AUBURN, Ala. — In their first true taste of the Iron Bowl, several Alabama freshmen stepped up big for the Crimson Tide on Saturday.
Whether it was Kool-Aid McKinstry deflecting the pass on Auburn's failed two-point attempt in the fourth overtime, Dallas Turner's constant pressure in the Tigers' backfield, or Kneeland Hibbett successfully snapping the ball for Alabama's seven punts and two field goals, freshmen were making plays all over the field in Alabama's 24-22 quadruple overtime win.
Perhaps the biggest play of the game also belonged to a true freshman. Wide receiver Ja'Corey Brooks scored his first career touchdown Saturday. It just so happened to come with 24 seconds left to tie the game in one of the biggest rivalries in sports.
"We had a one-on-one matchup, and I had faith in Ja’Corey to win that matchup," said Alabama quarterback Bryce Young. "And for someone young like him in a game as big as this, moment as big as this, to run the route and make that catch, that says a lot about him and his preparation, his hard work and how good of a player he is.”
Brooks had played in all 11 previous games this season, but mainly in a backup or special teams role. He didn't record his first catch until the Arkansas game, and prior to the Iron Bowl, his biggest play of the season was a blocked punt against Texas A&M.
Once Alabama's leading receiver Jameson Williams got ejected in the first half for targeting as the gunner on punt return, Brooks had to step into a bigger role. And he answered the call with a play to keep Alabama's playoff hopes alive.
"That’s something we always preach that when your number’s called, you’re ready," Young said after the game. "And that’s someone who prepared and worked super hard throughout the offseason to the season. And tonight was a big night for him when his number was called, and he made a really big play.”
Outside of the touchdown catch, Brooks also had 21-yard catch to get the Crimson Tide into Auburn territory on the game-tying 97-yard drive with under two minutes left in regulation.
Junior wide receiver John Metchie III, who caught the game-winning two-point attempt in the fourth OT, said the way Brooks approaches practice prepared him for the moment.
"His attention to detail of watching the older guys—trying to learn, trying to be a sponge out there in practice, going hard and just how he shows up every day kind of prepared him for this stage," Metchie said.
Another player who had played mostly in backup or special teams roles was the freshman defensive back McKinstry. He earned his third start of the season against Auburn, and it paid off for the Alabama defense. McKinstry recorded his first career sack in the game and had the key deflection in the corner of the end zone to prevent Auburn from scoring in the fourth overtime, which set up the Metchie walk-off score.
Along with McKinstry, the outside linebacker Turner contributed 1.5 sacks to Alabama's six total sacks and 15 tackles for loss. The 15 TFLs were the most for the Crimson Tide in a game this season.
Outside linebacker is a position where Alabama has suffered some key injuries this season with Christopher Allen being out for the year and Drew Sanders missing extended time with a hand injury. Since joining the starting rotation along the defensive front, Turner has made his presence known. He is third on the team in sacks behind Will Anderson Jr. and Phidarian Mathis.
Overall, it was the best performance of the year for the Alabama defense. Even with the game going to four overtimes, it was the second lowest yardage total allowed by the defense this season at 159 yards. (The lowest is 138 yards given up to New Mexico State.)
When the offense was struggling, and they pretty much struggled for the first 58 minutes, the defense kept Alabama in the game making stop after stop. And guys like McKinstry and Turner played a big part in that.
"I just had a feeling that the way we were playing on defense that we were gonna have some opportunities and be able to come back in the game," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
In a setting where Alabama has had multiple special teams blunders over the years, any Alabama fan might get a little nervous when the Crimson Tide lines up on special teams in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Alabama did botch one field goal in the third quarter, but it wasn't Hibbett's fault. The snap was fumbled by holder Paul Tyson, and kicker Will Reichard wasn't even able to attempt a kick. Tyson was replaced by James Burnip as holder, and the freshman snapper Hibbett executed quality snaps on the two-made field goals and extra points by Reichard.
And in a game where field position was so important with both offenses struggling, Hibbett delivered seven good balls to the redshirt freshman punter Burnip, including a couple of times where Alabama was pinned deep in its own territory.
After the game, Saban said it was some of the best competitive effort he'd ever seen from his players, especially with younger guys stepping up to make plays.
"It always didn’t pan out for us, but man, you cannot ever imagine players competing in a game any better than what they competed in this game," Saban said. "I’m talking about the defense getting stops when they needed to. The offense going on a 97-yard drive to tie the game. The players playing and making plays that haven’t played that much this year that were young players."