AUBURN-The way Friday's game ended, it was worthy a moment. So after senior guard Mike Johnson hugged teammates Baron Huber and Preston Dial at midfield while the rest of the University of Alabama football team stormed the field in celebration, he crouched down and briefly closed his eyes.
His face told of a lot more than simple relief.
"I've never been more proud of a group of guys," Johnson said. "Being one of the older guys on this team and seeing these guys perform and come through, it really made me emotional. With the season on the line, just to put everything together, I was just so proud."
In terms of drama, few meetings in the Alabama-Auburn rivalry can claim to be in the same class as the 74th here at Jordan-Hare Stadium, where the No. 2 Crimson Tide not only improved to 12-0 (8-0 Southeastern Conference) but kept its national title hopes alive.
Down by one point and its Heisman Trophy candidate Mark Ingram limited by a hip-pointer, the Crimson Tide arguably had its best possession of the season, traveling 79 yards on 15 plays to score the game-winning touchdown with just 1:24 remaining.
Along the way, junior quarterback Greg McElroy completed seven straight attempts, sophomore receiver Julio Jones caught four passes including two on key third downs, and eventually senior running back Roy Upchurch capped the championship-flavor drive with a 4-yard catch for the first touchdown reception of his career.
"Winning the Iron Bowl, I don't think it gets any better than that," Upchurch said of the 26-21 victory after Auburn's desperation heave into the end zone was knocked down by senior safety Justin Woodall.
But just how Alabama got to that point was just about as unusual as the clinching play-call, originally a run. Only after seeing the defensive formation with Auburn expecting something probably through the left side, Coach Nick Saban called timeout and turned part-time fullback Terrence Cody into the biggest decoy in college football history by throwing the other direction.
"I didn't just want to play for a field goal," said Saban, later adding, "It's a safe play."
That's exactly the opposite of how the Tigers (7-5, 3-5 SEC) started the day. Aided by a bye last week, Auburn's offense appeared that it had been working on the game-plan since Gene Chizik was hired and pulled out just about everything imaginable. Using reverses, onside kick and even a double-pass the Tigers conducted an early clinic in building a 14-0 lead.
Things were going so well for the home team in the first quarter that even when Woodall apparently picked off a red-zone pass it was nullified by a false-start penalty, and then to add insult to injury the safety was called for unsportsmanlike conduct for throwing the ball in frustration.
Although coming Alabama had given up an average of 70.4 rushing yards, Auburn got that almost immediately thanks to a 67-yard reverse by receiver Terrell Zachery for a touchdown. Not only was it the longest run the defense had yielded this season, but the first touchdown in the first quarter since Florida International on Sept. 12.
"They took advantage of us early," senior linebacker Eryk Anders said. "We knew what they were going to do, I think we just came out a little over-excited."
"We just needed to settle down," senior end Brandon Deaderick said.
But by the second quarter it was as if offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's bag of tricks was suddenly empty, and the Alabama defense started to take control. While Auburn lost yards on its subsequent two possessions, the Tide finally got some first downs and freshman running back Trent Richardson's 13-yard reception in the red zone set up his own 3-yard touchdown run.
Alabama followed that up with a senior tight end Colin Peek's 33-yard touchdown when McElroy burned a blitz, and the teams were 14-14 at the break.
"The key of the game is we cannot continue to give up big plays defensively and we have to play our game," Saban said at halftime, only Auburn took advantage of another defensive lapse.
Early in the third quarter, sophomore safety Mark Barron was in single coverage of Darvin Adams, when the sophomore receiver gave him a double move and Barron was fooled by a pump-fake. Senior quarterback Chris Todd couldn't miss Adams down the sideline for the longest play against the Tide since 1991, 72 yards, and he set the Auburn single-season record for touchdown passes with 21.
Otherwise, Auburn averaged 2.8 yards per play in the second half, which gave the Alabama's offense chances to counter.
"A lot of our gap-schemed stuff was hitting them early so they decided to get an odd front and blitz a lot," Auburn senior tackle Andrew McCain said. "All that stuff threw us off. We starting pick it up, but it was just a little too late."
Two Leigh Tiffin field goals brought the Tide to within 21-20, when it had first down at its own 21, and 8:27 remaining. McElroy started with a pass over the middle to junior receiver Darius Hanks and kept going.
"He made all the right decision in a critical time in the game," Saban said. "I think that's what great competitors do."
The longest play of the possession was Richardson turning a short pass into a 17-yard gain and Jones saved his best for last en route to a career-high nine catches for 83 yards.
There's a word for that, "clutch."
"Sometimes when you don't play your best and win, guys have to be smart enough to learn from that," Saban said. "We didn't have a lot of emotion, we didn't have a lot of passion and I can't really understand that. I think it was from the short week.
"Only the strong survive, but the strong still get their ass whipped. That was my message to the team."