Dec. 12, 2013
Ricardo Louis pulls in a tipped pass and takes it in for the winning touchdown against Georgia (Associated Press photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - As Gus Malzahn's first season as Auburn's head coach began, the Tigers didn't have the look of a championship team when Washington State visited Jordan-Hare Stadium on Aug. 31.
"We weren't very good," Malzahn says.
But the Tigers, casting aside the misery of a 3-9 record in 2012, would get better with each week, each game. They found ways to win close games. And when all was said and done last Saturday, they had won the Southeastern Conference championship with a 12-1 record.
"Our whole goal was to get better each practice and each game," Malzahn said. "It was nothing else. We felt like, if we did that, we could be a pretty solid team by the end of the year. That was our whole mindset. We never let our minds go any further than the next game.
Malzahn's eighth season as a college head coach started with a 31-24 victory over Washington State. It will end in the BCS Championship Game against Florida State on Jan. 6 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
In every championship season, there are key moments that turn possible defeats into victories, that define players and define their teams. The 2013 Tigers were no exception.
Here are the big moments in Auburn's drive to the Rose Bowl:
* With 6:06 left in the first quarter, Corey Grant, limited to nine carries in all of 2012, ran 75 yards for a touchdown to give Auburn a 22-21 lead. It really was a new day.
Auburn was clinging to a 31-24 lead as the Jordan-Hare Stadium clock moved inside five minutes, but Washington State had first-and-goal at the 8. Sophomore star Robenson Therezie, all but forgotten in the previous season, made a leaping interception a Connor Halliday pass in the end zone. Auburn held on to win.
* Still saddled with a 10-game SEC losing streak, the Tigers appeared all but doomed to see it go to 11. They trailed Mississippi State 20-17 when they took over at their own 12 yard line with 1:56 left in the game. They had no timeouts. Junior college transfer quarterback Nick Marshall was in just his third game and first SEC game. He completed five consecutive passes and scrambled for a first down on third-and-10 before hitting C.J. Uzomah with the game-winner from 11 yards out with 10 seconds left.
* Therezie struck again with 1:39 left in the first quarter, intercepting a Bo Wallace pass and returning it 76 yards for a touchdown to give the Tigers 13-3 lead. They never trailed en route to a 30-22 victory.
* The Tigers were 5-1 but still not ranked when they went to play No. 7 Texas A&M at Kyle Field. Running back Tre Mason, emerging as the SEC's top running back, was the driving force on a 75-yard to the game-winning touchdown. Marshall completed just one pass on the drive, but it was a gigantic one. He hit freshman Marcus Davis for 27 yards on third-and-9. Mason scored from the 5 with 1:19 left to make it 45-41.
* Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel moved to answer after Auburn took the lead, taking the Aggies to the Auburn 18. But senior defensive end Dee Ford sacked him in fourth down, and the Tigers celebrated.
* Auburn was on the verge of a devastating defeat. A 20-point fourth-quarter lead had become a 38-37 deficit. It was fourth-and-18. In a play that quickly became known as "the miracle at Jordan Hare," Marshall threw deep for Ricardo Louis, who was double covered. It seemed Auburn's run was over. But the ball was batted into the air. Louis tipped it with one hand, gathered it and ran to the end zone for a 73-yard touchdown with 25 seconds left. Just like that, Auburn led 43-38.
* Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray led a lightning drive to the Auburn 20-yard line. On the game's final play, he stepped up in the pocket. As he threw, Ford leveled him with a withering hit. The pass fell incomplete and Auburn escaped.
* A play that will go down as perhaps the biggest in Auburn history was coming later, but for it to happen, Marshall had to make a play. Trailing 28-21, Auburn move to No. 1 Alabama's 39. Marshall, running to his left, tucked the ball as if to run. But at the last minute he threw to wide-open Sammie Coates for the game-tying touchdown.
* And then came the play. With one second left, Alabama coach Nick Saban chose to try a 57-yard field goal. Auburn coaches countered by putting electric returner Chris Davis in the end zone to return it if it was short. Davis caught the ball nine yards deep in the end zone, ran straight ahead, cut to his left and was gone as the crowd at Jordan-Hare went berserk.
* It was Tre Mason day. Of Mason's 46 carries, none were more impressive than four in the second quarter. Auburn led 21-20 when it started a drive from its 21. Mason ran 52, 7, 17 and finally 3 yards for the touchdown. Mason finished with 304 yards, leading Auburn to a resounding 59-42 victory and earning a trip to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: