AUBURN — His name is Bond. Isaiah Bond. And his impossible mission: Catch a touchdown pass in a space the size of a phone booth on fourth-and-31 with 32 seconds left and 88,000 fans screaming so loud they could be heard across the state line in LaGrange.
Hearts and eardrums were rattling as if struck repeatedly with a gong mallet. Jordan-Hare Stadium was shaking but Bond and Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe were serene as they took the field after a timeout.
Milroe knew he would have plenty of time to launch the pass because Auburn had seemingly dropped almost the entire population of Lee County into coverage.
Finally, after Crimson Tide receivers had scattered across the field like an ant bed had been kicked and while Milroe phoned out for some takeout food as he surveyed where to go with the ball, he saw Bond drive cornerback D.J. James to the inside, then broke to the outside in the corner of the end zone.
The ball seemed to go through a couple of time zones before Bond grabbed it and landed with both feet inbounds, and with James menacingly within an arm’s length, to give Alabama a 27-24 victory for the ages Saturday.
“I’ll remember that the rest of my life,” said Bond, who wore a glittering “007” necklace, if not to pay tribute to the British secret agent who was always escaping dire life-and-death situations, then wearing an ornament of what will be one of the most remembered 7’s in Iron Bowl lore.
Fabled ending to a classic
The 31-yard TD pass from Milroe — who, if you remember, was benched earlier in the season against South Florida, of all teams, because he wasn’t playing winning football — conjured one of the most improbable finishes in the chronicles of the Iron Bowl, ranking with the Punt, Bama Punt game of 1972 and the Kick Six 10 years ago, both Tigers victories.
“Do I really need to say anything?” Tide coach Nick Saban calmly asked as he took a seat with reporters afterward, looking much younger than 72 and like he had just finished a friendly game of gin rummy.
“It was an unbelievable game,” he said. “You stay in this long enough, sometimes it goes against you and sometimes you’re fortunate when it goes for you.”
On the other side of the field, Auburn coach Hugh Freeze had a hard time comprehending what just happened.
“Man, there’s a lot of hurt in that locker room and it stinks,” he said. “The kids gave themselves the chance to win the Iron Bowl tonight and it’s going to stick with us for a while. We just didn’t play good enough in the critical moments.”
Freeze did not second-guess removing his pass rush on Milroe’s game-winning throw.
“You know, you pressure him and then you got one-on-ones and they throw it up,” Freeze said. “D.J. felt like he was shoved off but I don’t, I couldn’t tell.”
Tigers quarterback Payton Thorne, who read Alabama’s defense well enough for Auburn to run for 244 yards, was dumbstruck.
“I’ve never been part of something like that,” he said. “That was so close and just slipped away. I’m still kind of in shock.”
But not Milroe nor Bond nor Saban. The game-winning pass is something the Tide practices every Friday in the walkthrough, Saban said.
“It was a great catch and a great throw,” Saban said. “You have to be a little lucky but I’ll take it.”
Asked if the play will earn a famous nickname, Saban considered it for a moment.
“If that play has a name, I wouldn’t tell you what it was,” he said to a room of laughter.
Bond said the play is called “Gravedigger” — as in, “We’ll put them in the grave after that game,” he said. “Gravedigger, put them to sleep.”
Milroe said he didn’t know that or, under the circumstances, who the shovel was intended for.
“Gravedigger?” Milroe asked. “I like that play.”
He may like it for more reasons than the triumph it provided. Was it Milroe’s Heisman Trophy moment? He’s thrown only three interceptions since October and what he and Bond pulled off in the gloaming of a perfect fall evening will soon be in a painting.
Afterward, Milroe found himself pressed against a brick wall by reporters who made it impossible for the quarterback to escape for once. A trace of sweat trickled down his jowl, probably for the first time all day.
“You never give up as long as there is time on the clock,” said Milroe, who was 16-of-24 passing for 259 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another 107. “I said they’ve still got to come see us. There’s still plenty of time. We talk about determination. We talk about never giving up and that all came in today. A lot of people talk about it but it’s all about doing it.”
Most people don’t realize how difficult the now-enshrined throw and catch was. It wasn’t a typical Hail Mary thrown for 60 yards with a lot of air under it and six people trying to make it bounce in unpredictable ways. It had to be delivered with some velocity. Bond had little room to maneuver and James covered it as well as anybody could. Imagine throwing a football a third of the length of the field into a Christmas wreath with 176,000 eyes on you, most of them crying out for you to fail. It was a perfect throw to the perfect spot, right into the barrel, and while both players had their hands on each other, Bond caught it while leaning back and falling and still getting his foot down inbounds.
Did Milroe know it was a touchdown when he let the ball go? “Yes,” he said succinctly. It was literally right between the eyes of Bond, who stopped the ball as it began to bore into his facemask and wrapped his gloved hands around it before tumbling to earth.
“I knew I had my foot down,” Bond said. “We practice feeling the sideline. I knew as soon as he threw it that it was a catchable ball. I knew if I could hold my line, I’d make the play.”
This was no fluke
Was it a fluke? What is a fluke? Punt, Bama Punt? The Kick Six? Saban’s record of struggles at Jordan-Hare Stadium, where he had lost three of the last four Iron Bowls played here and nearly suffered ignominious defeat at the hands of Bryan Harsin the last time he was on the Plains?
This was no fluke.
“Nick said before we came down here there’s no voodoo here, no magic here,” said his wife, Miss Terry, who was ebullient after getting a hug and a kiss from the coach. “Besides being happy, whether we win or lose, what lesson have we taught our team? It’s a lesson.”
It was a lesson in perseverance.
“I still say the team that plays the best wins,” Saban said. “We played well but we had to overcome ourselves. We came back against LSU in the second half, Tennessee in the second half, Ole Miss in the second half. Now this. It really speaks volumes about this team overcoming adversity. It should be a lesson for everyone in life.”
It was no fluke, unless you count the punt the Tigers’ Koy Moore muffed at Auburn’s 30 with 4:48 to go and Alabama trailing 24-20. Or the bad snap Milroe fell on back at the Tigers’ 26 and an illegal forward pass that brought it to fourth-and-31.
Where does this leave both teams after the Tide’s fourth straight win over Auburn? Wins and losses in the Iron Bowl are often exaggerated because of the magnitude of the game but there are some certainties.
Alabama still needs a lot of help to reach the College Football Playoff, although it’s playing as well as any team in the country. It could be the first time the Tide misses the playoff for two years in a row under Saban and the haters who proclaim his dynasty dead when Alabama doesn’t make a first down will have a field day. But the problem isn’t Saban, it’s Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who recruits as well as his former boss.
And how can the Tide hope to beat the Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game after giving up 244 yards rushing to a team which has no passing threat? The sellout crowd roared with astonishment on each pass Thorne completed; he was only 5 of 16 for 91 yards.
“I told our players it was a reality check,” said Saban, who couldn’t believe his team could not force the Tigers to throw the ball. “We’ve got to fix some things because we’re playing a good team next week. We had two touchdowns called back because of penalties. We had a bad snap. We allowed them back in the game because of our inability to stop the run.”
Freeze needs playmakers