Given the scarcity of moments worth relishing this season, perhaps it was fitting that Auburn fans and players had two opportunities to celebrate Saturday’s improbable – no, stunning – 28-24 victory over Texas A&M.
Kellen Mond’s desperate heave in the final seconds came down short and toward the sideline. It was snagged by Auburn safety Daniel Thomas, and at the moment it seemed irrelevant whether or not Thomas got a foot down in bounds. Ball game either way.
This was not nearly on the magnitude of last year’s Iron Bowl win, so there was no mad rush onto the field. Instead, the Auburn bench rushed to the student sections to celebrate what is the only thrilling home win of the season.
Noah Igbinighene, whose fourth-quarter interception started this revival, danced like he was walking a tight road. But then came the dreaded announcement. After review, the pass was incomplete and one second remained on the clock. The players had to regroup, emotionally and mentally. Thomas had to tend to something even more pressing as he sprinted back toward the student section.
“I have to get my helmet back,” Thomas said.
One more play.
Certainly, the football gods couldn’t be so cruel as to snatch this victory away from the Tigers, not after their most thrilling home comeback since Kick Six.
Thankfully for Auburn, Nick Coe took care of that. His sack of Monds secured victory once and for all. Back to the student sections the Tigers sprinted. Well, except for Igbinighene.
“I celebrated a lot before that one second,” Igbinighene, “so all of my celebrating was kind of gone.”
The celebrating carried over into the victorious locker room, where everybody got into the act.
“It was wild,” said fullback Chandler Cox, whose one-yard touchdown run cut the Aggies’ lead to 24-21 and sent Jordan-Hare into a tizzy.
“People were dancing. I was showing off my moves a little bit. Everybody had some moves they were showing off. They had to.”
And why not?
Some critics or dissatisfied Auburn fans might have an answer to that question. Because, in the grand scheme of things, winning this game didn’t ease the sting of losing at home to Tennessee. Or getting out-muscled on the road by Mississippi State. Or losing to LSU, a quality team, no doubt, but a game Auburn should have won. A team that improved to 6-3 could be – maybe should be – 9-0 and in the national championship mix.
Nor does it make a buy-out of Gus Malzahn’s fat contract any more financially feasible. They are stuck with each other for a while. Maybe not for the entire six years remaining after this season, but at least for a hefty portion of it.
All of that may be true. But this moment in an otherwisedisappointing season was worthy of relishing – especially by the players who pay the price year-round for moments like this.
“Obviously, we’ve had every type of adversity hit us this year,” said quarterback Jarrett Stidham. “It hasn’t been the year obviously that we wanted. But to come in and play a really, really good Texas A&M team, it was just great to see the guys pull together at the end and fight for each other and get a win.”
It’s reflecting on all of that hard work, Cox said, that provided the Tigers the motivation to keep fighting.
“Just believing,” Cox said. “Just kind of going back to this spring and this summer and the long nights and the early mornings of training. Those hard workouts. We didn’t do those for no reason. We do it for a reason and games like this. We’ve got to go out there and just believe in each other and know that we can do it. That’s what we did.”
But first they needed something good to happen. Enter the philanthropist of the day, Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher. The Aggies had been gutting the Tigers all day with their running game. But Fisher, seemingly compelled to show off his entire playbook, started dialing up pass plays. The first time led to a stalled drive at the Auburn 19, which was followed by a missed field goal.
Still, Auburn’s offense could not take advantage of that, going three-and-out for their third consecutive possession and sixth of the game.
That’s when many fans started exiting. When Texas A&M faced third-and-9 at the Auburn 43, the smart play would have been to run the football. Even a safe pass, to keep the clock running even if it fell short of a first down, would have been justified. Instead, Fisher elected challenge Igbinoghene.
“I kind of baited him a little bit,” Igbinoghene said.
As soon as he intercepted the pass, Igbinoghene felt the energy at Jordan-Hare surge.
“I knew the game turned around instantly once I caught it because the way everybody was looking,” he said. “I looked to the sideline. Everybody was hyped. Before that, everybody was down a little bit.”
The clock showed 7:14 left in the fourth quarter when the offense took the field. Theoretically and mathematically, plenty of time to score, get a stop, and score again. Only one problem. Auburn had exactly one first down since midway through the second quarter.
There was a difference, though. Suddenly, the offense had new light. The need to score twice also forced the Tigers into their two-minute offense, which is when they are at their best. Stidham stepped into the huddle and told the offense, “Let’s take advantage of this.”
“It’s not every day that you’re down 10 in the fourth quarter and you have an opportunity to come back and win a game,” Stidham said. “That was my message to the guys, just keep fighting for each other. Sure enough, it worked out.
What followed was pure craziness. The Tigers flew 71 yards down the field and scored in exactly two minutes. Texas A&M’s following drive stalled around midfield. Christian Tutt’s 28-yard punt return set up the Auburn offense at its 42. Ryan Davis caught a pass from Stidham and scrambled 47 yards to the Texas A&M 11. On the next play, Stidham threw a strike to freshman Seth Williams for the go-ahead touchdown.
“There’s a lot of things need to work on and correct,” Malzahn said. “We’ll continue to do that. Today, the big thing I don’t want to take away from is the way we won. That’s hard to do, what our team did. I’m just real proud of those guys.”
As he should be.