Saturday, November 30, 2013
Unbelievable Tigers reach SEC title game
By Edward Aschoff
AUBURN, Ala. -- It was Gus Malzahn's call.
With 1 second remaining before what should have been overtime Saturday in the Iron Bowl, Malzahn called a timeout to ice Alabama kicker Adam Griffith before his 57-yard attempt at a game-winning field goal. The Auburn coach also decided to replace safety Ryan Smith with cornerback Chris Davis in the back of the end zone -- just in case Griffith's kick came up short.
What happened next was perfectly in line with the magical season transpiring on the Plains.
Davis received the kick well short of the uprights, sprinted toward the middle of the field before cutting down the left sideline and zooming toward the end zone for a touchdown to give the Tigers yet another jaw-dropping, last-second victory that will send them to SEC championship game as the SEC Western Division champions.
"I thought just run, try to make something happen, and that's exactly what I did," an exhausted Davis said. "It's a miracle. Like I said, God is good.
"It hasn't sunk in, yet. It will sooner or later."
Chris Davis' last-second, 100-yard touchdown return was Auburn's second improbable win in a row.
Auburn's improbable 34-28 win knocked No. 1 Alabama off its perch above the college football landscape and made the case for some destiny talk with the Tigers.
In back-to-back games, Auburn did the unthinkable with its back against the wall. The Tigers successfully blew a 20-point, fourth-quarter lead to Georgia on the Plains two weeks ago before Nick Marshall's prayer of a pass deflected off Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons' hands and into the mitts of Ricardo Louis for the 43-38 win.
Then came Davis, who had pleaded with his coaches to give him more chances in the return game. Once again, Malzahn's move paid off. A year removed from being the laughingstock of the SEC with a 3-9 record and a fired head coach, the Tigers are the class of the SEC West and are inching closer to possibly playing in the BCS title game.
"I knew we were going to score; they had too many big guys on the field, and he's just too fast," receiver Sammie Coates said.
Luck, talent, attitude and a helluva head coach have the Tigers back in the national spotlight.
"No one believed us, now we're here," senior defensive end Dee Ford said. "We definitely deserve every bit of it."
Luck is involved, but it isn't everything. This team just has "it." It has spunk and heart, two things missing from last season's disaster. After Auburn's Jekyll-and-Hyde-type loss to LSU in late September, the Tigers have bounced back to win eight straight without scoring fewer than 30 points.
Luck doesn't do all that. A lucky team doesn't win 11 games, including one against top-ranked Alabama. A lucky team doesn't fight back from a 14-point deficit by gutting the SEC's top-ranked rush defense for 296 yards and 5.7 yards per carry. A lucky team doesn't tire out one of the most mentally and physically conditioned teams around.
"Growing up, I've been an Auburn fan, and I ain't never liked Alabama," Smith said. "Right now, this is our state for the next 365 [days]."
He's right, and it's not like Auburn changed much to beat its archrival. Malzahn stuck to his game plan and wore down Alabama.
Auburn's no-huddle, hurry-up offense gassed Alabama's defense. After the Crimson Tide took a 21-7 lead late in the second quarter, the Tigers responded by marching 81 yards on seven plays in just 2:08 to cut the score to 21-14. On the first drive of the second half, Auburn went 69 yards in nine plays to tie it up.
On those drives, Auburn ran the ball 13 times for 119 yards and had just three runs of less than 6 yards.
"That's what we're good at, and we were able to run the football effectively," Malzahn said. "Once we got the pace going and kinda wore them down.
"When we're clicking we can run the football effectively."
But what really spoke to how far this team has come was how it bounced back after AJ McCarron delivered what appeared to be a dagger of a 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper to make it 28-21 early in the fourth. Instead of panicking, the Tigers relaxed.
The defense blocked a field goal and held Alabama to just 53 more yards on its final three possessions. After a lull by the offense, the Tigers drove 80 yards and tied the game again on a 39-yard pass from Marshall to a wide-open Coates on their final drive.
Then came the return, which trumped the pass less than two weeks earlier and sent a crazed orange-and-blue sea of Auburn students spilling onto Pat Dye Field to celebrate a historic win with its miraculous team.
"I believe it validates everything we've been saying all year, especially me," Ford said. "I said our setup [was] an opportunity for a comeback. We really knew that we had a chance to shock the world; we said that from media days, the summertime to right now, and we were able to do that."
When asked after the game if this was the biggest win of his life, Malzahn played coy, saying it ranked "up there" and that he'd have to think about it. But before Malzahn could complete his mundane response, his wife, Kristi, cut in.
"Just say, 'Yes!"
As a room full of media members chuckled alongside Malzahn, he finally let his guard down.