Auburn’s latest miracle in the Iron Bowl came a little too early.
Quarterback Jeremy Johnson hit Jason Smith for an unbelievable 77-yard touchdown in the third quarter to make Saturday’s 80th rivalry matchup against Alabama a one-possession game at 19-13.
With 4:27 left to play, a controversial personal foul gave Alabama the a chance to regain control and win 29-13 to clinch a spot in the SEC title game next weekend at the Georgia Dome.
Smith’s catch came less than 60 seconds after Alabama scored its first touchdown of the game.
The sophomore tipped an overthrown pass from Johnson not once, but twice to himself so he could take it 70-plus yards to the end zone. Alabama had two defenders covering Smith, but both missed breaking the play up as the ball bounced around in midair.
“As I was running I was like man no way," Smith said. "I couldn’t hear anything at first, until I got into the end zone."
The play instantly brought to mind the tipped catch Ricardo Louis made two years ago to give Auburn a win over Georgia.
“As soon as it happened I was thinking about it," Louis said of the similarities. "Everybody was like ‘Oh! Ricardo Louis 2.0!’ He just made a good play. I think his was probably better than mine. You know great focus. He did a good job of just reeling it in for the touchdown.”
Auburn’s momentum came to a halt when officials flagged Justin Garrett for a late hit on the ensuing drive.
The Tigers senior linebacker hit Alabama quarterback Jake Coker right at the out of bounds line. After a review, officials flagged the hit.
Following the decision, Auburn's bench was called for unsportsmanlike conduct. A ball that would have been at Alabama’s own 36 ended up at Auburn’s 34-yard line where kicker Adam Griffith hit his fifth field goal to make it a two-possession game, 22-13.
“It was close," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "It was right there on the edge. Their quarterback is a really good runner. I can’t fault our guys. They gave a great effort.”
The crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium booed the officials loudly all the way through Alabama’s field goal.
Derrick Henry added a touchdown with 24 seconds left for the final score and cap off a 271 yard performance.
"It’s hard to take him out at the end of the game," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "He’s the go-to guy and he didn’t want to come out. He wanted to go and said that he could, and certainly finished the game like we needed to today."
Alabama looked like it might break the game open when Coker avoided pressure to throw a 34-yard touchdown pass to AdDarius Stewart.
Carl Lawson and Byron Cowart were in the backfield on the play, but Coker managed to escape to his right and launch a pass right as he reached the line of scrimmage. Auburn’s safety moved up on the ball thinking Coker might keep it allowing Stewart to make an easy catch in the end zone.
“Yeah, you know it is what it is," Coker said. "I knew it was a big play. We needed 10 yards or so, and I just did what I could. If it works, it works, and I’ll take it.”
Henry rushed for more than 100 yards in the first half, but Auburn’s defense kept the Tide out of the end zone before the break.
Alabama’s two long gains in the first half — 30-yard run from Henry and a 46-yard catch by Calvin Ridley — only managed to set up field goals.
The key sequence in the half was the Tigers’ second impressive goal line stand in three weeks.
On first down midway through the second quarter, Henry ran the ball down to Auburn’s 1-yard line. He was pushed back for a loss of eight yards on second down and Jake Coker threw an incomplete pass on third.
Adam Griffith accounted for all Alabama’s points in the first half with four field goals.
Auburn’s offense was happy to keep the ball on the ground and out of Alabama’s hands.
Jeremy Johnson attempted seven passes in the half while the Tigers ran the ball 23 times. When Johnson did throw the ball, many of his early throws were short passes to the sidelines.
Jovon Robinson and Peyton Barber both broke long gains on balls caught at the line of scrimmage that accounted for all but eight of Johnson’s 56 yards passing in the first half.
Daniel Carlson hit field goals from 24 and 44 yards to keep the game close, but missed a 48-yard attempt that would have tied the game 9-9 going into halftime.