AUBURN, Ala. — The most memorable pass of Auburn’s season was a last-second adjustment to a play the team runs at every practice.
That play, of course, was Nick Marshall’s 11-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds remaining in Saturday’s contest against Mississippi State. The score capped a 12-play, 88-yard drive, helping the Tigers retake the lead and eventually escape with a 24-20 victory.
While Uzomah’s touchdown grab completed the possession, what happened in the moments before and after it occurred?
It’s time to take a closer look at the drive that may define the rest of Auburn’s season.
The defensive stop
Dak Prescott was unstoppable.
Whatever the sophomore signal-caller did, be it run or pass, the Tigers’ defense had no answer for it. Auburn never looked more powerless than on a fourth-and-one at Mississippi State’s 29-yard line with less five minutes to go. Despite having no timeouts, Dan Mullen was unfazed. Mississippi State's head coach had enough confidence in his team that he let the offense go for it. The gamble paid dividends, as Prescott burst through the middle of the Tigers’ defense for a first down.
At the same time, Marshall was stalking the sideline, talking to his teammates on both offense and defense and making promises to both.
All he needed was to get the ball back.
“I told the (offense), ‘We’re going to score a touchdown,’” he said. “Then I went down the sideline and told the defense to get us one stop and then we would put them in the end zone.”
The defense held up its end of the bargain, forcing a punt just three plays after Prescott’s fourth-down conversion.
Marshall now had his chance.
Marshall stepped back on the field for the final time with 1:56 to play, trailing 20-17 and 88 yards away from the end zone. Uzomah noted how unaffected the quarterback seemed by the magnitude of the situation.
“We huddled because we had that timeout, and he looked straight-eyed and focused,” he said. “Even before that drive, he looked confident. He was ready to lead us on the field to a victory.”
He started the drive keeping the ball himself and running for six yards. On the next play, he found freshman wide receiver Marcus Davis for seven yards. Marshall-to-Davis would be a recurring theme, as Marshall went back to him on the next two plays as well. Davis had one more reception on the drive, finishing with four catches for 38 yards on the deciding possession.
Marshall said he never doubted Davis' ability.
“He came through on some of those catches,” Marshall said. “I know he dropped one, but I told him not to worry about it. I was going to come back to him. He played awesome.”
How did Davis do it? He said it was due in large part to having his quarterback’s trust.
“As Nick told me on the sideline, ‘Don’t let it pressure you. Just go out and play catch.’ So I just did what he told me,” Davis said.
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Davis’ production on the drive was his awareness of where he was at on the field, catching the ball and getting out of bounds immediately to stop the clock.
“That’s the main focus — just get out of bounds,” he said. “Get what you can and get out.”
After Davis’ final reception, the Tigers found themselves at the Bulldogs’ 27-yard line. Two runs by Marshall and one by Tre Mason combined to gain 16 more yards.
Only 11 yards now separated Auburn from the goal line.
It’s a play the Tigers run every practice. To be more specific, Marshall said the eventual touchdown toss was one he makes a point of trying to perfect every week, making that exact throw at least 10 times per practice.
But throwing it and completing it are two different things.
“I usually throw that pass out of bounds," he said. "But I've worked on it more and more, and that gave me the confidence to make that throw.”
Just before they snapped the ball, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn made a small tweak to the play. He added a double move on Uzomah’s route.
“We practice it all the time, but he said, ‘You know what? We’re pretty far out. Let’s double move it and have someone make a play,’” the tight end recalled.
All that was left was for Marshall and Uzomah to make it a reality. When the call was made, Uzomah knew it was intended for him to make the game-winning catch.
There was a delay before he was able to grasp what that really meant.
“It didn’t really hit me until the ball was in the air, to be completely honest,” Uzomah said. “(I) hit the double move, saw the ball was in the air and I was like, ‘The ball is coming to me right now, so I better catch it.’”
Uzomah didn’t disappoint, leaping into the air and bringing the ball down with him.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “I caught the ball, looked up and saw everyone on their feet and I could not hear one thing. Everyone was jumping on me, but I could not hear one thing. All I could hear was the 80,000 fans roaring.”
After scoring a go-ahead touchdown for the first time in his life — at least, the first time that Uzomah could remember — the Tigers were back on top with only 10 seconds left.
And after those 10 ticks came off the clock, Auburn had an improbable 24-20 victory in its hands.
Every game has a winner and a loser.
While the Tigers and their fans were reveling in the spectacular come-from-behind win, Mullen and his team were taking questions in the losing locker room.
Why didn’t the Bulldogs blitz Marshall more on the final possession to try to get him out of his rhythm?
“They have a quarterback that is very dynamic at running,” Mullen said. “So you have to be careful with what you do with him.”
Receiver Jameon Lewis was hoping Mississippi State would receive assistance from elsewhere, calling on a higher power.
“I prayed for a miracle, (but) I guess He didn’t come through,” he said. “But I guess there will be another time when He will.”
Meanwhile, the Tigers were enjoying another victory, which extended or broke various streaks. It kept Auburn unbeaten this season, pushing its record to 3-0 overall and 1-0 in Southeastern Conference play. It halted what had been a 10-game losing streak against conference opponents. And with Saturday’s victory, the Tigers matched last season’s win total in the first three games of 2013.
Malzahn, keeping with his mantra of it being “a new day,” refused to engage in any discussion of the past. He preferred to focus on what had just transpired.
“The great thing about our sideline is our guys really believe they’re going to win and that’s half the battle,” he said. “There wasn’t anybody panicking. We just said, ‘Hey, let’s go do this thing’ and I think that’s a tribute to our team and Nick, too. He was able to put the mishaps behind him and lead us to victory. That’s a sign of a very good quarterback.”
Marshall believes he’s still far away from getting to that level. There are still too many areas he needs to shore up before considering himself worthy of the type of praise his coach heaped upon him. To get there, he will have to continue to spur the Tigers to victories like Saturday.
The last time he took a team on a game-winning drive was in high school, lifting his alma mater, Wilcox County, to a 30-21 victory in the 2009 Class A championship in Georgia.
To Marshall, the two barely compare.
“That one wasn’t bigger than this one right here, because this is our first SEC win,” he said. “Even though the high school one was for a championship, there’s not a greater feeling than winning your first SEC (game).”