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Friday Flashback: Roy Upchurch and “The Play” that Capped “The Drive”

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Roy Upchurch was largely an unsung hero of Nick Saban’s inaugural championship run at Alabama…but for that one night, on the Plains in Auburn, he was a hero.

Alabama v Auburn
Upchurch finally gets his due...
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It’s been said that Helen of Troy, the legendary catalyst of the Trojan War of classical history, was so beautiful that she possessed “the face that launched a thousand ships.”

In that context, think of Roy Upchurch’s drive-capping touchdown catch against Auburn in the 2009 Iron Bowl as “the catch that launched a dynasty.”

Upchurch’s winning TD catch in the right flat is considered by some the most important play, in the most important drive, in the most important game of Alabama’s current run of greatness. Sure, there have been championship moments galore in the Tide’s last decade of excellence. But without that catch, on that drive, in that game…well, Alabama’s dynasty would have been diminished and deferred, at best.

Before Alabama was the seemingly-unstoppable bully of the college football landscape, before the completion of Nick Saban’s football Death Star in Tuscaloosa, before Alabama became the mightiest dynasty that modern college sports has known…there was “The Drive.” And an unassuming, uncelebrated converted fullback was the hero of the night.

Remember that scene?

Undefeated Alabama, ranked second in the nation and facing a retribution-rematch cage fight with reigning SEC Champion Florida in the upcoming SEC Championship Game, seemingly had little to fear in its final game of the regular season. Though the Tide would be facing its always-stubborn in-state rival - its “Little Brother,” if you will - the lowly Tigers had only seven wins in the 2009 season. They had dropped four games to conference foes, and all but the most devout (read: delusional) of Plainsmen forecasted a final nail in the coffin of the Tigers’ hapless ’09 campaign.

Alabama was supposed to march – nay, roll – over the inferior Auburn team despite the game being played in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The buzz was already beginning as the Tide, which had rambled through the tempering fires of SEC league play (including a miraculous near-death experience against a Lane Kiffin-coached Tennessee earlier in the year), faced a rematch against Florida for all of the SEC marbles after falling just short of an undefeated SEC Championship season at the hands of the Gators in 2008.

But Auburn had other notions that conflicted with the preconceived order of things. The Tide took the field as the picture of lethargy and inefficiency. Conversely, since ruthlessly dispatching LSU in the second half of their annual contest in early November, the crimson tsunami had only built momentum. But that momentum withered that night on the Plains. Alabama previously looked unstoppable…until they climbed into the cage with Auburn for the ’09 incarnation of their storied rivalry.

Auburn struck first, scoring against Alabama vaunted defense a mere three plays into the game on a 67-yard end around to wide receiver Terrell Zachary. First-year Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn knew that his team was outclassed in talent and depth, and he elected to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at the Tide defense. Immediately after the touchdown, Auburn executed an on-side kick, and a few plays later converted QB-cum-WR Kodi Burns threw for another score that put Bama down 14-0 in the first quarter.

Alabama had seen this drama before, however. They had fought Tennessee tooth-and-nail, in a game in which the Tide appeared snake-bit, weathered multiple storms and near-misses, to emerge victorious when it appeared all hope was lost. Earlier, in October, Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy faltered against South Carolina and the Tide offense stagnated…but Mark Ingram shouldered the load, churning the Tide offense to a 20-6 victory and accounting for 246 yards single-handedly. Alabama was a team that knew how to win, and while they were talented to be sure, it was their resiliency and calmness that set them above the fray.

Their work cut out by Auburn’s explosiveness, Alabama began to fight back in the second quarter. Ingram, the Tide’s stalwart back, was dinged up, clearing the way for true freshman Trent Richardson to take the lion’s share of the carries in Bama’s run-heavy attack. Richardson made his carries count in the second quarter with a spectacular touchdown run, and McElroy hit tight end Colin Peek with a strike to knot the game at 14-all going into the half.

Alabama had made the proper adjustments, and it showed. But the scrappy Auburn squad likewise adjusted, and the sledding once again became tough for the Tide in the third. Four minutes into the second half, Auburn scored another touchdown, and Alabama ceded any positive momentum they had gained prior to the break. With the clock ticking on the Tide’s championship hopes, Auburn’s defense answered the call and stuffed Alabama’s offense through the remainder of the third quarter and into the fourth. Alabama uncharacteristically struggled to assert its will in the running game, though the Tide moved the ball well enough to put kicker Leigh Tiffin in range for two field goal attempts, which he converted to run the score to 21-20.

This set the stage for the sequence of events that became known only as “The Drive” in Alabama football lore. A younger, greener roster may have withered in the heat of the national spotlight. But Alabama’s senior-laden, battle-born squad knew what it had to do, and they set about executing the game plan with precision and mettle.

The Tide got the ball back with eight minutes to play in the game. The Drive began from the Bama 21-yard line with a Richardson run for seven. McElroy’s second down pass was deflected incomplete, but on third down, he connected with Jones on a shallow drag route that gained nine yards.

With a first and 10 from the Bama 37, McElroy took a sack when Auburn end Antonio Coleman sneaked free into the back field for a loss of five yards. Offensive coordinator Jim McIlwain dialed up his trademark long-yardage tactic on second and 15, with McElroy dumping a screen pass to Ingram to the right. The play rumbled ahead for 10 yards to the Alabama 42. On third and five, Jones ran to the sticks, where McElroy connected to give the Tide a first at the Bama 47.

On the ensuing first down, Richardson chugged forward for a short gain, setting up a second and eight from just inside Alabama territory. Once again, McElroy looked for Jones, who had slipped open in traffic and snagged a 10-yard reception to move the Alabama offense into the Auburn end of the field.

