AUBURN — The rich recent history of the Iron Bowl has taught that when a game is close, messy and dramatic, that favors Auburn — the underdog looking up at Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty, the little brother who needs stolen moments to beat the bully. All signs pointed to that outcome in the latest chapter Saturday night, even as Alabama quarterback Bryce Young engineered a 97-yard touchdown drive in the final two minutes to add a superlative: This was the first Iron Bowl to require overtime.
By the time it reached the third and fourth overtimes, and the unprecedented means of deciding a football game that those entailed, the laws of nature that dictated Auburn’s competitive edge were out the window.
Not even Jordan-Hare Stadium’s darkest magic could come to the rescue in the end as Auburn was climbing a hill steeper than most years in a 24-22 quadruple-overtime, walk-off loss.
The Tigers (6-6, 3-5 SEC) fell agonizingly short in a valiant effort led by awe-inspiring defense and a banged-up, backup quarterback. After blowing a 10-0 lead in the fourth quarter to the No. 2 Crimson Tide, Auburn rallied in the first overtime, held serve in the second with more defense, then survived in the third. Alabama (11-1, 7-1) finally caught up with Bryan Harsin’s team in the fourth overtime, the second round of sudden-death alternating 2-point conversion attempts.
Kool-Aid McKinstry made the play in coverage against Auburn senior Shedrick Jackson, and John Metchie III scored the winning points.
Auburn ends Harsin’s first regular season on a four-game losing streak, the last three of which featured blown double-digit leads.
‘Bama was knocking on the door
The whole game — the fourth quarter, particularly — was a series of Alabama opportunities that came up just short. First, Jordan-Hare revealed itself as a special teams hell for the Tide yet again as a mishandled snap on a field goal turned into an empty possession.
Then a fourth-and-2 in Auburn territory ended with a low snap that quarterback Bryce Young couldn’t corral. On the next series, a trip inside the 10-yard line ended with Auburn edge rusher Derick Hall’s third sack and a short field, finally breaking the shutout and making it a one-score game.
The Tigers had made two third-and-short stops in the first half, and the biggest yet was a fourth-and-1 stuff with two minutes left. Auburn took over with only two timeouts in Saban’s pocket, but running back Tank Bigsby wasn’t able to stop himself as he was dragged out of bounds, giving Alabama an extra clock stoppage and providing more than 90 seconds for Young to lead the Tide 97 yards.
Alabama converted a fourth-and-7 with the game on the line then found Ja’Corey Brooks for his third catch of the season, a 28-yard fade with 24 seconds left that stunned Jordan-Hare.
Unlikely heroes shine in overtime, but…
Saban said during the week leading up to the game that “there’s always a ‘but'” when your team loses the Iron Bowl. The Alabama coach’s words were prescient, as Auburn was saved in overtime by a number of impressive moments. But … most will be forgotten, given the result.
“There’s not a moral victory,” Harsin said. “That’s why you keep score.”
Auburn backup quarterback T.J. Finley, starting because of Bo Nix’s broken ankle, suffered an ankle injury of his own on a third-down sack when Auburn led in the second half. Not only did the sack force Auburn to punt from the Alabama 33-yard line (because of yet recently another injured starter, place-kicker Anders Carlson) — it forced Finley into the medical tent. After getting it taped up, he said he wasn’t as mobile the rest of the game.
But playing through it, he combined with true freshman tight end Landen King for a remarkable third-down touchdown in the first overtime. Finley threw into a tight window, and King made a fantastic catch as he hit the ground hard. Auburn needed the touchdown to force a second overtime, when it started with the ball and went backward for a three-and-out.
At that point, Harsin had no choice but to rely on his backup kicker, sophomore Ben Patton, playing in his second college game. Patton’s 49-yard field goal attempt was a cruel situation, but he calmly made it in front of a thrilled Auburn student section. In the third overtime, Auburn needed to score its 2-point conversion and succeeded with a misdirection throwback to John Samuel Shenker. The senior tight end rumbled into the end zone and Mike Bobo’s inventive play call kept the Tigers alive.
Finley’s final throw, though, was an incompletion to back of the end zone in the fourth overtime, ending his gutsy night at 17-for-26 with 137 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Run game struggles to find a way
Auburn was more patient with its run game than it has been this year, but the Tigers just couldn’t get Tank Bigsby going against one of the nation’s best run defenses. Bigsby carried 29 times for 63 yards (2.2 per carry), but the game plan stuck to it: Bobo knew the Tigers were working with a backup quarterback and needed to slow the game down, especially after Finley’s injury.
Bigsby was handed the ball on first down often, but Auburn dug holes and only converted 5 of 17 third-down attempts. Auburn’s offensive line, working without its usual starters on the left side, struggled in run and pass blocking, allowing Finley to be sacked six times.
Pass rush should’ve been the story
Auburn’s defense — seemingly worn down the last two weeks as Mississippi State picked it apart and South Carolina won with “two plays” — saved every ounce of energy and firepower for this. The Tigers were always capable of being a dominant defensive force: They limited Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss offense to its lowest score of the year and kept the offense in the game at Texas A&M.
But reluctance to send extra pressure was always a common issue. It became one as Alabama rallied in the fourth quarter.
Until the downturn, the Tigers got it done with blitzes and a four-man rush against Alabama.
This was supposed to be their shining moment. It was a performance for the ages against Alabama’s supposed quarterback for the ages, the one who might win the Crimson Tide’s first-ever Heisman Trophy at the position.
Five of Auburn’s seven sacks were in the first half, including a wild sequence in which edge rushers Hall and Eku Leota teamed up to force a fourth-and-35 in the second quarter. It was the first true what-is-going-on moment in a half that was defined by 10 straight punts to start the game.
Hall finished with three sacks; Colby Wooden, Marcus Harris, T.D. Moultry and safety Smoke Monday had one each. Auburn took advantage of Young’s struggles when pressured on first down. But the Tigers backed away into coverage and got more conservative during Alabama’s late drives.
Roger McCreary leads secondary
Cornerback Roger McCreary played perhaps the best game of his Auburn career on his senior day. He was credited with four pass breakups; it felt like 40. He was everywhere. Derek Mason’s defense has used more zone coverage this season, but he trusted McCreary as a one-on-one man matchup with Alabama star receiver Jameson Williams. Williams beat him for an early third-and-18 conversion. Then McCreary locked down. He kept Williams at bay until the receiver was ejected on a punt-coverage targeting penalty.
That added to Alabama’s woes finding open receivers as McCreary was able to switch onto John Metchie III. The defensive backs fed off the senior. Southeast Missouri State transfer Bydarrius Knighten intercepted Young, who had thrown 18 touchdowns and no interceptions since the Tide’s loss to Texas A&M.
“I told them, ‘Y’all played your butts off,” McCreary said. “We were sad and stuff, but we played our butts off.”