If not for that one play, Auburn would have beaten Alabama in the 2021 Iron Bowl.
Which play? Take your choice. That’s the excruciating point for Auburn players, coaches and fans. Any one of a dozen plays could have gone slightly different in the second half to secure the win for the Tigers.
Instead, Alabama played to perfection the unfamiliar role of the gritty competitor fighting to overcome what looked like a stacked deck.
The win-probability tracker peaked at a 99.9 percent chance Auburn would win when the game reached 1:54 left in regulation. Auburn led 10-3 with two minutes left when the Tigers stuffed Alabama’s Trey Sanders on a fourth-and-one play at the Alabama 45.
At that point, Auburn needed to make one first down to win. The first play lost a yard. The second gained 10 yards. One play. One yard. Victory. Instead, Byron Young tackled Tank Bigsby for a 4-yard loss. To make matters worse, Bigsby was pulled out of bounds on third down, stopping the clock and ultimately providing Alabama with an additional 40 seconds to drive to the tying score.
But that wasn’t the last time Auburn was within one play of winning the game.
Alabama, with no timeouts remaining, took control of the ball with 1:35 remaining, 97 yards from tying the game. On first down, Bryce Young was nearly sacked in the end zone by T.D. Mountry. The sack would have ended the game. Instead, Alabama narrowly survived and converted on a third-and-10 to get the drive started.
With 43 seconds left, Alabama faced fourth-and-7 from the Auburn 42. The Tide had been unsuccessful on three previous fourth-down attempts. One more stop would earn the win for Auburn. Instead, Young completed a pass for 14 yards to a player who had not been targeted all day (Jahleel Billingsley).
Two straight incompletions left the Tide with third-and-10 with only 29 seconds left. Young threw to Ja’Corey Brooks in the end zone for the touchdown. The true freshman was on the field only because star Jameson Williams was disqualified because of a first-half targeting call. Brooks entered Jordan-Hare Stadium with 21 career receiving yards. He exited as an Iron Bowl hero for life.
In the first overtime, Alabama took its first lead on a touchdown pass to Slade Bolden. Auburn responded with a spectacular touchdown catch by freshman Brandon King, who entered the game with 26 career receiving yards. Trailing 17-16, Auburn could either send in back-up kicker Ben Patton to try to send the game to a second overtime. Or, the Tigers could go for 2 and end the game on the next play.
Would Auburn’s best 2-point play be executed successfully to win the game? The answer is yes. We found that out when the Tigers were forced to go for 2 in the third overtime and perfectly ran a tricky screen pass to tight end John Samuel Shenker. That same play could have ended the game in the first overtime.
In the second overtime, Auburn made a field goal to take a 20-17 lead. Alabama was stopped on its possession and had to make a 38-yard field goal by Will Reichard to extend the game. Normally, Reichard is routinely good from that distance. But earlier in the day, holder Paul Tyson dropped a snap that led to a missed opportunity. So, the holder in overtime was James Burnip, an Australian who had never taken part in a football game at any level other than as a punter. But the hold and kick were perfect, sending the game to another overtime.
Auburn was stopped in the fourth overtime. That’s when Young hit John Metchie for the 24-22 win.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said afterward he normally only remembers and dwells on the losses, but this game would be one he would always remember.
Saban and every Crimson Tide fan will remember the 2021 Iron Bowl as the day Brooks became a star, Young had his Heisman Trophy moment, defensive back Kool-Aid McKinstry started and made the final key defensive play with a pass breakup in the fourth overtime and every member of the Tide team showed great resilience in the face of incredible odds.
Auburn fans will forever wince at the thought of how many times the Tigers were a single play away from beating Alabama and making Bryan Harsin 1-0 against Saban.
But this game wasn’t lost. Auburn played its best and most inspired game of the year with a hobbled backup quarterback and passionate defense.
This Iron Bowl was won, not lost.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 19 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on Sports Talk 99.5 and the free iHeart radio app.
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