AUBURN, Ala. -- By all accounts, this was it. This was the moment when Auburn's magical renaissance would end. The Tigers' improbable quest for a BCS bowl -- only a season removed from a disastrous 3-9 (0-8 SEC) campaign -- would be squashed at home against a banged-up but resilient Georgia team. The momentum surrounding first-year coach Gus Malzahn’s remarkable turnaround on the Plains would be over.
On Saturday evening, when Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray willed his way to a five-yard rushing touchdown to give Georgia a 38-37 lead with 1:49 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Tigers’ magic had run out. Only, somehow, it hadn’t.
With 36 seconds left, on fourth-and-18 from the Auburn 27-yard line, Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall handled the snap in shotgun. He dropped back, stepped up in the pocket and let if fly. Sophomore wide receiver Ricardo Louis streaked down the middle of the field, blanketed by Bulldogs defensive backs Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons.
Harvey-Clemons deflected the pass. It floated into the outstretched arms of Louis. As the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder raced to the end zone to cap a 73-yard touchdown, a stunned Jordan-Hare Stadium began to grasp what had happened. No. 7 Auburn would beat No. 25 Georgia 43-38. The miracle ride would continue.
(Via The Big Lead)
“This team has the ‘it’ factor,” a breathless Malzahn said of his Tigers afterward. “That’s the bottom line.”
Mere seconds before The Play, Malzahn called a timeout to gather his players on the sideline. He wanted to emphasize that this scenario was nothing out of the ordinary. Still, in almost every way imaginable, it was. “We practice these situations every day in practice,” Marshall said.
During the timeout, Louis, who entered the game with 19 catches for 160 yards and a touchdown on the season, told Malzahn to let him make a play. Then, through some combination of luck, skill and timing, he did.
“This team is very unique,” Malzahn said. “There was a lot of tension and pressure since the moment had swung, but they were bright eyes in the huddle. It was really unbelievable.”
Louis joked later: “I thought I was going to drop it.”
The game didn’t end immediately after The Play. Georgia drove 55 yards in the ensuing seconds before Auburn defensive end Dee Ford pressured Murray into an incompletion on first-and-five from the Tigers’ 20-yard line as time expired. But the 73-yard score (Marshall’s Miracle, or whatever they’ll call it on the Plains for decades to come) will be known as the tipping point -- for Marshall, Malzahn, Louis and every player and coach involved.
“Obviously it was an unbelievable game, the way it unfolded,” Malzahn said.
Earlier in the afternoon, the Tigers jumped out to a 37-17 lead. They finished with 323 rushing yards and 566 yards of total offense. Marshall, a onetime Georgia defensive back who was dismissed from the program after he and two others were caught stealing from a teammate in 2012, passed for 229 yards, rushed for 89 yards and accounted for three total touchdowns.
But this game wasn’t about stats or individual performances. It was about the type of moment that, however briefly, makes fans everywhere appreciate why this sport is truly special.
For Auburn, The Play keeps dreams of an SEC title and BCS berth alive. Once an unlikely feel-good story, the Tigers are now the biggest threat to rival Alabama’s continued run of dominance. The Iron Bowl on Nov. 30 will decide the SEC West, an incredible turn of events since Auburn’s 49-0 loss to the Crimson Tide on Nov. 24, 2012.
“I’ve never been a part of something like this,” Louis said. “It’s a dream come true.”
For Georgia, The Play serves as the latest and most heartbreaking blow in a season full of peaks and valleys. It officially eliminates the Bulldogs from SEC East contention. It delivers another crushing defeat to a program that came within five yards of playing for the BCS title last season. For Murray, the SEC’s all-time passing leader, it erases the comeback that might have gone down as his most impressive achievement.
The senior quarterback returned to Athens last offseason in search of a national championship. Thanks to one of college football’s most injury-plagued rosters, it soon became apparent that a trip to Pasadena wasn’t a realistic possibility. Murray's performance on Saturday demonstrated the resiliency that has made him one of the greatest quarterback in conference history -- he just happened to walk into the locker room on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
After the game, Richt spoke fondly of Murray’s role in spearheading the Dawgs’ second-half rally.
“I didn’t know what to say after that,” Richt said about the game. “… I think most teams would have folded or found a reason to quit but they didn’t do that. I just talked [to them] a little bit about what we could learn from it.”
Soon, talk on the Plains will turn to ‘Bama. After a bye week, Malzahn and his staff will work tirelessly to come up with a plan to upset quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon and the unbeaten Tide. A game that was supposed to mean nothing now means everything.
For now, however, Malzahn is going to relish the moment when the magic continued.