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Alabama Survives Close Call, 21-14 : College football: Crucial first-down measurement favors the Crimson Tide in the waning moments of a victory over Auburn.


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Alabama free safety Willie Gaston held his black-gloved hand up and nearly pinched all the air between his thumb and forefinger. There was just enough room for a piece of paper, a thin slice of ham or, as it turned out Saturday at Legion Field, a tiny portion of chain link.

"I'd say about a centimeter," said Gaston, the first to arrive at the scene of the most crucial first-down measurement of Alabama's 21-14 victory over Auburn.

With no timeouts remaining, the ball on the Alabama 42-yard line, the Tigers faced with fourth and three as 38 seconds remained on the clock, Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix found wide receiver Frank Sanders open across the middle. Nix passed, Sanders caught and strong safety Sam Shade hit.

Shade's 191 pounds met Sanders' 200 and down they went. The officials rushed in, spotted the ball and then summoned the chain crew. No way were they going to make this call by themselves, not with a sellout crowd of 83,091 looking on.

Out came the crew. A first down gives the No. 6-ranked Tigers the ball at the Crimson Tide 39 and 31 seconds to score, convert a two-point conversion and end third-ranked Alabama's undefeated season and hopes for a national championship.

"We really believed," said Nix, "that we were going to do it."

Gaston stood near the ball and complained. "I didn't like the spot the officials made," he said.

Shade was busy trying to ignore the pain in his neck after making the hit against Sanders. But he saw the marker and he watched as the officials stretched the chains.

"I got real nervous then," he said. "I'm thinking, 'Man, we got a bad spot.' "

Nix was so sure of the first down that he motioned the Tiger offense to the line of scrimmage. That's when the official turned toward the Auburn end zone and pointed Alabama's way. End of a desperation drive that began on the Tigers' one-yard line. End of Auburn's 21-game unbeaten streak.

"I guess I didn't see what he saw," Nix said.

Once again, the Crimson Tide had rolled on, but not before its customary Perils-of-Pauline finish. This time Alabama (11-0) nearly blew a 21-point first-half lead and with it, the Crimson Tide's national title run.

If Alabama Coach Gene Stallings were smart--and there were moments Saturday that you wondered--he would hand letter jackets to the two chain gang members who pulled the links taut.

How close was it?

"Close," said Stallings, staring straight ahead.

It was Stallings who decided to go for a first down rather than a field goal on a fourth and one at the Auburn 16 with 12:39 to play and Alabama leading, 21-7. Quarterback Jay Barker got the yard, but four plays later he threw an interception in the end zone.

Barker, always the good soldier, later defended the call. Stallings, though, wasn't so sure, especially after Auburn cut the lead to seven points with 2:23 remaining. He didn't have only one second thought, but "a bunch of them."

Assistant Woody McCorvey was even less enthusiastic.

"I can't comment on the call," he said. "Can't comment on no calls."

Now faced with his own big decision, Auburn Coach Terry Bowden instructed Matt Hawkins to try an onside kick. The ball took one bounce and popped into the arms of Alabama fullback Tarrant Lynch. The Crimson Tide went nowhere, but not before chewing up all three Tiger timeouts and 36 seconds.

Then, punter Bryne Diehl came on and promptly stuck his kick at the Auburn one-yard line. Nine plays later it was over. All thanks to Shade and a defensive scheme called "10 Middle," where the strong safety stays in the middle of the field as the rest of the Alabama players funnel everything inside.

Now, Shade becomes part of Alabama-Auburn lore.

"That play right there, that's big," he said. "I'll never forget that play. I think the fans will never forget it."

With the possible exception of, say, North Korea vs. South Korea, there isn't a more intense rivalry than the one between Alabama and Auburn. The annual game is the single-biggest event in a state where a recent newspaper poll revealed that 69% of the respondents were more interested in football than the elections.

Marriages have ended and families split because of the rivalry. Kids have been ridiculed in school for their football allegiances.

Of course, that's the semi-sane stuff. Alabama fans also have been known to fire shotguns over the heads of Auburn supporters--or so said the guy who wrote to the Atlanta Journal to complain about past treatment.

There's more. Wrote an Alabama fan: "The thing I can't stand about Auburn fans is that they root for Auburn."

There is no more serious topic of conversation in this state than Auburn-Alabama. So intoxicating is its power that years ago, while watching an Auburn-Alabama game at home on the tube, a young Nix actually dived over his mother's sofa to try to block a Crimson Tide field-goal attempt. He missed.

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