AUBURN, Ala. — With 37 yards and five points to make up in one final second, Auburn’s offense reached back into its bag of tricks, hoping it could find one more big play to pull off the shocker of the season against No. 2 Alabama on Friday.
It came away empty-handed.
Chris Todd’s Hail Mary fell short, knocked harmlessly to the ground by a host of Alabama defenders as the Crimson Tide staved off its latest upset bid with a 26-21 victory before a sellout crowd of 87,451 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“We didn’t play our best football and we need to learn from that,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “But at the same time, I don’t think you can say enough about the competitive character that this team showed today.”
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The Crimson Tide (12-0, 8-0 SEC) capped off its second straight perfect regular season with another Iron Bowl victory, now able to comfortably set its sights on Florida and next week’s SEC title game in Atlanta with a berth in the BCS national championship game on the line.
Things were never comfortable Friday. Alabama didn’t lead until Greg McElroy completed a 4-yard touchdown pass to Roy Upchurch to make it 26-21 with 1:24 to play.
Auburn (7-5, 3-5 SEC) put together a frantic two-minute drill to get one last shot at the end zone, but Tide safety Justin Woodall knocked the Tigers’ desperation pass away short of the goal line, setting off an Alabama celebration.
“We learned to keep our poise early, take deep breaths and be where we were supposed to be,” Tide linebacker Eryk Anders said. “Everything will take care of itself.”
It was a bittersweet ending for the Tigers, a disappointing loss yet a sign of how far the team has come since last year’s 36-0 drubbing in Tuscaloosa.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Auburn coach Gene Chizik, who joined Tommy Tuberville, Pat Dye and Ralph “Shug” Jordan as Auburn head coaches to lose their first Iron Bowl. “Again, we said at the beginning of this that we were going to build a foundation for what we know is right. We are going to do it right, and I don’t think there is any question (we have).”
“Things are just getting started here,” said Tigers running back Ben Tate, who finished with 45 yards against the nation’s No. 2 rushing defense. “Auburn’s going to be a force to reckon with in a couple of years.”
Despite entering as double-digit underdogs, Auburn gave Alabama everything it could handle. The Tigers stunned the Tide early with a series of gadget plays, getting a 67-yard touchdown run by receiver Terrell Zachery on a reverse on the opening drive before recovering an onside kick. After Todd found H-back Eric Smith for a 1-yard scoring pass, it was 14-0 just nine minutes into the game.
The Tigers’ maligned rush defense, which entered the game ranked 88th nationally, did a number of Heisman Trophy hopeful Mark Ingram, who finished with only 30 yards on 16 carries. In fact, Auburn out-rushed Alabama 151-73, the first time in the last 11 Iron Bowls that the winning team did not have more rushing yards.
The Crimson Tide instead leaned on McElroy, who was 21-for-31 for 218 yards with a pair of touchdown passes. After Richardson scored on a 2-yard run in the second quarter, McElroy fired a downfield pass to Colin Peek in the face of a blitz for a 33-yard score to send the game into halftime tied at 14.
Todd, who was 15-for-25 for 181 yards, threw his second touchdown pass of the day, a 72-yarder to Darvin Adams on a double move early in the third quarter to make it 21-14 Auburn.
But the Tide scrapped its way back with a pair of Leigh Tiffin field goals, one set up by a 56-yard Javier Arenas punt return and another by a Mark Barron interception near midfield.
Alabama put it away with a gut-check drive in the fourth quarter that covered 79 yards and ate up seven minutes. McElroy was calm under pressure, completing 7 of 8 passes for 63 yards, hooking up four times with wideout Julio Jones, who finished with nine receptions for 83 yards.
His final completion, a play-action touchdown pass to Upchurch out of the backfield on third-and-3, capped the comeback and sent the crimson and white-clad corner of the stadium into a frenzy.
“That may have been one of the greatest drives I have ever been associated with in a fourth quarter to win the game,” Saban said.
Auburn was simply left shaking its head at what could have been.
“We emptied the tank out there,” Tigers defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “We just have to find a way to make one better play or one better call.”