AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn wasn’t worried.
Moments after Georgia took its first lead of the game on Saturday — on a controversial 5-yard touchdown run by quarterback Aaron Murray, which held up upon review — with just 1:49 to play, the demeanor of Auburn’s head coach was one of calm, quiet confidence. After all, trailing 38-37, the Tigers only needed a field goal to pick up their seventh straight victory and thwart the Bulldogs’ comeback bid.
That sense of calm quickly turned to desperation once Auburn got the ball, though. Facing a fourth-and-18 with 36 seconds remaining, the Tigers needed a miracle just to extend the game — much less win it.
Thanks to a confluence of factors — luck, skill and concentration chief among them — Auburn’s prayers were answered.
Ricardo Louis wasn’t the first option.
Yes, the play that will go down in Auburn lore and become a staple of highlight shows for years to come was never intended to go to the sophomore wide receiver. Well, not that sophomore pass-catcher, anyway. During back-to-back timeouts (one each by Auburn and Georgia) before the fourth down play took place, Malzahn decided that the ball should go to Sammie Coates, on a “dig” route right at the first-down marker at the Tigers’ own 45-yard line.
Louis had other ideas. Much as he had the entire game, the Miami native wanted the ball in his hands. Already authoring a career-best performance — with 124 total yards up to that point between his rushing and receiving efforts — Louis was hungry for more.
And he was fine letting Malzahn know it.
“I told him I wanted the ball,” he said. “Whether it was running or catching the ball I wanted the ball in my hands.”
Once that happened, Tre Mason knew the ball would likely head Louis’ way.
If there’s one thing Malzahn likes, the junior running back said, it is players who have faith in their own ability.
“When he sees that fire in somebody’s eyes — that they really want the ball — he’s going to go to that option,” Mason said.
With that, the Tigers trotted back on to the field for their last-gasp attempt at keeping the drive and win streak intact.
Nick Marshall took the snap.
First, the junior quarterback looked down the field and checked off all his reads on the play. But as Mason astutely predicted, once the ball left Marshall’s arm, there was only one Tiger receiver in the vicinity to make the catch: Louis.
As the ball flew through the night’s sky, the initial top target on the play, Coates, was rendered a mere spectator.
“I turned around when I came out of my cut, I saw that no one was around me and then I saw the ball in the air,” he said. “I didn’t know what to think. I just hoped someone came down with the ball.”
At first glance, it appeared Marshall had erred, throwing into double-coverage, with a third defender mere steps behind Louis. And Georgia’s Josh Harvey-Clemons did what he was coached to do, leaping to grab the interception and seal the victory for the Bulldogs. But while he got his hands on the ball, Harvey-Clemons didn't do enough with it. Instead, he tipped it up and behind the reach of he and Tray Matthews, the other Georgia defensive back who could have made the game-clinching play.
That tip fell right in the hands of hands of Louis, who bobbled the ball before gaining control of it at the 14-yard line and running the rest of the way into the end zone for one of the most improbable touchdown catches anyone will ever see.
Making sure he established possession of the ball was the most anxious moment of the play in Louis’ estimation.
“I thought I was going to drop it for real,” he said. "(Wide receivers) Coach (Dameyune) Craig always tells us to always look the ball all the way in.”
What was running through his mind the second he crossed the goal line?
“(The) fans,” he said. “Because I looked around before the play and it looked like everybody was sad, with their heads down. And that kind of hurt me, because we came out here to put on a show and keep what we’ve been having going on — you know, the winning streak we’ve been on. When I scored, I was like, ‘This is all for the fans.’”
There were still 25 ticks left on the clock after Louis’ go-ahead score, which put the Tigers back on top 43-38.
Georgia wasted little time moving down the field, picking up 50 yards — going to tight end Arthur Lynch (22 yards) and wide receiver Rantavious Wooten (28 yards), respectively — on the first two plays of its final drive. After an offsides penalty on defensive end Dee Ford, the Bulldogs were on the Tigers’ 20-yard line.
That was as far as Georgia would get, though.
Ford made up for the flag on the game’s last play, hitting Murray as the ball was released. The Bulldogs could only watch as it fell to the ground to end their two-year win streak in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
Afterward, Georgia head coach Mark Richt said he had a heart-to-heart with Harvey-Clemons, telling the sophomore the near-interception that ended in disaster for his team wasn’t the only play that decided the game’s outcome.
“It seems like it all came down that one play, but everybody else had some chances to do some good things as well,” Richt said. “We’ve just got to learn as we go. We’ve got some true freshmen out there and sometimes you have to learn the hard way.”
Auburn, meanwhile, was still trying to take in everything that had just unfolded.
“He was at a loss for words,” Mason said of Malzahn when the Tigers finally made it into the postgame locker room, delayed by the celebration set off once the clock struck zero. “Everybody was at a loss for words. We were just excited we came out of this victorious.”
Every player agreed: it was the craziest finish they had ever been a part of. Or seen, for that matter.
One Tiger wasn’t shocked by the result, however.
Ford repeated three times — he “knew something would happen” to keep Auburn’s turnaround season on track. What that would entail, he wasn’t sure.
He was only certain that everything would work out for the Tigers in the end.
“And (when Louis’ touchdown catch) happened,” he said, “I passed out.”
Once he composed himself — and once he helped seal the game with his pressure on Murray on the Bulldogs’ last-second play, of course — Ford admitted the magnitude of what had just transpired hadn’t really set in. Give him two hours, he said, and it probably would hit him. That would just be the initial joy of capturing another win, though.
The lasting impression that Louis’ spectacular touchdown grab left will take far longer to dawn on Ford.
The same goes for every other player and coach on the Tigers’ roster who will be indelibly linked to the game’s unbelievable ending.
“I don’t think you really appreciate it until further back, when you look back at it,” Ford said. “Once it’s a memory, you can just look back on it like, ‘Man, that was crazy.’”