AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn had nothing to lose.
Knotted at 28-all with arch-rival Alabama on Saturday night and only one second remaining on the clock, Gus Malzahn felt confident the game was headed to overtime, especially given the situation: the Crimson Tide was facing a difficult 57-yard field goal. But Auburn’s head coach wanted to talk about it more.
With the one second being added back after an official review, Malzahn decided to call timeout.
In hindsight, it may wind up as the most important timeout of his career.
It was during this meeting with his players that Malzahn noticed something amiss with his team’s field goal unit. Yes, they had a player back in the end zone to return the kick in case it fell short: safety Ryan Smith. If the kick didn’t have the distance, though, Malzahn knew it would set up more like a punt return. With that, he told senior corner Chris Davis to take Smith’s place in the end zone.
That slight alteration couldn’t have played out more perfectly for Auburn, as Davis indeed fielded the short kick in the back of the end zone.
One hundred and nine yards later, the No. 4 Tigers had their second improbable victory in as many games, knocking off the top-ranked Crimson Tide 34-28 to advance to the SEC championship game against Missouri.
Not surprisingly, the only thing racing through Davis’ mind on his return was to make sure to find a way across the goal line.
By any means necessary.
“’Just run,” he said. “That’s what I thought: ‘Just run and try to make something happen.’ That’s exactly what I did. It’s a miracle. Like I say, ‘God is good.’”
From there, pandemonium ensued.
As Davis recalled, fellow corner Jonathon Mincy threw him to the ground, followed by a number of teammates piling on to revel in the unbelievable finish to the 78th edition of the Iron Bowl. At the same time, the stands emptied, setting off a raucous on-field celebration.
“We’ve got the best fans in college football, and they are in it with us,” Malzahn said. “We’re all in this thing together. That’s the great thing about Auburn. I’m just happy for them, our players and our program.”
Much like the Georgia victory — which required a miracle, 73-yard tipped touchdown catch by Ricardo Louis — Auburn (11-1, 7-1) players were stunned by the manic ending.
“Words can’t explain the feelings that are going through me right now,” senior defensive end Dee Ford said. “I’m just so happy that whatever took place tonight happened.”
How did the play actually set up?
“I just knew they had big guys on the field to protect for the field goal, and I knew that I had a chance to outrun those guys,” Davis said. “I tried to (run) it up one way and hit it the other way, and it worked.”
Smith couldn’t have been happier that Davis was substituted for him at the last moment. Besides, he was every bit as pleased with his own contribution to the touchdown run.
“I made a good block,” he said with a laugh. “Y’all go check it out.”
It’s a play that will go down in Iron Bowl lore; Davis said he still hadn’t had a chance to realize what that meant. And the Birmingham, Ala., native also made another candid admission.
Unlike many kids who grow up playing football, he said he had never been one to fantasize about moments like these, where his name would be uttered in reverent tones — and cursed in other locales — in one of the most intense rivalries in all of sports.
“You know, I wouldn’t say I dreamed of it,” he said. “But it’s a great moment and this will go down in history. This will be something I look back and tell my son about.”
At the same time, it overshadowed another epic play made earlier in the fourth quarter by Alabama. Stuck at its own 1-yard line, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron connected with sophomore receiver Amari Cooper on a school-record 99-yard touchdown pass, which gave the Crimson Tide a 28-21 lead with just 10 minutes remaining.
To be more precise, Davis’ return — officially listed as a 100-yard touchdown, only the fourth time a field goal has been returned that far in NCAA history — rendered everything else that had occurred to that point a mere footnote.
Aside from the 99-yard scoring strike from McCarron-to-Cooper, the game saw three ties, a 14-point rally from Auburn (after trailing 21-7 in the second quarter) and Alabama’s nigh-impenetrable run defense gashed by the Tigers to the tune of 296 yards, well above the Crimson Tide’s 91-yard per game average.
But no storyline figured as prominently in Davis’ heroics as the Crimson Tide’s (11-1, 7-1) struggles in the kicking game.
Prior to the final play, Alabama’s Cade Foster had already missed three field goal attempts — a 44-yarder and a 33-yarder in the first and fourth quarters, respectively, both which sailed wide-left. With 2:32 remaining, he had another 44-yard effort blocked.
So with one second remaining and the game on the line, Foster was replaced by Adam Griffith.
Different kicker, same result for Alabama.
Jermaine Whitehead, for one, couldn’t help but note the irony; the Crimson Tide, it of the two consecutive BCS national championships and vaunted pedigree, couldn’t nail a single field goal.
When you’ve been as dominant as Alabama has been in recent seasons, Whitehead said things can get overlooked from time-to-time.
“When you’re used to winning by a lot, you can miss those parts in practice,” Whitehead said. “I guess they don’t work on it as much. Maybe they get the best players in the country but not the best kicker.”
Not that the junior free safety was complaining. After all, it gave the Tigers another opportunity to win the game in regulation thanks to Davis’ electrifying return skills.
On the field for the game’s final snap, Whitehead couldn’t have asked for a better vantage point to witness the latest — and undoubtedly the most stunning — entry in Auburn’s extraordinary season.
“When (Davis) caught the ball and took off running — when he ran straight and then broke to his left — I knew there was nothing but fat boys chasing him,” Whitehead said, “and the end zone was his best friend.”