The Nick Six enters the Alabama pantheon
Confetti from a college football weekend
And now, ten years later, we have the Nick Six.
We have Alabama swaggering its way down to Auburn, ready to pick up a pro forma win over its beleaguered rival, a stopover on the road to an SEC Championship date with Georgia.
We have a decade of Alabama’s excellence, piling on top of that night in 2013 when Chris Davis picked up a failed 57-yard field goal attempt and sprinted down the sideline and into a irretrivable place inside the Auburn heart.
That victory put the Tigers into what became the final Bowl Championship Series game, which turned out to be a come-from-ahead loss to Florida State. Auburn has only two wins over Alabama since.
But at least Auburn had that moment, that rare mental photo of something that went to that place where wildest dreams lose hope. How many times do you see a field goal run back?
Late Saturday we had a possible answer: Almost as many times as you win a game when it’s fourth-and-goal from the plus-31.
The Nick Six was a touchdown pass from Jalen Milroe, Alabama’s next great quarterback, and strike up the Heisman band for 2024. Given more than six seconds to hang around in the pocket and watch the buzzing swarm of white and blue clad humanity in and around the end zone, Milroe threw to the left back corner.
There, Isaiah Bond had darted toward the sideline after convincing Auburn cornerback D.J. James that he would be closer to the middle. Milroe threw it and Bond caught it. An air traffic controller couldn’t have arranged it better. Alabama won, 28-24, and coach Nick Saban admitted that, yeah, luck played a part, but so did preparation. The Crimson Tide works on such things every Friday, he said. Cornerback Terrion Arnold clarified it, however: “In practice we let the guy catch it,” and maybe that’s where the confidence came from.
According to Bond, the play is called “Gravedigger,” and it was facilitated by Auburn’s decision to use only two rushers and one “spy” to make sure Milroe, a devastating runner, would stay in the pocket. But it might have been a little late for that. As Chris Doering of the SEC Network noted, “Jalen Milroe is not going to scramble for a 31-yard touchdown.” With no pressure, Milroe could at least throw comfortably, and once a ball goes into the end zone it can cause all sorts of damage.
Hugh Freeze, the first-year Auburn coach, said that he would use the same defense and said, quite understandably, that all the defenders needed was to use their vision “and knock it down.” The problem was that Bond found a 1-on-1 matchup and Milroe, critically, had the wherewithal to find it, too.
James sat on the Jordan-Hare Stadium turf for at least 10 minutes after the buzzer. He is a transfer from Oregon, one of the Tigers’ best cornerbacks, and he had already broken up three passes during the game. It is hoped he will not turn into a Bill Buckner figure at Auburn, and it’s possible the Tigers will shove this episode to the side of the memory bank as they continue to improve. Only two weeks ago they were hammered, at home, by New Mexico State. This wasn’t a good season. A 6-6 season at Auburn never is, and it does little good to talk about losing by seven to Georgia or by seven to Mississippi. But the elevator has lurched upward from Rock Bottom.
Besides, there’s lots of encouraging tape from this one. Auburn ran 42 times for 244 yards. Both are unusual numbers against the Crimson Tide. In the fourth quarter Auburn led 24-20 and stopped the Tide twice. But then Koy Moore muffed Alabama’s punt. It did not help that Moore wasn’t the regular punt returner. Keionte Scott was. It also didn’t help that Freeze, when questioned, thought Scott, not Moore, was in the game.
Thus, the Tide had a first down on Auburn’s 30, and Milroe then ran 19 yards on a third-and-20 and Roydell Williams got three yards on fourth-and-one.
So how do you go from first-and-goal on the eight to fourth-and-goal from the 31?
It took a botched shotgun snap that sailed past Milroe and accounted for an 18-yard loss. With 0:43 left, Milroe was chased to the sideline and unleashed a pass when he had already passed the line of scrimmage, triggering a pirouette of rage from Saban.
That five-yard penalty put Alabama back on the 31. For Auburn, that merely set up fourth-and-a-nightmare, and a Nick Six that joins the Pick Six in a statewide psychic museum.
Other confetti from the weekend:
Michigan 30, Ohio State 24
– Trying to break a 17-17 tie, J.J. McCarthy hit A.J. Barner with an 18-yard pass to the Ohio State 22 yard line in the third quarter. Gradually, the players and the crowd of 110,615 in Michigan Stadium realized the real consequences of the play. Zak Zinter, an All Big 10 guard, was down and wasn’t getting up, and when a teammate felt Zinter’s foot go limp, everyone knew this was no momentary injury. Zinter was carted off with a broken tibia and fibula, and had surgery Saturday night. For a Michigan team that was already carrying several causes, there was only one response. Blake Corum, seeker of end zones, immediately ran 22 yards for the touchdown that would put the Wolverines ahead for good.
– In the most important moments, Michigan’s offensive line was better than the people it was blocking, and that was the difference after the Buckeyes cut the lead to 27-24 with 8:05 left. The Wolverines oozed down the field and kicked a field goal, removing seven minutes from the clock and making OSU spend three time outs. The Buckeyes got to the Michigan 37, where Jaylen Harrell rushed Kyle McCord and forced the Buckeye QB to throw an interception to Rod Moore, which ended the drama and boosted Michigan to 12-0, with the Big 10 title game against Iowa coming up Saturday.
