AUBURN — The seniors tried to find a silver lining in the pain. Many of them lingered on the field and helped each other up after Alabama scored a walk-off, 2-point conversion to end the 2021 Iron Bowl 24-22 in the fourth overtime Saturday night.
"Emotions were low and guys were moving all over the place," edge rusher Derick Hall said, "getting around, just upset."
Alabama's John Metchie III waltzed into the end zone with the winner right in front of Auburn cornerback Roger McCreary, one of those seniors who poured his heart into this game that matters more than all the others in Auburn.
It's a cruel twist of irony that the back of his jersey will be seen by thousands whenever the replay is shown of the dramatic game's final play: McCreary had four pass breakups and affected the game defensively more than anyone, except maybe Hall, who contributed three sacks.
"It hurts," Hall said. "It sucks. It's painful."
So why did it have to end like that?
One of the great Iron Bowls of all time, the first to ever need overtime and a real David-and-Goliath battle, ended with ... a 2-point conversion battle?
It's a new rule this year in NCAA football, designed to minimize the number of snaps in a game: If a third overtime is required, no longer do both teams get a chance from the other's 25-yard line. Instead, both get one play from the 3. May the best play-call win. College football was supposed to have the sensible and fair overtime arrangement relative to the NFL. Sure enough, the powers that be overthought it and created this foolishness. It's a fluke way to end a game. No real winner. Everyone who watched Illinois vs. Penn State this fall knows that.
"I wasn’t familiar with (the rule) at all," Hall said. "We hit the third overtime, and they kept saying, 'Two points.' So I was just like, 'One play?' Obviously, I didn’t know that. So yeah, one play. We really tried to put it all on the line and put it out there for one last play."
One play. After four-plus hours Saturday, one play for each team was the miniscule difference between the glory of an all-time Iron Bowl upset and the pain that Hall described. If it comes to pass naturally that a game comes down to one play, so be it. Football can be situationally cruel. That's the idea with both teams getting a chance from the 25: operating, adjusting, executing over a full series with a shortened field.
But this is forced.
This is a lousy way to end an instant classic. After Auburn fought so hard, this is an asterisk.
"At the end, I felt like I gave it all I've got," McCreary said. "I feel like we gave it all we've got as a team. There was some stuff I thought we could've done better. There's always some mistakes. We ain't perfect. I felt like at the end, we played our heart out. That was the best I've ever seen my team play."
McCreary understands that Auburn isn't exonerated. Even though the Tigers weren't supposed to win, they let it slip away multiple times in the final two minutes (see Tank Bigsby going out of bounds, the defense allowing a fourth-and-7 conversion). They were outgained 217 yards to 33 in the fourth quarter.
But this Iron Bowl, like so many others, was a game about heart. Auburn could have phoned it in after three straight losses, after blowing 28-3 and 14-0 leads the last two weeks.
But these players didn't, because they cared about the rivalry and about sending their seniors off the right way. This sport is supposed to be about the players, because the players care the most, as Alabama coach Nick Saban emphasized himself during a long rant on his radio show last week.
Auburn could have phoned it in after Alabama tied it with 24 seconds left, when it felt like there was no way the Tigers would regain a lead anymore.
But they didn't. A backup quarterback threw an overtime touchdown to a true freshman tight end. A backup kicker made a 49-yard, high-pressure field goal in his second game against all odds. The Tigers didn't quit.
"I was proud of our guys. I told them that," Auburn coach Bryan Harsin said. "Proud of their fight."
As this Iron Bowl paused for a moment to breathe between the second and third overtimes, a sense of recognition settled in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The game's tone shifted from epic scale to absurdity in that moment, because everyone had to come to grips with the new reality that this is how it has to end, one way or the other.
It ended with Metchie strolling in past McCreary. It ended with pain for Auburn's seniors. It ended the wrong way.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: 2-point battle is sad way to end instant classic Iron Bowl for Auburn football