AUBURN — Nick Saban ranted this week about wanting fans to appreciate the effort of his Alabama players, rather than just the wins. The Tide players followed up with an effort for the ages, something worth appreciating for as long as they play the Alabama/Auburn game.
Alabama's 24-22 win over rival Auburn in four overtimes may not have looked pretty, but it did to Saban. He marveled at the fight his team showed, and it made this one a little more emotional for him afterward.
How often does he let his guard down in his postgame news conference and say: "Wow, what a game."
How often does he follow with something like this: "I usually remember the ones we lose. I think I'll remember this one, for the way the players competed in the game."
And this: "I can’t tell you how proud I am of the way our players kept competing in the game over and over and over. … 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."
For about 58 minutes, 25 seconds, this one looked like a lost cause for Alabama.
That Jordan-Hare hex appeared to have claimed the national championship hopes of yet another Crimson Tide team.
Too many weird things had happened:
—Who gets their game-breaking wide receiver thrown out of a game on punt coverage? Jameson Williams managed it in the first half with a helmet-to-helmet hit on Auburn return man Ja'Varrius Johnson.
—A bobbled snap ruined a field-goal try, and another bobbled snap on fourth down ruined another drive near the Auburn end zone.
—A momentum-turning interception in the fourth quarter got erased by linebacker Dallas Turner's second 15-yard penalty.
Then the weirdest, most memorable moment of the day happened:
Alabama trailed 10-3 but had the ball. At its own 3-yard line. With no timeouts left. With 1:35 to play. With no Williams. And in the middle of the Tide's worst offensive day since a 9-0 loss to Auburn at the end of the abysmal 2000 season.
For the sake of history, let's recount the next 12 plays:
Young threw incomplete twice before finding John Metchie for 22 yards. Young kept the ball for 9 yards and then threw complete to Ja'Corey Brooks for 21 yards. Another Young run gained 3 yards. Young threw incomplete for Brooks and then incomplete for Slade Bolden.
On fourth-and-seven, Young threw for a 14-yard gain to Jahleel Billingsley to the AU 28. After throwing incomplete to the corner of the end zone with no receiver relatively close, Young threw incomplete under pressure. He then went back to Brooks for the touchdown, which was only his fourth catch of the year.
The Tide finished it off with 24 seconds to spare.
How often do you have something like a four-overtime game and the four overtimes get overshadowed? This might've been Young's Heisman moment, and how often does something like the Heisman Trophy get overshadowed?
Alabama's offense had begun showing some life late in the third quarter, but by the time that last gasp drive started, it looked like it was too little, too late.
To that point, Auburn's defense put together a game that was better than anything Georgia has done all year — and Georgia is supposed to be the best defense the country has seen in the last decade. Auburn sacked Young seven times, which is the first time Alabama has allowed that many since the 2010 loss at South Carolina.
But, an Auburn offense led by backup quarterback T.J. Finley couldn't add to its 10-0 lead, and Alabama got off the deck.
Alabama hasn't gotten up like that often in Saban's 15 years, and that's because his teams rarely get put on the deck to begin with.
There's the national championship game against Georgia four years ago, but that started with the quarterback switch at halftime. That one never looked over, not even at second-and-26 in overtime.
Maybe the SEC Championship Game in 2012 against Georgia? Then again, even though the Tide trailed, it never seemed out of that one.
On Saturday, Alabama seemed gone, dead, buried. The funeral was just about to wrap up before that 97-yard drive. Before Alabama rang the bell, letting us know it wasn't dead yet.
What did the Tide do differently to turn it around?
Alabama made a couple of changes up front. Chris Owens went to right tackle for Damieon George Jr., and Seth McLaughlin replaced injured center Darrian Dalcourt, with Saban telling Dalcourt that nobody would question his toughness if he acknowledged he was too hurt to play effectively.
Also, Young didn't change the plays at the line as much, and the Tide tried more run-pass options to try to slow the Auburn rush.
Young began finding Metchie more. Metchie caught 13 passes. Seven came in the fourth quarter and overtime combined. Also, he caught both two-point passes in the third and fourth overtimes, which don't count in his game totals.
Mostly, Young found some reservoir of strength inside. It took some real guts to aim for somebody as little used as Brooks twice on that drive with the game and the season on the line.
Even with all that, when Saban was asked about it afterward, he kept coming back to effort.
"After halftime, it seemed like everybody was all in," he said. "We were fighting like I haven't seen all year long."
Jordan-Hare still has its magic, but for one night at least, that wasn't enough.