Sept. 14, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. - As quarterback Nick Marshall and the Auburn offense ran on to the field with 1:56 left against Mississippi State on Saturday night, 88 yards away from the winning touchdown, old feelings returned for Dameyune Craig.
Craig had been there, had been an Auburn quarterback with the hopes of legions of fans on his shoulders. He led Auburn on a frantic 80-yard drive to win at LSU in 1997. He might have done the same later that year in the SEC Championship Game, had a receiver not fumbled after catching a crucial pass. His teammates always believed he would be at his best when it mattered most, and almost always was.
On Saturday night, all Craig could do was watch. He's Auburn's wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator. He came home to join Gus Malzahn's staff and help resurrect his school's football fortunes after the 3-9 meltdowns of 2012.
"First of all, you have to believe you are going to score," Craig said as players whooped and hollered in their locker room just a few feet away. "You have to, because in those situations it's easy for guys to say `Oh, man, the game is over.' Everybody has to buy into it."
Everybody bought into it, and when Marshall threw the winning touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds left, when the crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium went joyfully crazy, when it was over and Auburn had won 24-20, Craig could only smile.
Marshall, he said, will have this night as his own forever, even when his football playing days are done. And he'll be a different quarterback than he has been before. The time to go win a game will come again, and his teammates will believe a little bit more that he's going to do it.
Marshall didn't have a lot of experience from which to draw. He's a junior, but he was playing his third Auburn football game. And he had to make plays or his team was going to lose.
But Marshall was calm from the start. And the thing is, no one was really surprised when he got it done.
"He never gets flustered and his facial expression never changes," Craig said. "Nick really started standing out when we put him these situations in camp. He's calm. He gets the ball out of his hand. He's able to make plays with his feet."
As the clock melted away in the fourth quarter, there were times when it seemed it wouldn't happen. But the defense, which struggled for three quarters to contain quarterback Dak Prescott, began to find some answers. Three times in the fourth quarter, Mississippi State had the ball with chances to put the game away. It didn't happen.
Auburn had started fast, racing to an 11-0 lead after its first two drives. But the offense had sputtered. Earlier in the fourth quarter, Marshall had badly overthrown Sammie Coates, wide open for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown.
None of that mattered in the final 1:56.
Craig tried to keep players excited and confident, but he discovered it wasn't necessary.
"I was going around trying to get guys fired up, and I didn't have to," Craig said. "They jumped up and said `Coach, we've got this. We're going to win this.' And they did."
When Uzomah made the catch, the noise reverberated throughout the grand old stadium. When it was reviewed and upheld, the noise came again. And on the sideline, Craig fought his own emotions.
"Having a win like that in this stadium, it was awesome," Craig said. "I'm still on Cloud 9. The fans deserve it for coming out and supporting us. It's a new day. The guys on the sideline never gave up. We figured we'd find a way to win, and we did."
It happened, Craig said, like Malzahn told them it was going to happen.
"He said `It's going to come down to the last drive.' He said `It's going to be a dogfight and we're going to find a way to win.' That route that C.J. caught, we've been working on it all year. Do it this way, do it this way. He wanted it perfect."
A double move got Uzomah open and Marshall made the throw he needed to make. For the first time in a long time, Auburn players raced to celebrate with their fans. They were 3-0 and had already equaled last season's win total. They had forever banished the ugliness of a 10-game SEC losing streak.
Uzomah and Marshall said they could hear only the crowd. They saw their teammates coming to celebrate, but they couldn't hear them. It was too loud.
Uzomah called it "the most amazing moment" of his football career.
Marshall, whose journey from little Wilcox County High School in rural Georgia took him to the University of Georgia to Garden City Community College in rural Kansas and finally to Auburn, isn't given to hyperbole. His soft-spoken way belies the competitive fures that burn inside.
"I've never been in an atmosphere like that," Marshall said. "It was the greatest moment of my football career."
And Dameyune Craig the coach who was once Dameyune Craig the quarterback knew just how he felt.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: