The Crimson Tide (11-1, 8-0 SEC) kept their College Football Playoff hopes alive with their fourth consecutive win in the series, running their record to 11-1 entering Saturday’s SEC Championship game against No. 1-ranked Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (4 p.m., CBS).
“Finish,” said Milroe, when asked what was going through his mind before launching the game-winning pass. “It was all about finishing; that’s all it was about.”
It was Alabama that looked finished only a few moments earlier, setting the stage for this latest improbable oil-painting moment in the cherished in-state rivalry.
An errant second-down snap from the Auburn 8 backed up the Tide to the 26-yard line, and then Milroe crossed the line of scrimmage while throwing an incomplete pass, costing his team another 5 yards to increase the odds on the improbable finish.
Auburn coach Hugh Freeze, his team a three-touchdown underdog to Alabama after losing to unheralded New Mexico State by a 31-10 count on this same field one week earlier, was at a loss.
“I don’t think any coach has the words. ... It’s gonna hurt, there’s no way around it,” said Freeze, whose Tigers are headed to a bowl on the heels of their 6-6 season, 3-5 in SEC games. “We got nine guys back there, you just got to play with vision and make a play on the ball and knock it down. He (D.J James) felt like he was shoved off, but I couldn’t tell.
“You could pressure him, and then they’ve got one-on-ones. I liked the call. I just think we got to sit back there with vision and knock the ball down.”
Auburn defenders knocked down three Alabama passes and sacked Milroe once in a game that saw the Tide rely more heavily on the pass game while the Tigers were pounding out 244 yards on the ground.
Milroe finished 16-of-24 passing for 259 yards and two touchdowns, along with a team-high 107 yards rushing on 18 carries.
Jermaine Burton had 107 yards receiving on four catches, including a 68-yard TD catch that accounted for one of the four lead changes in the game.
Tide coach Nick Saban allowed himself a chuckle after the game, noting “there’s been some weird stuff happened here, and this is the first time I can remember it going in our favor.”
The light moment didn’t last long, as Saban quickly refocused on the challenge ahead for Alabama.
“I’ve always had a theory, when you don’t play well, and you win, that might not be a good thing,” Saban said. “We have to look at our resolve a little bit. We didn’t play very well on defense tonight.
“We got a great start; we got too many penalties. It’s a great win for our team, it’s a great win for our state, it’s a great win for our fans, but for next week we’ve got to do better.”
Freeze, reminded that there were a slew of elite recruits in the stands, allowed himself some consolation before his press conference was finished.
“It stinks to not get the win tonight. We didn’t play good enough in the critical moments,” Freeze acknowledged, before being asked about the close losses to Alabama and Georgia (27-20).
“We can close the gap pretty fast in the upper echelon of this conference … If you isolate it to those two games, you feel like you’ve done some good things.”
Thorne finished only 5-of-16 passing for 91 yards and a touchdown, his 27-yard scoring pass to Ja’Varrius Johnson giving the Tigers a 21-20 lead with 6:36 left in the third quarter.
Thorne also rushed for 57 yards on 15 carries, with sacks accounting for four of those attempts for losses of 28 yards.
Alabama held a 17-14 lead at halftime on the strength of a 68-yard TD pass from Milroe to Burton with 1:33 left in the second quarter.
“We had two touchdowns called back with penalties,” said Saban, who watched his team squander 10 points in the first half. “Lost the momentum of the game.”
Indeed, a 40-yard Kendrick Law run would have given Alabama a 14-0 first-quarter lead if not for a holding call.
Bama missed a chance to go up 14-7 in the second quarter, kicking a field goal instead, when Milroe crossed the line of scrimmage on a would-be TD pass.
The Tide’s errors enabled Auburn to keep things close via an explosive run game.
Thorne was only 2-of-10 passing for 20 yards and an interception in the first half, but the Tigers nearly double Alabama’s rushing output through the first 30 minutes, 181-96.
Jarquez Hunter broke a 42-yard run to spark the Tigers’ first touchdown drive that ended with a Damari Alston 4-yard TD, and then it was a 56-yard Alston run keying a scoring drive that gave Auburn a short-lived lead at 14-10 on Ja’Varrius Johnson’s 12-yard sweep with 2:24 left in the half.
Milroe’s scoring strike to Burton came two plays and less than one minute later, foreshadowing a back-and-forth affair that would end in an explosive – and memorable – manner.