PASADENA, Calif. — Tre Mason's eyes were red and his emotions were raw.
Walking into Auburn's postgame press conference Monday night, the junior running back didn't cut himself any slack. He apologized on behalf of himself.
He apologized on behalf of the team.
The Tigers were close to capping the best turnaround season in the history of college football with a victory in the biggest game of the season: the BCS championship.
They just weren't close enough.
For the first time this season, Auburn met its match in a tight game, falling to top-ranked Florida State 34-31 in the final year of the BCS era.
Ironically, Auburn (12-2) lost in the same fashion it won so often in 2013 — by summoning a go-ahead score late. In this case, it was Kelvin Benjamin doing the honors. The 6-foot-5, 234-pound redshirt sophomore used his size to his advantage, jumping up and plucking Jameis Winston's 2-yard pass out of the air with 13 seconds remaining for the game's final score.
It came just one drive after Mason made the signature play of his already stunning season. Trailing 27-24, the Tigers gave it to Mason and let him make a play.
And what a play it was.
He rumbled 37 yards to the end zone — breaking multiple tackles and running over another defender — to put Auburn back on top 31-27 with just 1:19 to play. Those made up just 37 of his 195 rushing yards, a performance which upped his total to 1,816 this season, breaking Bo Jackson's single-season (1,786) that had stood for 28 years.
Still, Mason couldn't have been more remorseful afterward.
"I apologize to the Auburn family and the rest of the fans that we didn't finish," he said. "We didn't finish what we started."
When pressed, Mason went into more detail on why he was so contrite.
"Because we told (Auburn fans) we'd have the biggest turnaround in college football, and the biggest turnaround would be winning that crystal ball," he said. "We owed them that because of the season last year. I just want them to know that I gave it all I got, but I still feel like I let them down."
Dee Ford, for one, believed Mason was being too hard on himself. But the senior defensive end wouldn't have expected his teammate to feel any other way.
"We're competitors," he said. "I'm down on myself, (too). ... We wanted this thing so bad and it was so close."
Mason, much as he tried to take the blame, couldn't be faulted for the loss by himself.
The Palm Beach, Fla., native wasn't responsible for the defensive lapses that helped Florida State (14-0) fight back from a 21-3 deficit, the largest overcome to win a national championship since the BCS began in 1998.
He couldn't be blamed for the 100-yard kick return, either.
"Yeah, they cut it back and they hit a seam," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of Kermit Whitfield's end zone to end zone score right after an Auburn field goal. "There was some good execution. Obviously we didn't cover it very well. That was a big play in the game. ... That was uncharacteristic, but at the same time you've got to give them credit."
The fact the Tigers were even in position to lose such a big lead was a surprise given how they started.
Getting the ball to begin the championship contest, it picked up 11 yards on the first play from scrimmage and only three after that, which led to a punt.
Florida State then took over at its own 23-yard line and proceeded to easily move the ball down the field. That is, until it got into the red zone. Looking much like it did in the regular season, the Tigers' defense bowed its neck once the Seminoles got close to the end zone. The Seminoles were able to make it down to the 16-yard line before Winston was dropped for a two-yard sack, forcing them to settle for a 35-yard field goal from Robert Aguayo.
His kick was true and Florida State took a 3-0 lead at the 9:53 mark of the opening period.
On the next two drives, the team's traded punts — but one could say Auburn's was far more important, as Steven Clark was able to pin the Seminoles at their own 2-yard line. Following a three-and-out, Auburn had the game's first touchdown six plays later.
But it took quick thinking by Nick Marshall to make it happen.
The junior quarterback stepped to the line of scrimmage on third-and-nine at Florida State's 12-yard line intending to run another play. He quickly audibled into another one, and then tossed it to Mason. The junior running back did the rest — along with picking up a helpful block from left tackle Greg Robinson — to give Auburn a 7-3 advantage.
The Tigers' offense began to get into a rhythm from there. On the next drive, they found the end zone once more in their characteristically up-tempo fashion. Beginning at its own 15-yard line with 14:49 to go before the half, it took Auburn just three plays to put another score on the board.
It started with a 23-yard run by Mason on first down. On the next play, the Tigers received an assist from the Seminoles — even though Corey Grant lost three yards on the play, Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to move the ball out to midfield.
Marshall made sure not to waste the help from his opponent, as he connected with Melvin Ray on a 50-yard touchdown to push the Tigers' lead to 14-3 with 13:48 left in the first half.
The Tigers had a chance to extend the lead the next time they touched the ball. Parkey's attempt sailed wide right by the smallest of margins, keeping it at 14-3.
But Auburn's defense was there to pick up the slack when Florida State regained possession. As Winston attempted to run for a first down, defensive tackle Angelo Blackson came up behind the Heisman winner and knocked the ball away. Auburn's Anthony Swain was in the right place at the right time, jumping on the ball at the Seminoles' 27-yard line.
Six plays later, the Tigers were in the end zone for the third time, as Marshall kept it himself on a four-yard touchdown run. Following Parkey's PAT, Auburn was up 21-3.
Florida State was able to tack on a touchdown to make it 21-10 heading into the half.