AUBURN, Ga. — Standing anxiously on the sideline, Roy Upchurch was screaming at anyone who would listen.
He begged to be on the field for the third down play four yards from the end zone. Somewhere else on the sideline, Nick Saban agreed.
So, facing that third and goal in the final moments of Saturday’s Iron Bowl, Alabama called a timeout to switch out of the running play it originally drawn up. In the end, both Saban and his senior running back were right.
With nearly everyone thinking the Crimson Tide would play it safe, run to the middle of the field and kick the field goal trailing by a point, quarterback Greg McElroy faked the handoff and threw to a wide-open Upchurch for the game-winning touchdown in the 26-21 thriller.
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“They were in a goal-line defense and it’s hard to gain four yards on one play,” Saban said. “I felt like if we got in a goal-line formation, they were going to think we were going to run. Sometimes that’s when you get the best plays.”
It was just the final act of an epic 15-play, 79-yard drive that drained 7:03 off the fourth quarter clock. Auburn’s final prayer came up 37 yards short and — just barely — Alabama survived another threat to its perfect season.
McElroy completed his final seven passes of the possession including four to Julio Jones. Twice the sophomore receiver caught third-down passes that kept the drive on its steady trickle toward the end zone surrounded by Alabama fans.
Keeping third downs at manageable distances certainly helped with the play calls.
“That was probably the best thing about the drive, the fact we weren’t facing any third-and-10s or -12s,” McElroy said. “We were able to get third-and-5s. We did a really good job.”
Case in point, facing a 2nd-and-14 early in the drive after an Antonio Coleman sack, Mark Ingram’s 9-yard reception made the 6-yarder Jones caught on the next play enough for his second big conversion. Three plays earlier, he caught a 9-yard pass for a first down following a 7-yard Trent Richardson run and an incomplete pass.
Auburn, Saban said, played a little softer on the receivers in that final play, opening up the shorter routes. The longest play of the drive was Richardson’s 17-yard screen pass and run on a 2nd-and-9 play that put Alabama well within kicker Leigh Tiffin’s field goal range.
But there would be no Iron Bowl hero moment for a Tiffin kicker this time.
The glory went to Upchurch this year.
Knowing his play sealed the huge win gave him “chills everywhere.”
“Winning the Iron Bowl?” he said. “I don’t think it gets any better than that.”
The Tiger’s Coleman nearly spoiled it, though.
He was not fooled by the goal-line formation that even included nose tackle Terrence Cody who occasionally plays fullback on short-yardage plays.
“Yeah, man, you could see it,” Coleman said. “I was calling out almost everything they were running the whole game. That comes from watching the film and how hungry I was to win this ball game. Like I said it didn’t work out, but it was a great ball game.”
The crowd noise aimed at disorienting Alabama became the barrier that kept Coleman from tipping off his teammates of the play that ultimately won the game.