Auburn Tigers tight end C.J. Uzomah (81) runs the ball ahead of Georgia safety Tray Matthews (28) during their game Nov. 16 in Auburn, Ala. (Photo: Shanna Lockwood/USA Today Sports)
AUBURN, Ala. — Unbelievable.
That word played on repeat Saturday night from C.J. Uzomah as he faced a barrage of media questions in the Auburn football interview room underneath Jordan-Hare Stadium. The North Gwinnett grad found it to be the most apt description of what just happened, the Tigers’ improbable 34-28 victory on the game’s final play, Chris Davis’ 109-yard missed field goal return that stunned top-ranked Alabama.
Uzomah wasn’t on the field for the game-deciding play, but he and his teammates — including Norcross grad Ben Bradley and Parkview grad Kenny Flowers — raced the length of the field to smother Davis in a dogpile. They were joined soon by Auburn fans in a massive celebration of what is widely considered one of the most exciting finishes in the Iron Bowl’s storied history.
“One second left, what a way to end the game. What a way to end the game,” Uzomah said. “Honestly, I thought the (Alabama) kick was good at first. I couldn’t really tell the depth or distance. I didn’t know Chris was back there, either. I hear everyone start cheering and I look and I see him turn the corner, and everyone started running down the sideline, rushing the field.
“I was making sure there was no flag or anything and my heart just went crazy. This is the most unbelievable thing in the world.”
Disbelief reigned in the Tigers’ previous game, too.
After giving up a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter against rival Georgia, Auburn responded with a stunning 73-yard touchdown pass from Nick Marshall to Ricardo Louis for the game-winner in a 43-38 victory. Louis corralled a deflection from UGA defenders on the fourth-and-18 play, scoring with 36 seconds left.
“This whole season has been surreal,” Uzomah said. “Two weeks ago, that play (vs. UGA) was unbelievable. I didn’t think that anything would pass that. I didn’t think that I would have another game in my life, sitting on the edge of my seat or playing the game, that would match that. And two weeks later, we have the most unbelievable game and the most unbelievable play in Iron Bowl history.”
The victory was sweeter for Auburn players like Uzomah, who were around for the lowest of lows last season. In the last season under Gene Chizik, the Tigers went winless in the SEC and were routed by its two rivals, Georgia and Alabama, by a combined 87-0.
New head coach Gus Malzahn has turned the fortune around quickly, though. Auburn has an 11-1 record and is in the BCS Championship Game conversation after knocking off Nick Saban’s two-time defending BCS champions.
Before that scenario can play out, Auburn has a matchup Saturday in the Georgia Dome with Missouri. The SEC title game is a special one for all the Tigers, but particularly for Georgia natives like Uzomah, Bradley, a key member of the defensive line rotation, and Flowers, a special teams player and reserve linebacker. Both Bradley and Flowers are junior college transfers in their first seasons with Auburn.
“It means everything (to the Georgia guys) to play in the Dome,” Uzomah said. “I was making my way through the crowd (during Saturday’s celebration) and (Carrollton’s) J. (Jonathan) Jones was the first person I saw. He jumps on me and says, ‘We’re going back home.’ That’s when it kind of hit me that we just made the SEC Championship Game.”
The 6-foot-4, 258-pound junior has played a vital role in Auburn’s rebound season with both his blocking and pass-catching.
He has 146 yards on just nine catches, though three have gone for TDs. He caught a game-winning, 11-yard TD pass early in the season with 10 seconds left against Mississippi State and caught a 25-yard scoring strike in a victory at Tennessee.
Uzomah made an impact in Auburn’s remarkable Iron Bowl, too. He caught one pass for a first down, absorbing a big hit on the play before hanging on, and later snagged a 13-yard TD between two Alabama defenders, one of which was called for pass interference for grabbing his jersey. That score tied the game at 21 in the third quarter.
“It’s unbelievable to be a part of this team in general, to be a part of this turnaround,” Uzomah said. “And to be a part of this rich tradition of playing Alabama is great. Auburn-Alabama is all you hear when you get here. And to be a part of the biggest game in Iron Bowl history is just surreal.”
Uzomah’s activity in the passing game is a direct product of Auburn’s offense, which runs the ball roughly 60 percent of the time. The Tigers rank fifth nationally in rushing offense (318.3 per game) and 105th in passing offense (172.8).
The formula hasn’t boosted Uzomah’s receiving stats, but it’s certainly resulted in victories. His blocking is a major part of the offense, too, a role that increased when teammate Jaylon Denson suffered a season-ending injury in September.
“Our run game is the best in the nation in my opinion,” Uzomah said.
Third-ranked Auburn would love an opportunity to prove it’s the best team in the nation, but first it must defeat No. 5 Missouri on Saturday. If that happens, the Tigers’ must hope for a conference title game loss by No. 1 Florida State or No. 2 Ohio State for a clear path to the BCS Championship Game.
If that doesn’t happen, their hopes are pinned on jumping unbeaten Ohio State and its less impressive resumé in the final BCS standings.
“In my personal opinion, I’m going to say yes (we belong in the BCS title game with a win over Missouri),” Uzomah said. “I’m a part of this team, so I think that we deserve it. But that’s not up to me to decide. We’ll just let the pieces fall where they will.”
What: SEC Championship Game, Auburn vs. Missouri
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: Georgia Dome
Local interest: Auburn has three Gwinnett grads on its roster — tight end C.J. Uzomah of North Gwinnett, defensive tackle Ben Bradley of Norcross and linebacker Kenny Flowers of Parkview