For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the Vizio BCS National Championship, moment by moment, culminating in our "Story of the Season" double issue Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week's biggest moments and tell you why they'll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.
Throw me the ball.
As Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall looked at his teammates in the huddle, the situation at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday was bleak. To be more specific, it was fourth-and-18 at your own 27 with 36 seconds to go and you’ve just blown a 20-point fourth-quarter lead to Georgia and you’re about to get knocked out of the BCS race bleak.
The play call from first-year coach Gus Malzahn was for Marshall to find sophomore wideout Sammie Coates somewhere in the middle of the field on a dig route. You know, play it in the middle, get the first down, stop the clock and keep marching. After all, Coates had entered the Georgia game ranked second in the nation by averaging nearly 25 yards per catch.
But as the Tigers broke the huddle, it wasn’t Coates who shouted to get his quarterback's attention. "Ricardo Louis looked me in the eye and said, 'Throw me the ball,'" Marshall recalls with crystal clarity.
Wait ... Ricardo Louis?! The same Ricardo Louis who's listed fourth (at best) among wide receivers on the Auburn depth chart? The sophomore who'd had two games with negative receiving yards? And whose only touchdown catch had come against Western Carolina?
Actually, that Ricardo Louis hadn't shown up on this day. The Louis who suited up against Georgia played a pivotal role in the 117th edition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. His pair of beautiful, short-side speed sweeps had resulted in 66 yards rushing and set up two Auburn touchdowns. He'd also hauled in 58 yards receiving to that point in the game. Finally, his still-young career, which had been highlighted more by mistakes (such as running into running back Tre Mason on a would-be handoff, squashing a drive and spurring UGA's stunning fourth-quarter comeback), was showing hints of the promise that he'd arrived with from Miami as the No. 21 recruit in the country.
Yes, he was feeling it. And he wanted everyone to know they should take advantage of this suddenly fortuitous night. He'd bugged Malzahn and his staff on the sideline, promising that if they gave him the ball, he'd make a big play. He said the same to teammates. Now he was telling his quarterback.
Hey, it wasn’t that crazy. He was just repeating what he'd already been told.
"I always dreamed about making a great play in a big game," Louis said Saturday night. "Coach Malzahn said at the beginning of the week, he was like, 'Ricardo is due for a great play in a big game!' And he was right."
He was. But as Malzahn watched the play develop after the snap, he wasn't thinking about any midweek premonitions. He was waiting to watch Marshall lob a first-down pass to Coates, who had started in the slot and was open, cutting across the middle. Instead, Marshall cocked his arm and uncorked a much longer pass from his 27 well into Georgia territory.
"I went through all my reads," Marshall said. "[Louis] had a step on the defender, and I had to deliver the ball. He just came out with an awesome catch."
It was not an awesome throw. It was short. So short that not one but two Georgia defenders had a play on it. For the Dawgs' sake, they will always wish it had been only one. The ball went through the hands of safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and off the pads of Tray Matthews ... into the hands of Louis ... who ran into the end zone, giving Auburn a 43-38 victory and establishing his place in the annals of War Eagle lore.
So what was the sudden SEC folk hero thinking as the most ridiculous bounce since The Immaculate Reception landed in his gloves? “I thought I was going to drop it ... for real.”
He didn't. What dropped were the heads of the Georgia coaching staff, some of whom collapsed to the turf in disbelief, one last kick in the groin for a team that has experienced a year full of them. Nearly the same reaction probably happened in nearly every corner of the SEC, from Tuscaloosa to both Columbias. Had the ball fallen incomplete -- which it very well might have had it not been touched -- then Alabama would’ve instantly clinched the SEC West and essentially the same thing would've happened for Missouri in the East. And keep in mind that all of this happened when it looked as though Florida might have a chance to beat South Carolina. (That didn’t happen.)
So now the Iron Bowl on Nov. 30 might end up being one of the biggest in the history of the series, with an SEC and perhaps even BCS championship at stake. The Missouri Tigers still have the Gamecocks breathing down their necks with no margin of error against Ole Miss or Texas A&M. (South Carolina is done with its conference slate.) Meanwhile, Auburn’s dream season rolls on and Georgia continues its walk through the haunted house it entered in early October.
Throw in what are suddenly Pac-12 and Big 12 round-robin elimination tournaments, and it’s hard to think of another single play that had such a profound impact on so many current and former BCS hopefuls. Oh, and toss in the fact that Auburn didn't enter the AP Top 25 until Week 8 ... and then the goofiness of the play itself ... and, well ... Mr. Louis?
— ESPN The Magazine (@ESPNMag) November 17, 2013