Nick Saban is a great college football coach. That’s obvious. That, for me, is what made Saturday’s remarkable ending of the Alabama-Auburn game so stunning. I think Saban lost his mind in the final minutes of the game. While some crazed Alabama fans pathetically turned on field goal kicker Cade Foster who missed three field goals (and, let it be said, many, many other Alabama fans stood up for him) the obvious culprit for the game was Saban. He made two critical decisions that were more than questionable at the time and both turned out disastrously. The first decision was a tough one: With 5:40 or so to go and Alabama leading by a touchdown, the Crimson Tide faced fourth and 1 from the Auburn 13. A field goal puts them up two scores. A first down allows them to run more clock and maybe score a touchdown. Saban decided to go for it. There was some reasoning to his call, but it seemed like the wrong one to me at the time.
Saban went for it mostly (I suspect) because his field goal kicker -- the aforementioned Foster -- had just missed a 33-yard field goal. Well, technically, he made a 28-yarder but Alabama had jumped early and he missed the 33-yarder that followed; Alabama, unexpectedly, committed a couple of costly penalties. Foster also had missed a 44-yard kick early in the game. Saban either did not want to put his senior kicker in the line of fire again or he had lost faith in him making a 30-yard field goal (though Foster had a good season going before Auburn).
I’m usually all for teams going for it one fourth and one when the game is there to be won. But this was a little bit different. Alabama did not seem in good position to make it. The Crimson Tide just faced a third-and-one, gave the ball to their star running back T.J. Yeldon, and he came up short. This game was at Auburn, the crowd was insane, the Auburn defense was beyond hyped, and this was the Tigers’ last chance to steal this game. There’s a line coaches sometimes use that goes, “If you can’t pick up one yard when you need to, you don’t deserve to win the game.” Maybe that’s true. But making fourth-and-one at Auburn, in the Iron Bowl, with that many emotions and passions and spirit swirling around, well, that’s a tougher yard.
For me a 30-yard field goal to go up two scores ... that seems the much better call.
Anyway, Alabama went for it, gave the ball to Yeldon, he did not get the first down, and so on.
Alabama got the ball back after a great punt return, faced a third-and-2 from the Auburn 17 and got called for holding. Weird -- those are the sorts of penalties that Saban coached teams don’t commit. The penalty moved the ball back to the 27, and this time Saban had Foster try a 44-yard field goal. It was blocked.
Auburn eventually scored the game-tying touchdown, and Alabama got the ball back on its own 29 with a half minute left. It was clear that Saban decided to play it safe and settle for overtime when, with seven seconds left, Yeldon got the ball on a draw play and sprinted 24-yards through a scattered Auburn defense protecting against the long pass. That moved the ball to the Auburn 38. At first it appeared that time ran out but after spending what seemed like 35 years looking at replays, the officials determined there was still one second left.
Auburn fans howled. But they were about to be given a great gift by Saban.
He decided to send a freshman named Adam Griffith out there to try a 57-yard field goal.
Reason: Um, I guess they had the wind behind them, or something.
As they lined up for the kick, I was in a restaurant with my family, and the game was on television nearby, and the first thing I said to them was, “Auburn can return this.” I suspect that’s the first thing most football fans across America thought. What were the chances that this kicker was going to get a 57-yarder all the way to the goal post, much less make it?
The sound was off in the restaurant so I was unaware that Saban was actually sending out a freshman who had made one field goal all year (a 20-yard kick). If I had known this, I would have REALLY thought he lost his mind. Later Saban would say that the kid makes 60-yarders at practice, which is just a bizarre thing to say. I’m sure he makes 60-yarders at practice -- so what? If there’s one thing you can say with certainty about Nick Saban it is that he’s a serious man who does not spend any of his time thinking about frivolous things. I’m sure punt returners catch balls behind their backs in practice and receivers make one-handed catches in practice and running backs make perfect throws on trick plays in practice. Again: So what? Surely, he could not have thought a freshman making 60-yard kicks in practice had anything to do with a 57-yard kick at Auburn with one second left and a chance to win the Iron Bowl.
Seriously, what is more likely: That the backup kicker would make a 57-yard kick with one second left at Auburn or that it would be blocked and/or returned for a touchdown? A Hail Mary pass is a long shot but at least it is relatively risk free -- if the pass is intercepted you have receivers in the area to make the tackle. This crazy kick had countless risks. If this kick is blocked, you open yourself up to all sorts of crazy bounce possibilities. If this kick falls short, you are giving a returner all sorts of open space against a special teams unit not designed to cover.
Nick Saban didn’t think about these things? NiICK SABAN? This is a man who covers every base, who considers every possibility, who stays awake at night worrying about stuff that nobody else would even think about.
You know what happened next. The kick was high and straight and pretty well hit and, predictably, it fell short. Alabama’s players, most of them, stood around watching the kick, mesmerized by it. When Chris Davis caught the ball and began to run, he had to be utterly stunned by how much room he had. Davis is a punt returner who is used to making something out of nothing. Now, he ran 100-plus yards, and to be honest the only real threat was the sidelines. He had to tiptoe those. No Alabama player came close to tackling him. He scored the touchdown that won the game, the crowd began to pour onto the field, the restaurant where we were eating burst into stunned cheers.
And Saban took off his headset, tossed it to the ground and got off the field. He would talk about how he’s never lost a game like that. Of course he hasn’t. It was a wild ending. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The ending WAS wild but there was also certain logic to it. Saban had tried something a little bit crazy and illogical. And crazy, illogical things often backfire. In the end, Saban just made a dreadful decision. Even the great ones do that sometimes.