AUBURN — Nick Saban described the play after the game as "pretty unfair."
His Alabama Crimson Tide had already missed what would have been the tying field goal, but the game wasn't over. The visitors still had two timeouts remaining, and they stopped Auburn on third-and-7, setting up fourth-and-4 with 1:06 remaining.
But Auburn didn't punt the ball away. A penalty gave the home team a first down. The Tigers then tool a knee to cap a 48-45 victory in the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium Satruday.
"It worked out pretty good," head coach Gus Malzahn said.
So how did it happen?
Well it starts with Jaylen Waddle, Alabama's dynamic return man. Auburn tried to make every effort it could to keep him from making plays on special teams on Saturday — short kickoffs, pooch punts, you name it — and it still couldn't stop him from returning a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.
But on this particular fourth-and-4, Malzahn ran out his offense with punter Arryn Siposs lined up at wide receiver. He wasn't going to go for it, of course — the ball was on Auburn's 26, which would have already been field goal range for Alabama.
No, the plan, he said, was to try to keep Waddle off the field and the defense on it. So, when Auburn motioned Siposs into the backfield, Alabama's regular return man would not be back there to make a play on the punt.
"That’s what caused all the confusion," Malzahn said, who added that Auburn had been working on that all season.
Alabama had its punt return unit on the field, but when it saw quarterback Bo Nix and the offense out there. It was allowed time to run the defense back on. But it forgot about the punt returner standing 40 yards behind the play.
"It was something that we had planned up to get the ball out of 17's (Waddle's) hands," Auburn wide receiver Sal Cannella said. "But they messed up on their end. We were all cool on our end."
Officials flagged the Crimson Tide for a substitution infraction, as they had 12 men on the field. Those five yards were enough to move the chains. Alabama never got another chance with the ball.
"I really feel it was a pretty unfair play at the end of the game," Saban said. "They substituted the punter as a wide receiver so we put the punt team in, and when the quarterback was still in there we tried to put the defense back in, I thought they should’ve given us a little more time to substitute and get Waddle out as a returner (but) we get called for 12 guys on the field. That was very disappointing.
"It was a very unusual circumstance to say the least."