AUBURN, Ala. — With Auburn’s title hopes hanging in the balance, the ball deflected into the air and into Ricardo Louis’ hands.
The result was a stunningly improbable touchdown that rescued the seventh-ranked Tigers’ equally unlikely championship chances.
Louis scored on a deflected 73-yard pass from Nick Marshall on fourth and 18 with 25 seconds left to give Auburn a 43-38 victory over No. 25 Georgia on Saturday night.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Louis said. “It just landed right into my hands. I saw it once it got over my shoulder. It got tipped, I lost track of it … but when I looked over my shoulders, it was right there.”
The Tigers (10-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) had blown a 27-7 lead but pulled out one more huge play to continue the biggest turnaround in major college football. From 3-9 last year, they can win the SEC West with a victory in two weeks against No. 1 Alabama.
Marshall heaved the ball downfield with two defenders around Louis. It bounced off safety Josh Harvey-Clemons’ hand and Louis reached out his left hand to corral it. Marshall said he stiff armed a defender before letting the ball fly.
All he could do then was watch and hope.
“When I saw it get tipped around, I knew we still had a chance,” Marshall said. “It was a live ball. I saw that Ricardo still had his eyes on the ball. That’s something we work on at practice: keep your eyes on the ball.”
Aaron Murray, who had engineered the comeback with three fourth-quarter touchdowns, could only stare helplessly from the bench. A win could have kept the Bulldogs alive in the SEC East.
“That’s a freak play,” Murray said. “It’s like a nightmare. You try to wake up, and we are celebrating victory. It’s tough. This is going to be a tough one to get over.”
Murray led Georgia (6-4, 4-3) all the way to Auburn’s 20 but his final two passes fell incomplete as time ran out. Dee Ford hit him on the last pass as Murray ran toward the line before trying to throw.
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said he couldn’t remember being on the sidelines for a similar loss since his Florida State days.
“When you lose, you tend to think about the things you should have done,” Richt said. “When you win, you just think about how great it is.
“Let’s face it, as good as Auburn is and has been playing, they’ve got all the momentum going.”
Some Auburn players climbed into the stands to celebrate with students, and most fans stayed put to celebrate the victory.
It only came after Murray gave the Tigers a big scare. He had plowed into Ryan Smith at the goal line for a 5-yard touchdown with 1:49 left.
Auburn challenged the final TD, but replay officials upheld the call on the field.
That left the Tigers starting at their own 22 with 1:45 left. They managed one first down but Jordan Jenkins sacked Marshall to set up fourth and 18.
Marshall then produced the biggest play of his career against the Bulldogs, where he played as a freshman defensive back. He was dismissed from the team in February 2012 for violating team rules and returned to the SEC after a season in junior college.
He finished 15-of-26 passing for 229 yards after attempting only 15 passes combined in the past two games thanks to a steamrolling running game. Marshall also ran 19 times for 89 yards.
He also threw a game-winning TD pass with 10 seconds left against Mississippi State, but there was much more on the line this time. The 2010 national champions are potential contenders again.
“They find a way to win,” said Gus Malzahn, Auburn’s first-year coach. “This team has the ‘it’ factor. That’s just the bottom line.”
He had simple plans for celebration.
“This is definitely a Waffle House night,” Malzahn said.
Tre Mason ran 27 times for 115 yards, and Louis had his career game.
He caught four passes for 131 yards — nearly doubling the 160 yards he had entering the game — and gained 66 yards on five rushes.
Louis had said he wanted the ball during the timeout before the fourth-down play.
“I told them to get me the ball, and that I was going to make a play,” he said, “but I didn’t expect that.”
It was just enough to survive Murray’s furious onslaught.
The prolific Georgia passer completed 33 of 49 passes for 415 yards and two touchdowns in the final 9:35, with an earlier interception.
Murray also ran for two scores and had 160 yards passing in the fourth quarter.
Todd Gurley ran 15 times for 79 yards and a touchdown and caught 10 passes for 77 yards. Auburn gained 566 yards, Georgia 532.
The Tigers ran for 323 yards against a defense that came in giving up 126 yards a game on the ground, 20th nationally.
They had lost the last two meetings in the Deep South’s oldest rivalry by 38 points apiece. Now, the Tigers hold a razor-thin 55-54-8 edge.
Auburn rode that punishing running game and Georgia mistakes to a 27-10 halftime lead, at one point outgaining the Bulldogs 170-4 before the comeback began.
“It was just a whale of a game, I guess,” Richt said.