2014 Best Game Story, by Ivan Maisel

Comment by the judge: Great look at the most compelling game and play of the entire 2013 college football season that helps readers picture it perfectly in their heads. The story featured a great sampling of quotes from all those involved, including great snippets from Chris Davis. However, I especially enjoyed the quotes from Alabama tight end Brian Vogler, who was covering on the play, which provided a unique perspective I had not seen in any other articles about this game.

By Ivan Maisel


Ivan Maisel

Ivan Maisel

AUBURN, Ala. — Someday, someday, there will be a greater Iron Bowl finish than this one. Babe Ruth died, and the Yankees continue to play. Sinatra has come and gone, and people still sing. Forty-one years after “Punt Bama Punt,” Chris Davis caught a field goal attempt nine yards deep in the end zone, and started running.

So it’s possible that the way that No. 4 Auburn dethroned No. 1 Alabama 34-28, will be eclipsed. But at this moment Saturday night, with the cheers at Jordan-Hare Stadium still reverberating from here to Columbus, Ohio, it doesn’t seem possible at all. With the clock showing all zeroes, Davis returned Adam Griffith’s Hail Mary of a 57-yard field goal attempt 109 yards for a touchdown.

“We saw they had a guy back there,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Everybody knew they had to cover him. We just didn’t, we didn’t cover it right.”

In the 15 seconds or so that it took Davis to sprint from end line to end line, Alabama lost its chance at a third consecutive BCS championship; Auburn won the SEC West and planted itself in the BCS title debate, No. 3 Ohio State saw its BCS hopes come to life, and the spectrum of emotions that college football can elicit stretched a little beyond its limit.

“I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run,” Davis said, “and I knew we had bigger guys on the field to protect and that was all after that.”

The game unfolded as Alabama’s toughest games have unfolded all season long. The Tide started slow, fell behind, warmed up and took the lead in the fourth quarter thanks to a 99½-yard touchdown pass from AJ McCarron to Amari Cooper. In any other Iron Bowl, that would’ve been the stuff of legend. But then Alabama’s karma got run over by Auburn’s karma, in which the Tigers keep believing until they pull off a miracle finish. That’s what happened against Georgia, when Ricardo Louis caught a deflected pass for a 73-yard touchdown in the final minute.

And that’s what happened Saturday, when Auburn scored two touchdowns in the last 32 seconds, and every choice Saban made came back to bite him.

With a 28-21 lead in the fourth quarter, and 4th-and-1 at the Auburn 13, Saban chose not to send kicker Cade Foster onto the field. The senior, who had made 11 of 12 field goals this season coming into the game, reverted to his form of two years ago, when he missed three field goals in a 9-6 loss to LSU.

Foster missed a 44-yard field goal in the first quarter. Early in the fourth quarter, he appeared to make a 28-yarder, but a false start penalty pushed the ball back five yards, and he missed that. So this time, instead of sending Foster onto the field, Saban sent T.J. Yeldon into the line. Auburn stuffed him, just as it had done on third down.

“Cade was just having a rough day,” Saban said. “… We missed several field goals. It’s not for sure you would have made it. I mean you say you should have a kicked a field goal. Well, that’s assuming you make it.”

Fast forward to Alabama’s last possession. Auburn had just tied the game 28-28 when Nick Marshall took advantage of a spectacular breakdown in the Alabama secondary and completed a 39-yard pass to Sammie Coates. Alabama had the ball at its own 29 with :25 left. Two plays gained only nine yards. With :07 left, and Auburn expecting a Hail Mary pass, McCarron handed off to Yeldon again. He sprinted 24 yards and out of bounds at the Auburn 38. The clock said all zeroes. Both teams and every fan in Jordan-Hare expected overtime to begin shortly. But referee Matt Austin announced that the replay official had determined that Yeldon stepped out of bounds before the clock expired.

Instead of throwing a Hail Mary, Saban decided to have Griffith kick one. “Griffith can kick them further than Cade,” Saban said.

The freshman’s kick came down wide right a yard short of the crossbar, where Davis awaited.

“The first thing I’m looking at is does it have enough distance,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “I saw it didn’t have enough distance, and my eyes kind of got on Chris. They had their field goal team out there and it had some big guys on it. I thought he made a couple of guys who could tackle miss …”

The video replay appeared to show the Alabama players watching the kick. The textbook says that the kicking team shouldn’t watch the ball. The players should take their lanes and cover. Alabama practices the play during Friday walk-throughs. No one from the scout team poses as the returner. The kicking team just races downfield.

“We just imagine. Nobody actually returns it,” Alabama tight end Brian Vogler said. “… You practice it so many times, and when it happens, you’re not expecting that kind of speed.”

Davis raced up the left hash mark. Vogler came at him at the middle of the field but seemed hesitant.

“I was actually caught off-guard that no one blocked me,” Vogler said. “I was running down the field expecting a blind side [hit] out of nowhere, and when I finally got the opportunity, I was kind of in shock I hadn’t gotten laid out by then.”

Davis accelerated up the sideline. At midfield, it became apparent no one would touch him.

“Slow motion,” Alabama quarterback McCarron said, describing what he saw from the sideline. “I mean, this is one of those crazy plays. It’s almost like a video game. That’s something you do on ‘Madden’ or ‘NCAA.’ It’s just a wild play.”

“When I looked back, I said I couldn’t believe this,” Davis said. “When I was running, I said ‘God is good.'”

If God only gives us what we can handle, then he saves an extra shovel full for Saban. Every coach has his Achilles’ heel. Bear Bryant couldn’t beat Notre Dame. Darrell Royal couldn’t beat Barry Switzer, who had it all over Tom Osborne.

Saban? He can’t just lose an Iron Bowl. He has to lose it in the most painful way possible.

Three years ago, Alabama led No. 1 Auburn 24-0 in Tuscaloosa and lost 28-27. It seemed as if that would be the loss that, 20 years from now, when Saban has retired and been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, would still awaken him at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat.

But, no, not anymore.

“First time I ever lost a game that way,” Saban said. “First time I have ever seen a game lost that way. We had the wind behind us, but [we] still should have covered it. The game should not have ended that way.”

Common sense says that. History says that. But no one in Auburn is saying that. Move over, “Punt Bama Punt.” There’s a new legend to tell.


Age: 54

College: Stanford

Background: Maisel has won first place in the FWAA Best Writing Contest for the fifth time in his 27 seasons covering national college football, and thanks the Iron Bowl for serving up a once-in-a-lifetime finish to an Alabama native. Ivan also won for an enterprise story in 1994 while at The Dallas Morning News, for an ESPN.com column in 2003 and an ESPN.com feature in 2006, and last year in game story. Ivan covered college football for the DMN from 1987 to 1994, for Newsday from 1995 to 1997, and Sports Illustrated from 1997 to 2002. Having taken some grief for job-hopping, he is delighted to have worked at ESPN.com since 2002. Given the rapid change of how people use the Internet, he feels like he has job-hopped a few times without leaving ESPN. What started out as a writing job with a little TV on the side has morphed into writing, web video and, of course, podcasting. Ivan hosted the ESPNU College Football Podcast for several seasons, and now co-hosts three days a week. Ivan also has written two books about the sport. Ivan and his wife, Meg Murray, live in Fairfield, Conn., and have three children: Sarah, Max and Elizabeth.