Bo Nix saw it before anyone else.
His eyes must have lit up. He clapped. He pointed for a first down. He grinned so wide.
Nix, his head coach Gus Malzahn, and the rest of the Auburn offense tricked Nick Saban’s Alabama in the final moments of the Iron Bowl on Saturday, drawing an illegal substitution penalty on the befuddled Crimson Tide to seal a magic 48-45 win on the Plains.
Saban called it “unfair.” Auburn called it a win. The Tigers danced in jubilation and Saban’s Alabama suffered its third loss at Jordan-Hare Stadium in its last four games at Auburn.
“We’re pumped. I’m excited for Auburn,” Nix said outside the locker room Saturday night, as the celebration moved from the field the fans stormed on up to Toomer’s Corner.
“That’s why you come to Auburn, because you want to beat your rival,” he said.
In an Iron Bowl game that seemingly already had it all, it was a clever trick out of the bag of the old high school coach, Malzahn, which sealed the win.
Auburn faced fourth-and-4 with 1:06 left, leading by three and in position to punt back to Alabama to give the Tide another chance after Saban used all his team’s timeouts to force a three-and-out.
On fourth down, though, Auburn sent the offense back out on the field. Nix stood behind center and feigned calls for the snap. In the chaos, Alabama tried to pull its punt return team off the field and put its defense back on. Several yards downfield, Alabama returner Jaylen Waddle was lost and left the field late. As the tried to sprint off, the yellow flag flew high in the air, and Nix excitedly clapped before the rest of the stadium erupted.
The 5-yard penalty on fourth-and-4 gave Auburn a first down and the Tigers kneeled out the clock.
Auburn’s offense was on the field, but Auburn had actually sent punter Arryn Siposs out there in at wide receiver. He was set to motion back into the backfield and punt the ball away, before the flag flew and Auburn won.
Saban’s Alabama has now lost to Malzahn’s Auburn in Jordan-Hare in 2013, 2017 and 2019. No active head coach has beaten Saban more than Malzahn.
“I really feel that was a pretty unfair play at the end of the game,” Saban said after his team’s loss. “They substituted a punter as a wide receiver, so we put the punt team in. And then when the quarterback was still back there we tried to put the defense back in. I thought they should’ve given us a little more time to substitute and get Waddle out as a returner.”
Why Saban expected his team to have extra time is unclear. The penalty was Alabama’s 13th in the game.
After the flag was thrown, Nix ran to the Auburn sideline signaling for a penalty on Alabama — and a first down — smiling wide. He was met by Malzahn wearing his own grin, throwing his fist in the air.
“What we were going to do is we were going to try and keep their punt returner off the field,” Malzahn said of Waddle, who had four touchdowns on the day including a kickoff return for a touchdown. “And so we put our punter at X (receiver), and we had our offense on the field. They had their punt returner and then they rushed their defense on and they forgot about the punt returner. So, that’s how they had 12 guys on the field because we were going to go ahead and shift and we were going to have him punt it. We were just trying to find ways to keep him off the field in that moment.
“We felt like if we could get the defense, we could kick it and flip the field. They were trying to rush people on and we got 12 and we ended up winning the game.”
Malzahn is now 3-4 against Saban’s Alabama during his seven years as Auburn’s head coach. The only active head coach with as many wins against Saban-coached Alabama teams is Les Miles, now at Kansas, and his most recent was eight years ago. Dabo Swinney at Clemson and Hugh Freeze, now at Liberty, have beaten Saban-led Alabama twice.