AUBURN, Ala. — That crazy tipped pass for a long game-winning touchdown is now the second-most stunning and improbable play of Auburn’s wild season.
Yes, the Tigers found a way to top “The Immaculate Deflection.”
Chris Davis returned a missed field-goal attempt more than 100 yards for a touchdown on the final play to lift No. 4 Auburn to a 34-28 victory over No. 1 Alabama on Saturday, upending the two-time defending national champions’ BCS hopes and preserving the Tigers’ own.
“We’re a team of destiny,” Davis said. “We won’t take no for an answer.”
He delivered a play that deserves its own nickname. Say the Happiest Return? Or the saddest, depending on which side of the Iron Bowl you sit. Think of some of the most memorable plays in college football history — maybe Stanford-Cal, “The Band is on the Field” or Hail Flutie. This one by Auburn now has a place on that list.
Davis caught the ball about 9 yards deep in the end zone after freshman Adam Griffith’s 57-yard attempt fell short. He then sprinted down the left sideline and cut back with nothing but teammates around him in a second straight hard-to-fathom finish for the Tigers (11-1, 7-1 Southeastern Conference).
“I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run,” Davis said. “I knew they would have big guys on the field to protect on the field goal.
“When I looked back, I said, ‘I can’t believe this.’”
Auburn clinched a spot in the SEC championship game with the stunning victory over the powerhouse from across the state. The Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1) several times seemed poised to continue its run toward the first three-peat in modern college football, but couldn’t put the Tigers away.
Asked if it was the biggest win of his career, Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said: “It ranks right up there.” But he said he’d “probably” still celebrate just like he has since his high school coaching days: With a Waffle House meal.
“That’s what you coach for, that’s what these kids play for, to get a chance to win the SEC championship,” Malzahn said.
The Tigers put it away just when overtime on tap. The public address announcer in the stadium had already declared the game 28-28 at the end of regulation.
But Alabama got 1 second restored and one more play after a review of T.J. Yeldon’s run to the Auburn 39.
That gave the Tide coach Nick Saban a chance to try the long field goal — and now he probably wished he never did, given the stunning result.
“It was a great game,” Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron said. “Sometimes luck just isn’t on your side.
“It’s one of those crazy plays. It’s almost like a video game. That’s something you do on Madden or NCAA. It’s just a wild play.”
The entire field looked like a sea of orange shakers as the celebration continued long after the climactic finale of one of the biggest Iron Bowls in the bitter rivalry’s 78-year history.
It lived up to the billing — and then some. According to NCAA records, it was only the fourth time that a missed field goal was returned for 100 yards.
This finale even one-upped Auburn’s last-gasp win over Georgia two weeks earlier. A deflected 73-yard touchdown pass from Nick Marshall to Ricardo Louis dubbed “The Immaculate Deflection” with 25 seconds left set up only the second top-five Iron Bowl matchup and first since 1971.
A team that went 3-9 last season and had been destroyed by Alabama 91-14 combined the past two seasons will play for an SEC title and perhaps a trip to the BCS championship game.
Undefeated Ohio State, which was third in the BCS standings this week and figures to move up to second behind Florida State, will have something to say about which teams play for the national title, too. No doubt the Buckeyes, who won their own thriller against Michigan earlier in the day, were celebrating Auburn’s win almost as much as the Tigers.
But the Tigers were already making a case to jump the Buckeyes.
Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs told reporters it would be “a disservice to college football” if a one-loss SEC champion was left out of the national title game for Ohio State.
On the final play, Alabama turned to Griffith to replace Cade Foster, who had missed three field goals, with a potential clinching 44-yarder going low and getting blocked in the final minutes. Griffith was only 1 of 2 all season with a long of 20 yards.
“We told our team that this is like March Madness,” Saban said. “Coming into this game that if you want to keep playing in the tournament you have to keep winning. I was really proud of the way our guys competed out there today, but the fact of the matter is that we did not make plays when we needed to.”
Marshall had tied the game with a 39-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Sammie Coates with 32 seconds left after Auburn blocked a low field goal attempt. The Tigers moved 65 yards in 2 minutes all on the ground with Mason until that play.
Marshall raced toward the line with two defensive backs coming after him. Then he pulled up just in time with the ball tucked in his left hand, deftly switching it to his right and lofting the pass to Coates standing all by himself.
McCarron, a Heisman Trophy candidate, had staked Alabama to a 28-21 lead with a 99-yard pass to Amari Cooper for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The Tide had a few chances to put the game away, but couldn’t convert a fourth-and-short deep in Auburn territory, had four missed field goals — one after a false start penalty negated a make — and a dropped potential TD in the end zone by Cooper.
McCarron might have had a Heisman moment with his pass to Cooper from the end zone, when Cooper shook off a defensive back on his way to the end zone.
The quarterback, who is 36-3 as a starter, completed 17 of 29 passes for 277 yards and three touchdowns.
Marshall was 11-of-16 passing for 97 yards but also rushed 17 times for 99 yards.