AUBURN, Ala. -- Through three quarters, Saturday’s game was going according to script for coach Gus Malzahn and his football team.
The SEC’s top rushing attack had already picked up 316 yards on the ground, and Auburn the defense had stymied Aaron Murray, holding the Georgia quarterback to 255 yards through the air with no touchdowns and one interception. The Tigers led 34-17 and looked well on their way to another impressive victory.
“The [first half] couldn’t have went any better other than the fact that we had to kick some field goals, and I didn’t call a good play in one situation versus their defense,” Malzahn said. “Having that field goal blocked was really the only negative thing.”
Auburn added another field goal to go up 37-17 with 12:39 left, and there was already talk of the Iron Bowl in two weeks. But the script changed.
Murray started finding his receivers and carving apart the Tigers’ secondary. He orchestrated a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that made it a two-score game. After Auburn went three-and-out, Murray led another drive and connected with Arthur Lynch on a 24-yard touchdown. Just like that, the lead was down to six with 5:52 remaining.
“They got the momentum, and football can be a game of momentum,” Malzhan said. “They are a good team. You’re talking about a top-10 team before everybody got hurt.”
For Auburn, it went from bad to worse. On the next drive, Nick Marshall threw two incomplete passes and was sacked on third down. The Tigers shanked the punt, and Georgia had the ball on AU’s 45-yard line, a touchdown away from taking the lead.
It took Murray just three minutes to find the end zone. On fourth down, he scrambled for five yards and just barely snuck the ball across the goal line. The Bulldogs, who were left for dead 10 minutes prior, had taken a 38-37 lead.
“It felt good to know that we had that fight in us,” running back Todd Gurley said. “Everybody was on the same track.”
The deafening roar from inside Jordan-Hare Stadium was now just a murmur. It was the small contingent of fans dressed in black and red that were making all of the noise. Everybody else looked on, astonished about what just happened.
But there were still almost two minutes left on the clock. Auburn had been in this situation before. Marshall had already engineered two game-winning drives this season -- against Mississippi State and Texas A&M -- and the Tigers only needed a field goal this time. There was no need to panic.
“We put ourselves in certain situations at practice, and with the two-minute drill, we work on that every day in practice,” Marshall said.
The drive didn’t go according to script, however. Auburn gained 11 yards on its first five plays and ran close to a minute off the clock. Then, Marshall was sacked, and it set up a 4th-and-18 from the Tigers' own 27-yard line with 36 seconds left. It would take nothing short of a miracle just to pick up a first down and keep the drive alive.
It felt like an eternity since the Tigers last scored. The crowd of 87,451 mostly stayed because they didn’t what else to do. A half an hour ago, they were ready to go roll Toomer’s Corner to celebrate a victory in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
But that’s when it happened. The Hail Mary. The Auburn prayer. Marshall’s miracle. Whatever you want to call it.
Marshall launched a wobbly pass down field, and after the ball was tipped in the air by a Georgia defender, Ricardo Louis -- who never broke stride -- grabbed it and scooted across the goal line for a 73-yard touchdown. Auburn won 43-38.
“It was right on my fingertips,” Louis said. “When the ball was in the air, I told myself I’m not going to drop it. I’m not going to drop it. Just look it all the way in.”
What ensued was complete chaos. The Auburn sideline celebrated like they had just won a national championship. The crowd, who seconds earlier thought the game was over, erupted when Louis came down the ball. The only person who remained calm was Malzahn.
“The first thing I saw after the touchdown was people running on the field, and I didn’t want us to get a penalty,” he said. “I really didn’t get to enjoy until after.”
Auburn survived one last-ditch effort from Murray and company, and it was time to celebrate.
The game didn’t go according to script, but at the end of the day, the Tigers are still 10-1 and in control of their own destiny in the SEC West.
“This team, they are a special group,” Malzahn said after the game. “They’ve been through a lot, and they rallied. They came together and believed in each other. I told them before the game, we’ve been building up for this moment. The moment was to play with these guys. They did that tonight.”