No. 3 Alabama could not protect quarterback Bryce Young, who was sacked seven times and hurried eight times by a spirited Auburn defense.
The Crimson Tide could not run the football effectively as it was held to 71 yards on 37 carries for a 1.9-yard average.
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And Alabama could not score as it was shut out for the first three quarters of a game for the first time under coach Nick Saban.
But somehow, Alabama tied Auburn, 10-10, with 24 seconds to play in regulation, and the Tide won, 24-22, in four overtimes – the first Iron Bowl extra session in history – at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday.
“The defense played tremendously that entire game and gave us some time left,” Alabama quarterback Bryce Young said. “So, we knew what was at stake.”
Not a Heisman Trophy performance on paper as Young completed only 25 of 51 passes for 317 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. He was just 3 of 9 for 21 yards in the first half around four of the sacks as Auburn led 10-0. But he was clutch in the fourth quarter and the overtimes.
Young hit 10 of 20 passes for 155 yards in the fourth quarter with a 28-yard touchdown to freshman wide receiver Ja’Corey Brooks with just two dozen ticks to go in regulation for the 10-10 tie.
The sophomore quarterback in his first season as a starter completed 5 of 10 passes for 85 yards and rushed twice for 12 yards on the Tide’s game-tying drive that covered 97 yards in 12 plays and started with just 95 seconds left. He converted a third-and-10 play from Alabama’s 3-yard line to junior wide receiver John Metchie III for 22 yards, a fourth-and-seven from Auburn’s 42 to tight end Jahleel Billingsley for 14 yards, and the touchdown came on a third-and-10.
“In a situation like that, there’s no one I would rather be with than all the guys I have out there,” Young said.
In the four overtimes, Young was 5-of-7 passing for 30 yards with a 6-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Slade Bolden for a 17-10 lead in the first overtime and a pair of 3-yard, two-point conversion passes to Metchie – the first for a 22-20 lead and the second one for the 24-22 win.
“No. 9 just gave me a route, and I ran the route he called, so it goes to the quarterback,” said Metchie, who caught 13 passes for 150 yards. “The kid’s the GOAT (greatest of all time).”
Young’s 28-yard, game-tying pass was Brooks’ first touchdown of the season. He came into the game with just two catches for 49 yards and only had a larger role because Alabama’s leading receiver, junior Jameson Williams, was ejected from the game with 9:02 to play in the second quarter for targeting on a tackle he made in punt coverage. Williams came into the game with 61 catches for 1,261 yards and 13 touchdowns and left with two for 43 yards.
Alabama coach Nick Saban also had to revamp his struggling offensive line at halftime as it had allowed four sacks. He replaced right tackle Damieon George Jr. with Chris Owens and center Darrian Dalcourt, who was battling an ankle injury, with sophomore Seth McLaughlin.
The replacements – Brooks, Owens and McLaughlin – came through, particularly on the 97-yard drive to tie the game as Young was not sacked.
“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 whatever that was – a 97-yard drive to tie the game. The players playing and making plays who haven’t played that much this year that were young players. But after halftime, it just seemed like everybody was all in.”
Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) will need all that and more against No. 1 Georgia (12-0, 8-0 SEC) in the SEC title game Saturday at 3 p.m. on CBS. The Bulldogs are a touchdown favorite.
“We were fighting like I’ve never seen us fight all year long,” Saban beamed. “It’s a great feeling. The players were as happy as I’ve ever seen them after the game.”
Alabama may have to win to reach the College Football Playoff final four as it would have two losses should Georgia win. The portion of Alabama’s fan base that is spoiled and self-absorbed – as Saban called them during his radio show Wednesday because they demand a larger margin of victory – may not like it, but Saban sounded very fulfilled with the win over Auburn (6-6, 3-5 SEC).
Will he hang this season on that win? He even questioned if success in coaching should be measured by the number of wins or the number of winners created by such games. It was Alabama’s fourth win by a touchdown or less this season over a suspect opponent – 31-29 over Florida (6-6, 2-6 SEC), 20-14 over LSU (6-6, 3-5 SEC), 42-35 over Arkansas (8-4, 4-4 SEC) and 24-22 in four overtimes over Auburn (6-6, 3-5 SEC).
“Should you equate what you accomplish in this profession on how many games you win or how many winners you help to develop? So, that they have a chance to be not only winners on the field, but winners in life,” he said.
It was Alabama’s first win at Auburn since 2015. Auburn has won three of the last four over Alabama at Jordan-Hare.
“I think they name some of these games in the series, the Iron Bowl, because there have been some great games, some great comebacks,” Saban said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of the way our players kept competing in the game. Over and over, we came up with plays when we needed to come up with plays.”
Alabama gained just 25 yards on 18 plays in the first half. Finally, it got things going in the third quarter, but couldn’t score.
“These guys overcame adversity and showed great resiliency,” Saban said and was so inspired he had a special message for his team after the game.
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“This is something you should always remember,” he told the players. “What you can accomplish when you put your best foot forward and you fight and you really believe in something, and you do it together as a group. That may happen to you some time in your life.”
The Iron Bowl has its way of leaving a mark on those who are a part of it or just watch it, and obviously, it even got to the stoic Saban.
“I can tell you that it feels good,” he said. “It feels really good to come back and get a win. Most of the time I remember the ones we lose, but I think I’ll remember this one.”