Poor quarterback play plagued the early portion of the 81st Iron Bowl Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Alabama recovered with a more consistent effort in the second half leaving Auburn in its rear-view mirror on the way to the SEC title game in Atlanta with a 30-12 win.
Auburn only threatened to score once in the second half as Alabama found the end zone on its opening two possessions of the third quarter.
Wide receiver ArDarius Stewart used his electric speed to blow the game open for Alabama with 5:16 left in the third quarter.
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Quarterback Jalen Hurts found Stewart cutting to the sideline on a fourth-and-three. Stewart turned the conversion into a 38-yard touchdown run to make it 27-9.
“It was like two reads in one,” Stewart said. “If the guy is playing press, I had to slant it out; if the guy is playing soft, it was like a regular hitch. He came up, and I saw he was playing outside, so I had to go out a little bit, cut in and get open. Jalen (Hurts) threw a perfect ball, and I just turned it up the sideline, tried to tight rope it, and it worked out.”
Hurts targeted the junior on nearly half (14) of his 36 pass attempts Saturday night. Stewart finished the game with 10 catches for 127 yards with the touchdown.
“It is crazy,” Stewart said of the Iron Bowl. “Growing up watching the games and crying when Alabama loses and not wanting to go to school the next day. It’s just crazy. When I came out, I told myself I refuse to lose playing against them, and it’s been working out so far.”
Auburn’s defense could only do its best impression of the top-ranked Alabama group for so long.
A 2:1 time of possession disparity in Alabama’s favor put the Tigers at a significant disadvantage.
“That was really the story of the day,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
Auburn dusted of the failed offensive game plan they used against Clemson going with a rotation of backup quarterbacks Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III to replace an injured Sean White.
The results weren’t any better the second time around.
Auburn extended its streak without a first down against an SEC opponent — the offense didn’t have a first down in the second half against Georgia — until midway through the second quarter.
Running back Kerryon Johnson broke a 13-yard run late in the half doubling his team’s offensive production at that point.
Auburn went into halftime 0 for 6 on third downs with only a single attempt coming from less than 7-yards to go.
Six of the 20 plays Auburn ran in the first half ended in a loss of yardage killing three drives that started on Alabama’s side of the field. Daniel Carlson hit field goals from 42-, 52- and 39-yards out to keep it a one-possession game.
Each quarterback completed a deep throw in the second half — Franklin hit Eli Stove for a 57-yard gain; Johnson completed a 27-yard pass to Will Hastings — but as a group finished 7 of 16 for 119 yards.
Fullback Chandler Cox also attempted a pass out of the wildcat formation that was intercepted in the fourth quarter.
“We had some opportunities, but we just didn’t execute,” Malzahn said. “I am not going to blame Jeremy or anybody else, because anytime you go 2-of-12 on third down then it becomes a collective group effort. We had a couple good opportunities, but we just didn’t seize the moment. This is not one person’s fault in that regard.”
Injured running back Kamryn Pettway started for Auburn, but was a non-factor. He carried the ball 12 times for 17 yards.
Hurts’ turnovers in the first half overshadowed his production. The freshman quarterback had 200-plus total yards at the half, but threw a pair of interceptions and had a fumble reversed on replay.
Hurts’ interceptions both went to freshman safety Daniel Thomas, who was the only player in the vicinity on the throws.
“The defense was put in some really tough spots in this game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I think there was a point in the game where they had only one or two first downs but had nine points because of turnovers, poor punts and poor punt coverage they had a big return on. So, we had some really challenging field positions in this game and our players responded well to it.
Alabama had to settle field goals on a pair of long first half long drives. The Crimson Tide’s lone touchdown of the half came on a short swing pass from Hurts to Damien Harris with 2:49 to go in the first quarter.
Harris weaved his way down Alabama’s sideline for the 17-yard score. Harris received the bulk of the first half snaps for starting Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough, who is dealing with an injury.