The story of Gravedigger, the miracle play that saved the Tide

AUBURN, Ala. — “Whoa nellie! Whoa nellie!”

Alabama analyst Dean Altobelli shouted so loud in celebration that his words could be heard through the metal door and cinder block walls that separated the visitors locker room from the awaiting media next door.

A few moments later, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban walked in as his wife, Terry, clapped from her seat in the back row and yelped, “Yay!”

Saban then sat down and tried to explain a win that few could have seen coming.

“So, do I really need to say anything?” Saban asked facetiously.

Yes and no. Because what can you say after what happened here, on the road, against an archrival in a series that has had more than its fair share of miraculous finishes? The Tide looked to be toast, down 24-20 with under a minute left to play, facing an impossible fourth-and-goal from Auburn‘s 31-yard line to save their season and keep their playoff hopes alive.

Then Jalen Milroe took the snap, danced around the pocket and surveyed the field. He waited … and waited … and waited some more, as the Tigers only rushed two defenders.

“I guess if you’re in this long enough,” Saban said, “sometimes it goes against you in the last play of the game, and sometimes you’re fortunate and it goes for you.”

Ten years ago, inside this same cramped makeshift media room, Saban walked through how a would-be game-winning field goal with one second left turned into a 100-plus-yard return and a walk-off win for Auburn. All this time later, he rattled off the mistakes that led to one of the most heartbreaking losses of his career: a blocked kick, a dead ball foul, getting the ball five times inside the opponent’s 25-yard line in the third and fourth quarters and not scoring a single point.

Call what Milroe and Alabama did luck — and Saban did, in part — but like the Kick-Six, there’s more to what happened here on Saturday night.

“I got to admit we had good fortune,” Saban said, “but it still comes down to ability to execute. Somebody had an opportunity to make a play, whether it was their punt returner or [Isaiah Bond] in the end zone and whoever was guarding him.

“So that’s why you play the game.”

Here’s how the play that led to Alabama’s unlikely 27-24 triumph came together:

Alabama cornerback Terrion Arnold: I feel like that went all the way back to the summer. Coach Saban, before we started fall camp, he replayed the play [last season] where Tennessee scored on the kick and the play when LSU scored on the last play. So that was just going through our mind and being cognizant and just focusing and keying in on what we had to do. Honestly, we never lost faith. We prepared for moments like this.

Saban: Believe it or not, we actually practice that play every Friday when we do walk-through and we do special situations. We get in that formation [five receivers and no backs], and everybody runs down the field and runs varying routes in the end zone.

Arnold: Oftentimes when we do it in practice, we don’t want to get guys hurt. So, I mean, we don’t ever really try to make a play on the ball. We let him catch it. And that came into fruition.

Alabama defensive back Malachi Moore: It might’ve paid off.

Saban: You tell [Milroe] they’re only going to rush three guys and sometimes two. … He’s going to have plenty of time. He’s got to pick the guy that he thinks has got the best chance to catch it.

Moore: [Bond] has all the confidence in himself to make a play. He thinks he’s the best wide receiver on the field, and that’s how you should be.

Arnold: Milroe steps up in the pocket. Kool-Aid [McKinstry] is sitting right here. We were like, dang, this kind of reminds me of [two years ago].

Moore: I really didn’t want to watch the play at all. I just looked at our fans [for their reaction].

Arnold: Truth be told, before J-Mil threw the ball, I said a prayer. So in my head, I’m thinking we went to church before the games, so God give us a blessing. It’s kind of like games like this, you always know so much wrong is going to happen. They had a couple of dirty plays like hitting our punter and stuff didn’t go our way. The one with Jermaine [Burton] when I believe his foot was in bounds, and I feel like everybody saw that. So something had to go right.

Offensive lineman JC Latham: My guy gave me a bull rush right at me and then shortly after I got knocked off or something, so I was able to kind of just turn and see where [Milroe] was. He was all the way on the left side of the field and at that point I’m pretty much useless in that situation. I can try to run down the play, but I can’t really do too much. And yeah, so I just kind of saw it all on unfold. And, yeah, it was insane.

Milroe: I saw IB one-on-one. I was like, we going to score.

Saban: IB really kind of got himself in position where there was some room to throw it. He pushed inside, and the DB was inside of him — and then he came back out and Jalen threw it back out to him, and it was a great catch, a great throw.

Bond: I kind of set him up. I saw the ball. He was trailing, so I was sort of leaning into him and then faded — and then just made the play, as y’all saw.

Moore: Once I saw our fans cheering, I knew we did something good.

Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne: He caught it right? Please be in bounds.

Terry Saban (jokingly): I thought touchdown when it was in the air. I called that play.

Alabama linebacker Deontae Lawson: I came in with Jalen and always knew he was a poised guy. That’s how you got to be playing the position he plays, and I’m just so happy for him.

Latham: I said it at media day: [Milroe is] one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He has to potentially be the best quarterback in the country, and he’s just overcome all adversity and done what he has to do. So that’s who he is. He got the chance to show it. I never doubted him for a second.

Milroe: It’s all about never giving up. That was the biggest thing throughout the game and with that play, it was just all about trust. … I’ll never forget this game ever in my life.

Bond: I ain’t going to lie, making that play meant a lot. That’s going to be a part of Alabama history.

Saban: I thought [Milroe] played great in the game. And his progress has transformed our team and our offense — because he is a point guard, and because he is involving everybody in the game. That’s the thing I think he had to learn this year. He’s now become extremely effective at the quarterback position.

Auburn coach Hugh Freeze on the decision not to pressure Milroe: You can second-guess it. You’ve just got to play with vision. We’ve got nine guys back there. Just play with vision, make a play on the ball and knock it down. He felt like he was shoved off, but I couldn’t tell. You can pressure him, and then you’ve got one-on-ones, and they throw it up. You can do that if you want. I like the call. I think we just have to sit back there with vision and knock the ball down.

Auburn linebacker Jalen McLeod: D.J. [James] had a hell of a game. With corners, people just look at that one play. I told him, ‘Look D.J., I would take you again. If you throw that ball up one more time, I’d give you another chance. You had three PBUs [pass breakups] this game. I would take that risk again with you.’ He’s an NFL talent. Sometimes you live with stuff like that.

Auburn got the ball back with 26 seconds left, but an interception by Arnold sealed the win.

Arnold: They had the Kick-Six. I wanted the Pick-Six. But it’s all right.

Saban: I can’t tell you how proud I am of the guys and how good I feel about winning the game. But as a coach, you always look at things like, how did you play? Because we’re going to have to play at a higher level on a more consistent basis if we’re going to have success in the future. And that’s what you always evaluate. That’s the reality check that we all have to make.”


As Alabama loaded onto buses to go home to Tuscaloosa, Crimson Tide director of football operations Ellis Ponder puffed on a victory cigar. Next week, the Tide will play Georgia for the SEC championship.

But that was a matter for another day as members of the equipment staff gathered around a reporter who shot a video of the Milroe-to-Bond touchdown.

“Can I send this to myself?” one of the staffers said, taking the phone and texting it to himself.

But what should he call the video?

Saban was asked what the touchdown play was called, but he couldn’t give it up.

“If the play had a name,” he said. “I wouldn’t tell you what it was.”

But Bond later coughed it up.

“Gravedigger,” he said.

Milroe wasn’t sure about that.

“I don’t know what it’s called,” he said. “But I like it.”

This post was originally published on ESPN

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