No. 2 Alabama rallies, socks Auburn in epic shootout
Tuscaloosa, Ala. — Alabama survived an Iron Bowl shootout like no other with a well-tested formula: Throw deep to Amari Cooper. Then do it again.
Cooper tied his own school record with 224 yards receiving and caught three touchdown passes in the second-ranked Crimson Tide's 55-44 comeback victory over No. 15 Auburn on Saturday night in the highest-scoring Iron Bowl.
Quarterback Blake Sims and the Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1 Southeastern Conference) turned to the Heisman Trophy contender for touchdown strikes of 39 and 75 yards in the third quarter. No last-second dramatics would settle this one.
"(Cooper) ran a great route on both of them," Sims said. "I just put the ball where it needed to be and he went and got it and did the rest."
Alabama had already clinched a spot in the SEC championship game against No. 17 Missouri, and the top team in the College Football Playoff rankings scored 28 consecutive points heading into the final seconds.
Auburn (8-4, 4-4) surged ahead 36-27 before losing its third straight SEC game in a season that once also carried playoff hopes. Five times the Tigers settled for Daniel Carlson's field goals after getting turned away near the end zone.
"Name of the game was we got in the red zone and had to kick field goals," Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said.
Sims passed for 312 yards and four touchdowns but threw three interceptions. Auburn's Nick Marshall had a school-record 456 yards passing, 206 to Sammie Coates. His 505 total yards also was a school mark.
Alabama's trip to Atlanta was sealed about 30 minutes before kickoff when Mississippi knocked off No. 4 Mississippi State, 31-17. Tide offensive lineman Austin Shepherd said he peeked at the scoreboard for the outcome.
"I didn't really think much of it," Shepherd said. "It was all about this game."
The playoff positioning came into question after a slow start, but the Tide offense succeeded where the defense failed.
The rivalry that produced last season's most memorable play — Auburn's 109-yard return of a missed field goal on the final play — this time turned into a shootout.
"I can't lie. Everybody thought about last year," Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest said.
This one showcased Sims-to-Cooper and Marshall-to-Coates with plenty of runs as well.
Auburn gained 630 yards against the SEC's top defense. Lane Kiffin's Alabama offense racked up 539 yards as the game also set an Iron Bowl standard for combined yardage.
The previous high score in the Iron Bowl came in 1969, a 49-26 Auburn victory. This one trounced that total.
"We haven't played a lot of games where we give up 44 points and win," Tide coach Nick Saban said. "That's not really our style."
Cooper, who had 13 catches, gained 141 yards in the third quarter alone.
Asked if he thinks the performance secured him an invite to the Heisman ceremony, Cooper responded: "Hopefully."
"We're relentless," he said. "We don't want to lose. I guess you can say we'll win by any means."
Coates scored on touchdowns of 34 and 68 yards on five catches for Auburn. Teammate D'haquille Williams, who had missed the past two games with a knee injury, gained 121 yards on seven catches. Not finishing drives "hurt us bigtime," Coates said.
"We never gave up," he said. "We just kept fighting the whole time."
Alabama's T.J. Yeldon ran for 127 yards and a pair of scores. The SEC's top rushing defense made it hard going for the No. 1 rusher, holding Auburn's Cameron Artis-Payne to 77 yards on 25 runs.
The Tide had backup quarterback Jake Coker warming up after Sims' third interception. He wasn't needed.
Sims overcame his uncharacteristic mistakes to start the comeback with the 75-yarder to a streaking Cooper when Auburn pushed its lead to nine. The Tide quarterback then pulled a Marshall-like play, scampering for an 11-yard touchdown run and converting the 2-point play to take the lead for good.
Sims took Alabama right back downfield after a defensive stop. He hit DeAndrew White for apla 6-yard score, but was stopped short on the 2-point try. He also converted on fourth-and-3 to set up another touchdown.
Marshall and Coates answered with a 53-yard connection to put Auburn in position to score again. Nick Perry brought Marcus Davis down a yard shy on fourth-and-8 deep in Tide territory to effectively end the threat. Perry also had a big interception in the third quarter.
The Tigers had scored 10 points in the final 54 seconds of the first half for a 26-21 lead.
It prompted Saban to proclaim: "That's about as bad a half of football as we've played all year."
He said his halftime message to his players was that this was a gut-check: "I believe in you. I think we can win. I think we will win if everybody makes a commitment to giving their best in the second half."