AUBURN, Ala. — They never believed this was supposed to end in torment, even as the 20-point lead vanished, even as hope to put together one last drive disappeared, even as everything they had envisioned for themselves came down to one more snap.
(Photo: Shanna Lockwood, USA TODAY Sports)
These Auburn players already had been through enough of that and come out the other side as college football’s best story, riding the kind of roll that comes along once in a lifetime.
Why not make a play to win, the way they have all season? Why not trust in the power of hard work and preparation and even a little bit of destiny? Why not, after figuring out how to go from 3-9 to the top-10, go ahead and figure out fourth-and-18?
“I looked around (the stands) before the play and it looked like everybody was sad, heads down,” receiver Ricardo Louis said. “And it kind of hurt me, because we wanted to keep what we’ve been having going on.”
It takes a thousand little things falling exactly into place for No. 9 Auburn to pull off this kind of season, but it will forever be remembered by the moment Saturday night when terrified silence at Jordan-Hare Stadium turned into sudden shaking as Nick Marshall’s pass got tipped high in the air and into the arms of Louis for a 73-yard touchdown with 25 seconds left to beat Georgia 43-38.
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Call it a fluke if you want. Call it divine intervention on behalf of an Auburn team that gagged away a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter. Call it karmic payback for a team that just one year ago suffered the indignity of going 0-8 in the Southeastern Conference but has now won five games by a touchdown or less.
It doesn’t matter. Auburn is 10-1, headed toward a winner-take-everything showdown with No. 1 Alabama and the author of a touchdown for all time, a replay that will live for as long as the SEC plays important football games and 87,000-plus fans show up to watch therm.
The Marshall Miracle. The Prayer at Jordan-Hare. The Hail Aubie. The Saint Louis Arch.
Whatever you want to call it, the visual will be unmistakable: Marshall making his five-step drop, looking down-field, stepping into a deep throw, two defenders trying to knock down the pass but ultimately running into each other, the ball bouncing high off safety Tray Matthews at the 20-yard line, popping right to Louis at the 15 who trotted into the end zone as Georgia players and coaches fell to the ground in disbelief.
Ten seconds of pure, breathless chaos.
“When he caught it, I fell on my back,” Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said. “I fainted for a second.”
“I didn’t know what to think,” receiver Sammie Coates said. “I saw the ball in the air, and I said, ‘I hope somebody comes down with it.’ ”
“It was just an exciting moment to be a part of,” Marshall said.
“It was unbelievable,” Louis said. “I kind of expected to make a play. But not like that.”
Of course Louis expected to make a play; every receiver at every level would. But the difference between expecting to and doing it is why Auburn, in its first year under Gus Malzahn, can legitimately start thinking about winning the SEC and perhaps even the national title.
This is not a perfect team, and to understand that all you needed to do was watch the fourth quarter when the Tigers, who once led 37-17 and seemed unstoppable, suddenly couldn’t move the ball or contain Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. In a blink, Murray led back-to-back-to-back touchdown drives, putting Georgia ahead 38-37 with a 5-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-goal.
Malzahn wasn’t panicked. After all, he had seen Marshall lead game-winning touchdown drives against Mississippi State and Texas A&M earlier this season, and with 1:49 to work with, getting at least a field goal wasn’t impossible.
“Believe it or not, I felt good,” Malzahn said. “I had a decent idea how they’d play in their two-minute defense, and we’ve got a great field goal kicker so we were pretty calm right there.”
But the chances were slipping away. A screen pass with less than a minute to go went nowhere. Marshall threw an incompletion down the left sideline. Then protection broke down and he was sacked with 36 seconds to play, putting Auburn in fourth-and-18.
Auburn may be playing with house money this season, but after dominating the game for three quarters it would have been crushing to let this one slip away.
Instead, it was Georgia (6-4, 4-3) that had to deal with heartbreak — again — when Murray’s desperate attempt to answer Marshall from Auburn’s 20 yard line fell incomplete as the clock expired. For the Bulldogs, that kind of ending was oddly fitting during a luckless season in which its hopes of winning the SEC were ruined by significant injuries. There was nothing the Bulldogs could do about the short-handed losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt, but this one will leave plenty of what-ifs.
“By the time I had to speak (in the locker room), I really didn’t know what to say,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I told them I thought they were a pretty amazing group of guys to get it to 38-37 like we did. I just talked a little bit about what we could learn from it.”
Auburn knows what that feels like. Just a year ago, this program — with largely the same group of players — essentially imploded. While there were plenty of low points, few were worse than walking off the field at Georgia having been beaten 38-0. A few weeks later, head coach Gene Chizik would be out of a job.
“I argued about it all last year,” Ford said. “People thought Auburn has no players. I know what I saw. I know what I saw in this team and I know it was just a mental thing we were going through. A lot of tragedies happened last year that we’re not even going to talk about. People don’t understand, and I knew for a fact these guys had a lot in them.”
Whatever they had, Malzahn has extracted it. He told his players they were going to pull off the biggest turnaround in college football, and no matter what happens in two weeks against Alabama, they have achieved it.
From the first time they played this season, when they stopped Washington State at the 27-yard line to preserve a seven-point win, until Saturday, Malzahn has gotten just the right mix of execution, good fortune and belief. Now, he has a very dangerous team on his hands and an epic Iron Bowl ahead.
“It goes back to our players being able to do it in the heat of the moment, finding a way,” Malzahn said. “I believe if you work hard and have a team that’s completely 100 percent together and the coaches are together you’ve got a chance to do something special.”
Dan Wolken, a national college football reporter for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @DanWolken.