BY BRANDON HUGHES FOR THE OBSERVER | PHOTOS BY ROBERT NOLES
AUBURN — Prior to Alabama’s improbable touchdown pass on 4th down and goal from the 31-yard line, there was an equally improbable defensive call made by the Auburn coaching staff. The same coaching staff that formulated a game plan that kept an outmanned Auburn squad not just in the game but saw it with the lead with 43 seconds remaining opted to play-not-to-lose rather than play-to-win, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Rushing only two defensive linemen and leaving a third lineman to spy Tide quarterback Jalen Milroe (in the unlikely event the QB tried to scramble 31 yards to the end zone, I guess?), the defense dropped into coverage, giving Milroe whatever time he needed to find Isaiah Bond in the back left corner of the north end zone and ending the 88th edition of the Iron Bowl in dramatic fashion.
The upset-minded Tigers (6-6, 3-5) fell 27-24 to the rival Crimson Tide (11-1,8-0). Au-burn is now 1-27 in the Iron Bowl when it is unranked and playing a ranked Alabama team.
The disappointment in the Auburn locker room was palpable.
“We played our hearts out,” said Auburn LB Jalen McLeod after the game. “You can tell that. And when you play your hearts out, it’s the worst feeling. The closest games are the worst games, and we lost, and it means so much … when you play your hearts out, and you lose like that, in that type of fashion, it’s the worst. There was a lot of emotion going through everybody.”
Auburn RB Jarquez Hunter echoed the sentiment.
“It was hard for everybody,” Hunter said. “One play can change a game, and you have to fight until the end. It is hard on everybody, especially the players on defense.”
Losing the coin toss, Auburn opened the game on offense and promptly went three-and-out on three incomplete passes, a familiar refrain throughout the season.
Alabama, on the other hand, could not have asked for a better offensive start executing play after play, facing only a single third down on the drive. It took them eight plays to move 69 yards and score on a two-yard rush by Rydell Williams to make the score 7-0. Alabama entered the game having won 53 of its previous 55 games when it scored first.
On the ensuing kickoff, Auburn’s Brian Battie opted to bring the kickoff out of the end zone and was ripped down by the facemask at the seven-yard line. Auburn fans cheered when penalty flags littered the field, expecting a 15-yard personal foul against Alabama; however, despite Battie nearly having his helmet ripped off, the officials inexplicably called a block in the back penalty on Auburn, ignoring the obvious facemask. Backed up at its own four-yard line, the Tigers were conservative offensively and punted after an-other three-and-out.
The Tiger defense would force Alabama into a three-and-out of its own, and, following an 18-yard punt, took over on its own 32-yard line. Five plays (all on the ground) and 68 yards later, RB Damari Alston punched it in from four yards out, tying the ballgame at 7-7.
Alabama would answer the Tiger touchdown with a 32-yard field goal on its following drive, re-taking the lead 10-7. The teams traded punts on the next two drives.
Auburn found itself beginning on its own 12-yard line. However, this time, the poor field position wouldn’t matter. Sparked by a 56-yard run by Alston with a facemask penalty tacked onto it, the Tigers found themselves with a first down at the Alabama 12-yard line. Auburn WR Ja’Varrius Johnson would take a pitch from QB Payton Thorne on a reverse around left end to give the Tigers its first lead of the game, 14-10.
With 2:17 remaining in the half, Auburn looked ready to take the lead into halftime when Milroe found Jermaine Burton looking like the first guy out to practice as he sprinted wide open down the sideline for a 68-yard touchdown, putting Alabama back on top 17-14. That is where the score would remain at the end of the second quarter.
Alabama began the second half in much the same way it began the first. It marched efficiently down the field, gaining yards in chunks before the Auburn defense stepped up and forced a field goal try from the four-yard line. The kick was successful and extended the lead to 20-14.
On its subsequent drive, the Auburn offense found rhythm through the air for the first time in the game. Johnson had receptions of 37 and 27 yards on the drive, the last of which was a well-executed touchdown pass from Thorne, giving Johnson a rushing and receiving touchdown in the Iron Bowl, becoming the first Auburn player to accomplish the feat since Ben Obomanu in 2005. Auburn now had the lead, 21-20.
On Alabama’s following drive, it looked as if it would answer an Auburn score yet again when the Tide’s 42-yard field goal try was no good, giving Alabama a missed or botched field goal attempt in its third consecutive game at Jordan-Hare.
The Tiger offense then took possession of the football with the lead for the first time in the game. The offense embarked on its most time-consuming drive of the season, taking 8:18 to go 72 yards in 16 plays—12 of which were on the ground—and culminated in Alex McPherson’s record 19th consecutive made field goal, extending the Tiger lead to 24-20.
Alabama would punt on the next drive, and Auburn would follow suit. When the Tiger defense forced the second Tide punt in a row, Auburn inserted its backup punt returner, Koy Moore, into the game. Moore would lose his footing and muff the punt, giving Ala-bama possession with 4:48 remaining in the game and the Tigers clinging to a four-point lead.
Despite the quick change, the defense continued its strong second-half performance by continuing to hold Alabama out of the end zone. Facing first down and goal from the Auburn seven-yard line, Auburn’s Austin Keys burst through the line and tackled Williams for a one-yard loss. That was followed by a wayward snap, resulting in an 18-yard loss. Facing 3rd and goal from the 26-yard line, Milroe would be penalized for an illegal forward pass, setting up the fateful 4th down game-winner.