AUBURN, Ala. — Sometimes the ball bounces your way.
Sometimes it doesn't.
That infinitesimal difference meant everything in Auburn's 43-38 victory over Georgia on Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Just before a fourth-and-18 at its own 27-yard line with 36 seconds to play, Auburn (10-1, 6-1) called timeout. Trailing 38-37, Auburn drew up the play it felt could extend the game and set up a game-winning score. After much deliberation, head coach Gus Malzahn deemed a "dig" route by sophomore receiver Sammie Coates to be the Tigers' best course of action. When they returned to the huddle, however, another sophomore receiver, Ricardo Louis, demanded the ball. Nick Marshall complied, lofting the ball down the right sideline toward the sophomore receiver.
The entire game hung in the balance.
Throwing into double-coverage, it appeared it would end in the Bulldogs' (6-4, 4-3) favor. Sophomore strong safety Josh Harvey-Clemons got his hands on the ball, knocking it up in the air and behind both he and fellow defensive back Tray Matthews. Louis tipped it to himself, gained control of it at the 14-yard line and dashed into the end zone to put the Tigers back on top with 25 seconds to play
It was unlike anything anyone on either team had ever seen.
"That was the craziest game I've ever been a part of," Louis said. "We're making history here. I'm excited for the next couple of weeks ahead. That's just one play."
Georgia had one last chance following Louis' miracle touchdown catch, driving to Auburn's 20-yard line before Aaron Murray's fourth-down pass fell incomplete. The Bulldogs had a spirited rally — which saw them come back from 27-7 down in the second quarter to take a 38-37 lead with 1:49 to play — go to waste.
Following the game, Georgia head coach Mark Richt admitted he had no idea what to tell his team.
"I told them I thought they were a pretty amazing group of guys to get it to 38-37 like they did," he said. "I think most teams would have folded or found a reason to quit, but they didn't do that. I just talked a little bit about what we could learn from it. We had a lot of things happen in the game that if we were more disciplined, we would have been in better shape."
An area Richt may have been referring to was the team's rush defense. But as the Tigers have done on nearly every opponent in recent outings, they piled up the rushing yards, finishing with 323. The 1-2 combo of running back Tre Mason and Marshall, who combined for 204 yards and three touchdowns, led the way.
Counting his 73-yard strike to Louis, Marshall accounted for three of the Tigers' five touchdowns on the night. What's more, it came against his former team, a storyline that had been rehashed relentlessly before, during and after the game.
All Malzahn wanted to focus on was the play of his quarterback overall. Beyond just touting his performance against the Bulldogs, he lauded how Marshall has handled himself during the Tigers' turnaround season.
In fact, he went far enough to tout the junior signal-caller as arguably one of the best players in the country, saying when talk surfaces, Marshall's name "should be in the conversation."
"He has the 'it' factor," Malzahn said. "He's a special player. If something great happens like that (Louis' touchdown catch), he has the same expression on his face. If something doesn't happen, the expression doesn't change."
The same couldn't be said for the Bulldogs, who were understandably upset in the postgame locker room. None took it harder than Murray, the senior who finished 33 of 49 for 416 yards, tossing two touchdowns and an interception.
Watching Auburn's touchdown catch-for-the-ages unfold before his eyes was something Murray could only describe as a "nightmare."
"You try to wake up and we are celebrating a victory," he said. "It's tough. This is going to be a tough one to get over."
At the other end of the spectrum, of course, were the jubilant Tigers.
Mason admitted he "still didn't know what happened" afterward, too stunned by the events that had unfolded to give Auburn its seventh straight victory in this remarkable turnaround season.
Finally composing himself, the junior could only thank a higher power for the Tigers somehow coming out on top once more.
"God just blessed us," Mason said. "Ricardo Louis told coach to throw me the ball. We did, and he did something with it. Thank God for him right now."