Eight hundred and eighty-eight yards of combined total offense. 62 total points scored. A senior kicker who was suddenly incapable of making a field goal. A quarterback who used to be a cornerback leading his team to victory over the best team in the country. A 99-yard touchdown pass to give Alabama the lead in the fourth quarter. And finally, the longest single play in the history of college football to end the game.
All of this, believe it or not, happened in one single college football game. Three days ago, the top-ranked University of Alabama football team strolled into Auburn, Ala., to play No. 4 Auburn University in the Iron Bowl. Alabama has won the BCS National Championship the last two seasons, and was the favorite to roll over Auburn on its way to a third consecutive appearance in the title game.
But Auburn has had a charmed season. They recently beat the University of Georgia on a play known as “The Prayer at Jordan-Hare,” (Auburn’s home field) in which quarterback Nick Marshall heaved a Hail-Mary pass that was tipped by a Georgia defender and caught by Tiger receiver Ricardo Louis for a touchdown with 25 seconds remaining. Georgia was unable to score on the subsequent drive, and the win was sealed for Auburn.
Sports can be influenced by luck and momentum. Look at Jeremy Lin, for example. He’s undoubtedly a talented basketball player, but his brief run of “Linsanity” in February 2012 was a product of luck and circumstance. For a brief stretch, he turned into a human fireball on a basketball court, until the rest of the league figured out how to stop him.
The Auburn football team, on the other hand, is not just lucky. They are also very, very good. Last season the Tigers struggled to a 3-9 finish. This year, they have been reborn from the ashes like a phoenix, led by their quarterback, Nick Marshall, who ironically started off in 2011 playing cornerback for Georgia. But, he was caught stealing from a teammate and was subsequently dismissed from the team.
Marshall spent the 2012 season playing for Garden City Community College in Kansas. He reverted to playing quarterback, which he had played in high school. After putting up stellar numbers, Marshall committed to Auburn and won the starting quarterback job. Before the Iron Bowl, they were 10-1. But unless they could beat the two-time defending champions, they would have little to no chance to play in the BCS National Championship Game.
I’m not a huge college football guy. I like the NFL better — the athletes play faster and hit harder, the personalities are larger and the Super Bowl far outstrips the BCS title game in terms of mass appeal. But this one game is the single best game of football, at any level, that I have ever seen. I don’t know how else to describe it. At various points this season, teams have threatened to end Alabama’s reign as top dog in college football. But the Crimson Tide always lay down the law with superior skill and physicality to pull out the victory. Seeing an underdog hang with a favorite is always fun, but by the third quarter it didn’t feel like there was a favorite at all.
With the game knotted at 21 in the fourth quarter, Alabama found itself backed up on its own 1-yard line. In these situations, a typical team will run a quick dive up the middle of the field to eliminate the possibility of a safety. But Alabama is not a typical team. Quarterback A.J. McCarron found wide receiver Amari Cooper for a 99-yard touchdown to give the Crimson Tide the lead. That was the moment when I thought it was over. Auburn had given all it could give, but Alabama thrust the dagger in and now the game would go its way. We’ve all seen it before. It looked like the game would end 28-21 in favor of Alabama.
With less than a minute left, Auburn stood at the Alabama 39-yard line after blocking a Crimson Tide field goal attempt. Marshall ran an option play, kept the ball and rolled to his left. Millimeters before crossing the line of scrimmage, he lofted a pass to a somehow wide-open Sammie Coates, who ran it in for the game-tying touchdown. At this point, I was shocked and convinced this was the game of the year. I was excited for overtime. When I’m excited for a college football game, you know it’s a fantastic game.
Alabama drove down to the Auburn 39-yard line and attempted a field goal from 57 yards out to win it. Making the attempt was freshman Adam Griffith, who replaced senior kicker Cade Foster. Foster missed three field goal attempts in the game, likely costing Alabama the victory. He’ll be the scapegoat. Life isn’t fair sometimes. Regardless, Griffith lined up the kick, and booted a beauty — one yard short. Auburn returner Chris Davis caught the ball nine yards deep in the end zone, and then scampered up the sideline untouched into the end zone and into history.
I stand by my assertion that this is the most exciting game I’ve ever seen. Maybe there have been more exciting games through the generations. The only one that can compare, for me, is the 2008 Giants-Patriots Super Bowl in which David Tyree caught the ball on his helmet or Game 6 of this year’s NBA Finals. (I’m still mad that Ray Allen got away with a travel before his game-tying 3-pointer.) Anyway, a game that makes me believe that neither team is superior, that any moment could shift the tides (no pun intended) of victory or defeat, is a tremendous game. I’m sure there will be a game someday that people hail as “the most exciting game ever.” But when that happens, I’ll have the 2013 Iron Bowl to argue for.