AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn lost more than simply a game Saturday.
Falling to massive underdog Texas A&M 41-38, No. 3 Auburn had its 14-game home winning streak — the longest active streak in the nation — snapped. It was the first defeat at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Gus Malzahn's two-year coaching tenure. It also doubled as the Tigers' first loss to an SEC opponent at home under Malzahn's guidance.
But the biggest opportunity Auburn (7-2, 4-2 SEC) lost Saturday was the ability to control its own destiny. No longer can the Tigers merely win out and expect their name to be among the four teams in the first College Football Playoff bracket.
For a team that has made winning close games second nature the past two seasons, Malzahn admitted this time around, the Tigers made one play too few.
"We've got a lot of disappointed players in that locker room. I just told them that we're going to stick together," he said in his postgame press conference. "We're not going to blame it on any one person. We fought hard. We just didn't get it done at the end."
And it was a three-point loss that could have easily gone the other way. But Auburn fumbled those chances away — literally.
Trailing 41-38 with just under three minutes to play, Auburn had second-and-goal at the 2-yard line. But Auburn's potent senior duo in the backfield — quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Cameron Artis-Payne — had a mishandled exchange, which was recovered by Texas A&M defensive end Julien Obioha. The play was reviewed, and appeared to show Artis-Payne jumping on it. The review upheld the original call, however, giving the Aggies (7-3, 3-3) the ball.
Artis-Payne called the error a "mess up" on both he and Marshall's part.
"We're reading it. He's got his hands on the ball. I've got my hands on the ball," Artis-Payne said. "If he wants to pull it, he pulls it. If he wants to give it, he gives it. We were both touching the ball."
The senior running back, who went over 1,000 rushing yards for the season in the loss, was also surprised the fumble wasn't overturned, since he was certain he recovered it.
"When the ref pulled everybody out of the pile, me and that one guy from Texas A&M (Obioha) were holding the ball, and if you look at the replay, you'll see that I jumped on it first," he said. "So I figured it would go our way. But that's what happens when you leave the game in the hands of the refs. We should have executed better and shouldn't have had that problem in the first place."
Even after that fumble, the Tigers had two more chances to change the final result. The first came after the fumble. With Texas A&M in the shadow of its own end zone and facing third-and-8 at its 5-yard line, the Aggies gave the ball to running back Trey Williams. The Tigers dropped him for a loss, with Williams barely making it out of the end zone.
The play was reviewed to make sure it wasn't a safety; it wasn't, but even so, the Aggies had to punt, giving the Tigers one last shot to pull off a last-second victory, or, at worst, force overtime.
Starting at Texas A&M's 42, Auburn quickly picked up 14 yards, with eight coming on a reverse to receiver Ricardo Louis and the second on a 6-yard pass to Sammie Coates.
But just 28 yards away from the go-ahead score, Auburn's offense had more miscommunication. Senior center Reese Dismukes, a four-year starter, snapped the ball while Marshall looked to the sideline to audible into another play. The ball fell to the ground and Texas A&M nose guard Alonzo Williams jumped on it to seal the Aggies' upset bid and deal a major blow to the Tigers' playoff hopes.
When asked what happened, Dismukes asserted full responsibility for the mistake.
"I told Nick it wasn't his fault," he said. "It was as much mine as it was his."
Ever a good teammate, the senior signal-caller refused to throw Dismukes under the proverbial bus.
"Reese probably heard someone in the stands or something," Marshall said. "He just snapped the ball. Unfortunately it happened to us. We just have to live with it."
Of course, it wasn't the Tigers' offense that allowed the Aggies to score 41 points. Or that gave up 453 yards of total offense. Or that made true freshman quarterback Kyle Allen look like a seasoned veteran instead of a player making his second career start (and first on the road), as he finished with 277 yards and four touchdowns while completing 65.6 percent (19-for-29) of his attempts.
Allen's performance was even more impressive in light of how he played last week. In his first career start, he only threw for 106 yards and one touchdown and failed to complete even 50 percent of his passes.
He surpassed all of those numbers two minutes into Saturday's contest after throwing for 111 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
"I credit their coaches. They didn't put him in any bad situations," said Jonathan Jones, a junior cornerback. "They were simple throws. I think he threw it down the field maybe twice. So they were simple throws."
Simple or not, it added up to a defeat for Auburn. And it was only the second time the Tigers have lost under Malzahn in a game decided by eight points or less, with the other coming in last year's 34-31 defeat to Florida State in the BCS championship game.
After coming out on top so often in nail-biting contests, Louis acknowledged he was shocked Auburn didn't pull it out again Saturday
"That's the theory we have as a team: We know and they know and everybody else knows that when the game is close and down to the wire, we're going to win the game," he said. "We know we just had too many mistakes and that caused us to lose the game."
Jones took a more nuanced approach.
"It happens. I was telling myself, 'It can't end like this,'" he said. "But it did. You take the good and the bad. We've had great plays go our way. And sometimes the ball isn't going to fall our way."