AUBURN, Ala. — When it ended, the University of Alabama football players galloped across the field, gesturing mockingly at the stunned Auburn fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn’s players trudged toward their locker room. Some took a knee, some bowed their heads. Others stood still, staring up at the sky.
The Tigers had contained Alabama, ranked third by the College Football Playoff selection committee, for nearly four quarters. They generated pressure on Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young. They gave up few yards on the ground. They held the Alabama offense to 68 yards in the first half.
And yet Alabama, with a Heisman Trophy favorite at the helm of its offense and one of the most successful coaches in college football history on its sideline, overcame a horrendous 59 minutes of offense, coming from behind to defeat Auburn, 24-22, on Saturday in four overtimes.
After No. 5 Michigan upset No. 2 Ohio State earlier in the day, Alabama (11-1) was poised to move up a spot in the coming playoff rankings, which will be released Tuesday night. Alabama will then meet No. 1 Georgia on Saturday in Atlanta in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
An N.C.A.A. rule instituted at the beginning of the season altered overtime proceedings: If a game reaches a third overtime, teams then alternate 2-point conversion attempts until someone wins.
Auburn (6-6), which had the ball first in the fourth overtime, failed to convert the 2-point attempt. On the ensuing Alabama possession, Young found receiver John Metchie III working against cornerback Roger McCreary, who had antagonized Alabama’s receivers all afternoon, for the game-ending score. It was the first overtime game in the Iron Bowl’s 128-year history.
“Most of the time, I remember the ones we lose,” Alabama Coach Nick Saban said. “But I think I’ll remember this one because of the way the players competed.”
With 1 minute 35 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Young led the Crimson Tide on a 97-yard scoring drive, capped by a 28-yard touchdown throw to receiver Ja’Corey Brooks, giving Alabama its first touchdown of the day and tying the score, 10-10.
After the game, Metchie, who caught a 22-yard pass on the scoring drive, told reporters the players said little in the huddle beforehand.
“Not too much had to be said,” he said. “We knew what we had to do. We do it every day in practice. We prepared for this. It’s what we do. For the toughest situations, the toughest plays, it’s what we’ve prepared for.”
The two teams swapped scores in the first three overtimes. A touchdown catch by Alabama receiver Slade Bolden was followed by a touchdown pass from Auburn quarterback T.J. Finley to Landen King. The second overtime ended with two made field goals; a pair of 2-point conversions capped the third.
This after the Crimson Tide, who have the nation’s second-highest scoring offense, were held scoreless through three quarters in regulation.
Alabama’s first points of the game came in the fourth quarter, with 8:44 left, after defensive back Josh Jobe intercepted a high pass by Finley. Brian Robinson, who had been bottled up until then, ripped off a 38-yard run on the next play. But Auburn’s defense never deviated from the game plan that had yielded success: win the battle at the line of scrimmage and give Young little time to get the ball to his receivers.
Young, who broke Alabama’s single-game passing record against Arkansas the previous week, took his seventh sack of the game on third-and-goal, after which the Crimson Tide kicked a field goal.
Besieged by rushers and a raucous Auburn crowd for most of the day, Young finished with 317 yards on 25-of-51 passing, two touchdowns and an interception.
He lost his best weapon in the first half when receiver Jameson Williams, who leads Alabama in receiving yards (1,218) and touchdowns (13), was ejected for targeting with nine minutes left in the second quarter. He had 43 of Alabama’s first 50 yards.
Williams’s ejection, one of many uncharacteristic Crimson Tide penalties (11 total), led to the Tigers’ first score of the game: a 15-yard touchdown catch by Kobe Hudson.
Right after Williams was ejected, Saban talked to the other offensive players on the bench. In Williams’s absence, the Crimson Tide leaned on Metchie, a junior who led Alabama receivers on Saturday with 13 catches for 150 yards.
“It was tough, them doing my boy like that,” Metchie said of Williams. “But he did a great job of not letting it affect the game, picking everybody up, was on the sidelines with the offense and defense getting everybody going. It’s just the ’Bama way of the next man up.”
Past Iron Bowl games have shown that thrilling plays are to be expected when these teams meet: the “Kick-6” game in 2013; running back Kerryon Johnson’s jump pass in 2017; the pair of pick-6 plays on quarterback Mac Jones in 2019.
This game initially lacked those fireworks. There were 17 punts, and neither team established a run game, combining for 86 rushing yards.
Auburn, which entered the game allowing over 360 yards per game, seemed to be making all the right plays as the game neared its end.
“We just came up short,” Auburn Coach Bryan Harsin said.