AUBURN, Ala. — The first 116 Auburn-Georgia football contests contained plenty of thrilling finishes, but never a game-deciding miracle.
That changed early Saturday evening, when a 73-yard touchdown pass from Nick Marshall to Ricardo Louis on fourth-and-18 with 25 seconds remaining propelled Auburn to a 43-38 victory before a delirious crowd of 87,451 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Marshall launched the ball deep into double coverage, but Bulldogs safety Tray Matthews could only watch as fellow safety Josh Harvey-Clemons tipped the ball to where Louis could snag it and race into the end zone.
"I'm just trying to pinch myself and wake up," stunned Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said minutes after the game. "It just seems like a nightmare right now with the way that finished up. This game was unbelievable.
"We were celebrating the victory on the sideline, so this is going to be a tough one to get over."
The loss dropped No. 25 Georgia to 6-4 overall and 4-3 in Southeastern Conference play, eliminating the Bulldogs from the East Division race. The No. 7 Tigers, meanwhile, improved to 10-1 overall and 6-1 in SEC play and will host No. 1 Alabama in two weeks to determine the West champion.
It will be one of the most hyped Iron Bowls of all time, but that hype may have to wait for the excitement to subside after the Tigers and Bulldogs produced 1,098 yards and 81 points.
"Obviously this was an unbelievable game," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
The Tigers were on their way to a devastating defeat, having blown a 37-17 lead early in the fourth quarter, when Marshall dropped back on fourth-and-18.
"The only thing that was going through my mind was try to make a play," Louis said. "At first I was going to try and jump for it, but they took the angle, so I just kept my eyes on the ball over my shoulder and watched the ball all the way in."
After the ball was tipped by Harvey-Clemons, Louis bobbled it for a moment before bringing it in.
"I thought I was going to drop it for real," Louis said.
Even after the stunning score, Georgia wasn't finished. Murray connected with tight end Arthur Lynch for 22 yards and then with Rantavious Wooten for 28 as the Bulldogs rocketed to Auburn's 25-yard line with eight seconds remaining. A pass to Lynch into the end zone was incomplete, but the Tigers were flagged for being offside, giving the Bulldogs one play from the 20 with three seconds left.
Murray dropped back and then scrambled before being hit by defensive end Dee Ford as he threw incomplete.
"We were trying to get four guys in the end zone, and he was trying to buy a little time," Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "It was going to a be a jump ball."
Murray was marvelous in his SEC road finale, completing 33 of 49 passes for 415 yards and two touchdowns. He threw for 160 yards in the fourth quarter, when the Bulldogs rallied from the 20-point deficit.
With 1:49 remaining, it appeared that Murray had scored the winning touchdown on a 5-yard run on fourth-and-goal. Officials ruled his run a touchdown and then determined that replays confirmed the call.
"I knew I was in," Murray said. "They just had to make sure, and they made the right call."
One of the greatest comebacks in Georgia history, however, became one of its greatest heartbreaks. Auburn started its final possession at its 22-yard line and picked up a first down, but a Jordan Jenkins sack of Marshall for a 6-yard loss put the Tigers in a desperate predicament.
"We had two guys in position, but we've just got to finish on the ball," Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "It's a situation our guys go over all the time. They were in maximum protection, and we were in a five-under, three-deep kind of deal. It's fourth-and-18, and we needed to knock the ball down and get off the field.
"We'll move on and learn from it. I'm proud of the way we fought."
Georgia head coach Mark Richt admitted he didn't know what to tell his players after the game, other than he thought they were amazing to take the 38-37 lead -- a lead that wouldn't last as Auburn regained a 55-54-8 series edge.
"It wasn't a fluke play," Richt said. "They launched it out there and were hoping for a miracle. When you're playing that type of prevent defense, the goal is to not let anybody behind you. The goal is to knock the ball down and end the game, but it just didn't happen."
Auburn is off this week, while Georgia will have its home finale against Kentucky at 7 p.m.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...