Facing a first and 10 from the Auburn 39, McElroy pitched to Richardson, who scampered left for four yards before being run out of bounds. Second down resulted in another first down when Jones made another grab for seven yards. Alabama had penetrated Tiffin’s field goal range, but the Tide pondered the long-game, deciding to keep the clock running to limit options for an explosive Auburn offense.

Still angling for a field goal try, Ingram took a handoff between the hashes for a mere yard. But on second down, McIlwain once again called for the safe screen to Richardson, and the freshman took advantage of great blocking and tired defenders on a 17-yard rumble to the Auburn 10.

Alabama had victory in its sight, as Tiffin was considered automatic from short yardage. However, much can go wrong on a kick: the snap must be true, the hold must be adequate, the toe must strike the ball in the sweet spot, all in a matter of a split-second.

Therefore, the Tide, in an unrelenting fashion that became the trademark of the ’09 squad, continued to pound forward. Richardson between the tackles on first and 10, then up the middle again for four on second down. Tension built as Alabama took the field on third and four, as nothing was for certain with the Tide knocking on the door of the end zone.

In their remembrances of The Drive afterwards, players and coaches recounted Upchurch’s insistence throughout the game that he wasn’t receiving any attention from Auburn defenders. With the defense focused on weapons the likes of Ingram, Richardson, and Jones, Upchurch was a mere afterthought for the Tiger defense, which was already outgunned. Despite that fact, the running-back-turned-halfback had only been targeted for a single pass on the day, as Alabama instead decided to put the ball in the hands of more recognized playmakers.

Upchurch, a senior, had experienced a tough climb to moderate playing time on the Tide’s first championship team of the Saban era. A star running back out of Tallahassee’s Godby High School, Upchurch was seen as a sure thing at the college level during his recruitment. He was big, he was fast, and he knew what to do instinctively when the ball was in his hands. Alabama, which prided itself on its running game, was a perfect fit for the young back. He redshirted his first year, then suffered a limiting injury as a sophomore. The 2008 season saw a healthy Upchurch on the field, but his rise also corresponded to the rise of first-string tailback (and future 48’ers draft pick) Glen Coffee in Alabama’s run-heavy attack. Upchurch saw the field, but was always a second fiddle.

In his senior season, many figured that it would be Upchurch’s job to lose, given his seniority and skill. With Coffee gone for the NFL, Upchurch had appeared the heir apparent to the Tide’s coveted lead tailback role. However, he suffered the indignity of being passed on the depth chart by two younger rising stars, and his moment in the sun as the Tide’s lead back never arrived. He was eclipsed by future Heisman Trophy winner Ingram, and even freshman phenom Richardson had passed him on the RB rotation by season’s end.

Always a team player, the elder statesman of the Tide backfield shifted positions at the request of the coaching staff, moving from the star-nursery of the Tide running back position to the black dwarf of the Bama backfield, the fullback role. Rather than see his star collapse entirely, Upchurch embraced the new role and the increased playing time, even if, as fullback, he was more of a blocker and passing game safety valve than big-game ball-carrier. He happily offered his underappreciated effort to the team, for as his coach Saban preaches, it’s never about the individual, but rather the goals of the team. For his willingness to defer personal glory on behalf of his football family, the veteran back found himself on the cusp of Bama legend on that November day in east Alabama.

Upchurch’s insistence that he had been uncovered most of the day didn’t fall upon deaf ears. His teammates heard his calls for the ball, and so, too, did the coaching staff. Facing a third down from the Auburn four, in search of a touchdown that would catapult the Tide into the SEC Championship Game and a chance at a National Championship, McIlwain and Saban put their faith in the quiet fullback who had never asked for greatness in return for his contributions to the Tide’s team goals.

With a mere minute-and-a-half left to play, the Tide lined up in a heavy run look, one which utilized Terrance “Mount Cody” Cody as a lead blocker to the play side (left, in this case, as a decoy that opened the back door), with McElroy under center and Upchurch and Richardson behind him in the I. At the snap, McElroy dropped into the pocket and extended his hand towards Richardson on a lackadaisically sold fake as Richardson crashed towards the line. The defender with responsibility for Upchurch offered flagging resistance for a second, then crashed the line after incorrectly reading a Richardson run.

Just as Upchurch had forecast, he was barely chipped at the line as he flexed out into the right flat, nothing but empty space between him and the end zone. After the initial defender abandoned him, no other Tiger picked up the Bama fullback, with nothing but grass between Upchurch and the end zone. McElroy recognized the pay developing and sharply delivered the ball to Upchurch’s boundary shoulder, where the sure-handed back reeled in the ball and stepped into the Promised Land, unmolested, before extending the ball to the crowd in triumph, his teammates swarming around him like yellow jackets on sugar water.

The Tide had secured victory, marking Bama’s first undefeated regular season since 1992 and a berth in the SEC Championship Game. In that instant, Alabama fired a shot heard ‘round the college football world, a galvanizing moment that has proven to be the start of a dynamic that has changed the game over the last seven seasons. The Tide planted its flag on that day, and it has not ceded that territory in any consequence since that fateful day.

Upchurch, an afterthought, a mere fullback in a stable of Heisman candidate running backs, cemented his place in Alabama football history on that evening in Auburn. All of his sacrifice and work as a collegiate athlete bore the fruit that fed Alabama’s championship dreams, and without that play and that catch, the Tide may not have gone on to drub Texas en route to its first National Championship in nearly two decades.

Though Upchurch’s football career dimmed after graduation (he made a run at an NFL roster by attending Ravens camp), there’s no diminishing his one shining moment in Alabama lore.

(Though most of us have probably committed every play of “The Drive” to memory, click here if you want to live it all over again in all of its Technicolor glory. Enjoy!)