– It was an extraordinary game, played mostly without questionable hits, false starts, or many missed assignments. Special teams did not allow a yard on punt returns on either side. Ohio State had one penalty, Michigan three. Coverage was executed without pass interference. There were six red zone incursions and four touchdowns. In the end, McCord threw two picks and McCarthy none, and McCarthy had the best throw, a dart into a test tube that found Roman Wilson for a 22-yard touchdown in between Buckeyes, for a 14-3 lead.
Oregon 31, Oregon State 7
– Oregon got the ball with :48 left before intermission, leading only 14-7 after ruling play most of the half. Oregon State pressured the pocket on first down at the Oregon 48, and Bo Nix began scrambling to his right. Then he stopped, twisted and fired an 11-yard seed to Troy Franklin. The next play was a 41-yard touchdown to Franklin, creating a 21-7 lead, and the Ducks (11-1) never looked back. Nix has made bigger plays but few more impressive, and he underlined his Heisman race by going 33 for 40 with two touchdowns, 367 yards and no interceptions.
– For the year Nix has 37 TD passes and 86 incompletions. He has completed 78.55 percent of his passes with two interceptions. Oregon’s 31-point output on Friday was its lowest of the year. The Ducks play for the Pac-12 title Friday against undefeated Washington, which needed an audacious fourth-down conversion and a last-second field goal to top Washington State. Events are still beyond their control, but the Ducks are making it hard for the selection committee to say no.
– The weekend got worse for Oregon State fans. On Saturday Jonathan Smith, the former Beaver quarterback, left to become Michigan State’s coach. Smith coached OSU to a 25-13 record in his last three years. Try that sometime. This would have been a much harder decision for Smith if the Pac-12 was still upright.
Florida State 24, Florida 15
– In a battle of backup quarterbacks, Florida seized a 12-0 lead and generally did things to the Seminoles that no one else has done. It gave up only 90 rushing yards and held the ball for 34:52. But Florida State kept its cool, cranked up its pass rush and finished its regular season 12-0, with an ACC championship date with Louisville awaiting.
– Jared Verse had two and a half of Florida State’s six sacks, and Florida’s yardage in the fourth quarter was minus-15. Quarterback Cade Rodemacher completed 12 of 25 passes and was generally at his best when he handed off to Trey Benson, who ran for three touchdowns. But he did convert a fourth-and-3 to Ja’Khi Douglas that led to the field goal that put FSU ahead 17-15. Rodemacher is filling in for Jordan Travis, who suffered a knee injury last week against North Alabama.
– Florida (5-7) had its second consecutive losing season for second-year coach Billy Napier. It was missing QB Graham Mertz, the Wisconsin transfer who had played well. Florida State now eyes a College Football Playoff spot, which will be at severe risk if it loses to Louisville.
Arizona 59, Arizona State 23
– Two years ago Noah Fifita was throwing passes to Tetairoa McMillan for Servite High in Anaheim, Ca., as the Friars upset St. John Bosco and went to the CIF Southern Section finals. Now they’re doing the same thing for one of the hottest teams in America, which went to 9-3 after this blitzing of ASU in the Territorial Cup rivalry. Fifita, the backup QB when the season began, went 30 for 41 for a school-record 527 yards and five touchdowns, and McMillan caught 11 of those for 266 yards and a score. Jacob Cowing also caught nine for 157.
– Fifita, who redshirted last year and wasn’t widely recruited because he is listed as 5-foot-11, has thrown 18 touchdown passes with four interceptions and has hit 74 percent of his passes. McMillan ended his regular season just 24 yards short of 1,000 and has scored nine times. Arizona was 3-3 after it lost to Washington by a touchdown and to USC in triple overtime, but is undefeated since, and it beat Washington State, Oregon State and UCLA when all were ranked. In its past two wins over Utah and ASU, the Wildcats have scored 101 points.
– As third-year coach Jedd Fisch pointed out, there are 13 Arizona players who were on hand for a a 70-7 loss to ASU in 2020. Fisch was hired to replace Kevin Sumlin after that loss, which was part of a 20-game losing streak. In a 12-team playoff format, like the one that will be used in 2024, Arizona might well have a case. As it is, the Wildcats will be a handful for Big 12 rivals next season.
Cal 33, UCLA 7
– The Pac-12, or at least any reasonable facsimile of it, departed the college football scene Saturday night in a Rose Bowl where the empty seats were the majority. It seemed a far more meaningful milepost for Cal than for UCLA, as the Bears improved to 6-6 with a shellacking of the team that had mashed USC the week before.
– Jadyn Ott returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, Jeremiah Hunter caught two touchdown passes from Fernando Mendoza, and freshman Cade Uluave had 12 tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss. UCLA lost Ethan Garbers, who had quarterbacked the win over USC, and Dante Moore, the freshman hope, had two interceptions.
– The Bruins fall to 7-5 and will join the Big 10 next year. Their last previous Pac-12 title was in 1998. Cal shared the title with USC in 2006 but, prior to that, had not finished first, or tied for first, since 1975. This was the 94th game between the two in a series that began in 1933 and is, or was, the second-longest uninterrupted rivalry in college football. Next year Cal plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where all but two of its “rivals” live in the Eastern Time Zone.