Gus Malzahn's return to Auburn this season has often felt like something straight out of a movie. Chris Davis gave Malzahn's story a fitting Hollywood ending on Saturday.
Davis returned a 57-yard field goal attempt from Adam Griffith for a touchdown as time expired, giving Auburn a 34-28 victory over Alabama in the 2013 Iron Bowl.
Taking the ball nearly at the back line of the opposite end zone, Davis scampered the entire way down the field, flanked by Tigers players who had set up a wide wedge down the sideline. Officially recognized as a 100-yard return, the senior defensive back's thrilling play left Jordan-Hare Stadium in an unrecognizable sea of blue and orange as shell-shocked Crimson Tide players attempted to leave the field.
Auburn's miracle victory nearly didn't happen. T.J. Yeldon had set up the attempt with a 24-yard run, but it was initially ruled on the field that he stepped out of bounds as time expired. But after the replay official determined that Yeldon was out with one second remaining, Nick Saban decided to take a risk on attempting the deep field goal to end regulation.
Griffith had attempted just two career field goals prior to his 57-yarder, and he was only in the game because of the struggles of starting Alabama kicker Cade Foster. Foster had missed three field goals in the game, including two critical ones in the second half that proved even more important than they seemed at the time.
It was a fitting ending to one of the most hotly contested college football games in history.
The Tigers, once down 21-7 in the first half, spent their entire second half battling back in the game. They pounded the Alabama defense for 296 yards on the ground, with Nick Marshall and Tre Mason both having stellar days.
Mason became just the fifth player to rush for 100 yards against the Tide since 2008, finishing with 164 yards on 29 carries. Included in that was a critical one-yard touchdown with 1:40 remaining in the second quarter, which brought Auburn within a 21-14 deficit at the half.
Marshall was also solid on the ground, missing out on a 100-yard day by one yard and scampering for a 45-yard touchdown for the game's opening score. But it was one surprising decision from Marshall through the air that even opened up the possibility of an Auburn comeback.
Down 28-21 with under a minute left, Marshall scampered out of the pocket on a designed run only to find a wide-open Sammie Coates dashing down the sideline. The Tigers quarterback hurriedly switched hands and made an accurate pass just before crossing the line of scrimmage, and Coates scampered in from 39 yards out to tie the score.
The final sequence obscured what most thought was AJ McCarron's proverbial "Heisman Moment." The Tide had taken a lead when McCarron, backed up to the edge of his own goal line for the second straight possession, found Amari Cooper down the right sideline for a school-record 99-yard touchdown pass. After taking some flak among Heisman voters for his lack of defining statistical outcomes, McCarron was putting together a second half fitting of the bronze statue.
While he had been almost entirely nondescript in the first half minus two touchdown passes early in the second quarter, McCarron seemingly came through when his team needed him most. He finished the game with 277 yards and three touchdowns.
It was also a banner game for Cooper, the wideout whose hyped sophomore season had been mired in injury. Cooper was the only Tide receiver able to find holes down the field, twice the recipient of McCarron bombs from Alabama's goal line. The first, a 54-yard strike near the end of the third quarter, led to a 33-yard missed field goal from Foster.
T.J. Yeldon also had a solid outing, with 141 yards on 26 carries, but it proved insufficient.
With the victory, Auburn clinches the SEC West division and will move on to play in the conference championship game. The Tigers' opponent will be determined later on Saturday, with Missouri needing a victory over Texas A&M to clinch its first berth. If Missouri loses, Auburn will face South Carolina.
AJ McCarron (QB, Alabama): B+
Should McCarron look back at the film in a couple weeks, the first two-and-a-half quarters wouldn't exactly make him proud. Despite arguably having more Heisman hype than at any point in his career, McCarron had the type of evening most who have watched him the past three years have come to expect. He was steady but unspectacular, avoiding any crippling mistakes while still never instilling confidence that superstardom was in his future.
When the Tide needed their quarterback to come through, though, he did in spades. He found O.J. Howard for 12 yards on a fourth-down conversion in the first quarter, Cooper on a 54-yard pass from his own end zone in the third quarter and then the 99-yarder that nearly served as a guillotine blow.
McCarron understandably doesn't love being called a "game manager" because of the negative connotations. The CBS broadcast even noted that he bristled when the subject came up in their pregame meetings. It's safe to say that McCarron is out of the Heisman race with this loss, but it's not without trying.
Nick Marshall (QB, Auburn): A-
For what he's asked to do, Marshall had a stellar evening. The Auburn rushing attack had consistent success, and Marshall made the correct read on a majority of the team's option handoffs. The fact that Mason scampered all over the Tide is just as much a product of Marshall's decision-making as it was his running back's agility.
Nevertheless, Marshall's limitations were also apparent. He's gifted with a strong arm but doesn't nearly possess the same level of poise or accuracy of McCarron. When Malzahn attempted to mix up his strategy by going through the air, it was almost entirely on short screens and intermediate passes designed to give Marshall as easy a read as possible.
Luckily, the running game was stellar enough to open that one gap up that changed the entire outcome.
Tre Mason (RB, Auburn): A
Running for 164 yards against Alabama is no small deal, even if it comes in a year where the Tide are only among the nation's best against the ground rather than the best—and even if said running back is playing in a system specifically designed to avoid the pass virtually at all costs and is predicated on deception.
Even with all that, you just don't go over 100 yards in the first half against a Nick Saban defense without having a heck of a night.
In other words, this was a banner night in a banner season for Mason. The junior back has now finished with a triple-digit rushing total in four straight games and six of his past seven. With 1,317 yards on the season, he's starting to get dangerously close to the Rudy Johnson/Bo Jackson strata in the Auburn record books.
Again, this is no small deal.
No matter whether we're grading on one night or the entire season, Mason has been nothing short of stellar.
T.J. Yeldon (RB, Alabama): B
Yeldon is also not horrible at running the football. Despite being obviously hampered by his ankle injury, he played through pain and was almost as effective as usual. He ran with a purpose and still had most of his explosiveness, particularly on his 31-yard carry on Alabama's first drive.
Yeldon seemed to tweak the ankle on that run, and you could tell perhaps a 100 percent healthy version of him would have had a better night. But the mere threat of Yeldon being on the field opened up play-action opportunities, making McCarron's job easier and the Tide's offense as a whole more effective.
Like McCarron, this isn't a game that Yeldon will send to NFL scouts. Sometimes, however, being merely effective is enough to help your team.
Auburn will advance to the SEC Championship Game, where either South Carolina or Missouri awaits. Alabama awaits word on what the BCS gods will have to say about its resume.
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