In an exhausting game that ultimately came down to the kickers — here’s the real kicker — Gus Malzahn outwitted Nick Saban.
With Auburn protecting a 48-45 lead in one of the zaniest Iron Bowl games ever and the clock almost down to one minute remaining, the Tiger coach pulled one over on the Tide coach.
Facing a 4th-and-4 at the Auburn 26 — only a minute after Alabama’s Joseph Bulovas hooked a kick that bounced off the uprights that could have tied the game — the Crimson Tide was going to get the football back with a minute left.
But it never happened.
Auburn sent punter Arryn Siposs onto the field, but had him at a wide receiver slot instead of behind center, where quarterback Bo Nix remained.
It was all a ploy by Malzahn to try and get Alabama punt returner Jaylen Waddle off the field. Waddle had returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown in the first half and is statistically the best punt returner in the nation.
“We got our offense on the field and then they had their punt return (team), and then they rushed their defense on and they forgot about their punt returner,” Malzahn said. “They were trying to rush people on and had 12.”
The flag came out and Alabama was called for an illegal substitution with too many players on the field.
Saban, obviously, wasn’t happy about it.
“I really feel that it was a pretty unfair play at the end of the game where they substituted the punter as a wide receiver,” Saban said. “So we put the punt team in. And when the quarterback was back in there, we tried to put the defense back in.
“I thought they should have given us a little more time to substitute and get Waddle out as a returner. You get called for 12 guys on the field. So that was very disappointing.
“It was a very unusual circumstance, to say the least.”
Malzahn said the team had been working on that play all season.
“This kick returner will make you do things you wouldn’t normally do,” Malzahn said of Waddle. “Our whole goal was not to let him beat us. Of course he house-called the one (kickoff return) that was huge.
“We had worked on that (designed play) all year. We had the punter with the offense just trying to keep the (Alabama) defense out there without the returner and that’s what caused all of the confusion and caused 12 guys out on the field. It worked out pretty good.”
I would say so.
In fact, the last play of the first half worked out pretty good for Auburn as well.
The final seconds of the half ticking down, Auburn running back Boobee Whitlow caught a screen pass for 17 yards and was tackled at the Alabama 34 as the halftime horn sounded.
As Alabama players began retreating to the locker room, Malzahn argued there should still be some time left on the clock. After a review, officials ruled one second should be put back on the clock.
Auburn’s placekicking team was ready on the field when officials signaled for play to resume, and the ball was quickly snapped. Anders Carlson then nailed a 52-yard field goal to end the half and pull Auburn within 31-27. It was the first of four field goals in the game for Carlson.
“It wasn’t just the three points,” Malzahn said. “It gave us the momentum at halftime.”
Saban was furious about it all, believing there wouldn’t have been enough time to get a field goal try off under normal circumstances.
“They (officials) waited and waited and waited and wound the clock and they snapped the ball and the guy kicked it and they said it was good,” Saban said.
Malzahn certainly has his critics — and for good reason — but he’s also proven to be one of the few coaches that can frustrate and beat a Saban-coached team.
Malzahn is 3-4 in the Iron Bowl — all three wins coming at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Asked about having success against Saban, the Auburn coach said it was about the players.
“He’s a great coach — everybody knows that,” Malzahn said of his counterpart. “This is the best rivalry in college football. It’s not about me.”
But on this day, Malzahn had Saban’s number enough times to prevail.