom line. They complement each other very well. Offensively, defensively and special teams, they step up when they have to. They are a joy to coach, and this was one of those moments that I will remember for a long time.
“I told them [in the locker room] that I think we’re in the midst of something special.”
Malzahn wasn’t at Auburn last year when the team hit rock bottom, but the players who were there still remember. It’s fresh on their minds, and it’s part of the reason why the Tigers are in the midst of the biggest turnaround in college football.
“We know what it feels like to be one of the worst teams in college football,” running back Tre Mason said. “Now, it’s just a great feeling to be one of the best teams in college football. We’re going to keep fighting, keep working towards our dream and fight on until next week.”
Auburn has next week off, but the season is far from over. The Tigers still have a date with No. 1 Alabama in a game that has become a winner-take-all scenario for the SEC West.
It’s an Iron Bowl that nobody expected much from before the season, but it could turn into one of the more epic bouts between the two in-state rivals.
“We started thinking about it when that clock hit zero,” Mason said. “Coach Malzahn says ‘on to the next [one]’ in the locker room. We’re going to start working towards Bama. We’re going to start probably tomorrow.”
But even Malzahn needs a little time to celebrate Saturday’s win.
“I’m going to enjoy this one tonight,” he said. “That one aged me -- I’ve lost some years off my life. I’ll go to church in the morning, and after church, I will flip the switch.”
Then, it’s on to Alabama.