Nick Saban and the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide fell 34-28 to No. 4 Auburn in a heartbreaking loss.
Top-ranked Alabama’s hopes of competing for a third consecutive BCS national title were crushed in the unlikeliest of manners and at the hands of its most hated rival.
In a game that featured several game-changing plays, it was the Tide’s special teams unit that failed them repeatedly and ultimately cost them dearly on the game’s final play.
Despite a strong day statistically from the offense, it was the Tide’s inability to capitalize on two fourth-quarter possessions deep in Auburn territory that will haunt Tide fans until these teams meet again next season.
What are the main takeaways from the Tide’s 34-28 loss to the Tigers?
Nick Marshall’s 45-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was probably one of the few times you will ever see a quarterback run away from the Tide’s lightening-quick defense.
The Tigers’ junior signal-caller finished with 99 yards on the ground, and more importantly, it was his legs that opened up the middle of the field for Tre Mason to top the 100-yard barrier against Saban’s defense, which is another rarity in and of itself.
His game-tying 39-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates with less than a minute to play was also set up after he broke the pocket and flicked a pass over the head of Alabama corner Cyrus Jones inches before crossing the line of scrimmage.
While Marshall’s stat line won’t wow anyone, it was his poise on the Tigers’ final drive that helped them earn an improbable victory over the Tide.
It’s been a quiet sophomore season for preseason All-American candidate Amari Cooper.
Injuries have limited the Tide’s star receiver to just 30 receptions entering the Iron Bowl.
However, it was Cooper’s 99-yard touchdown reception that put the Tide in a position to earn their third straight win over their in-state rival.
Cooper finished with six catchers for a 178 yards and a touchdown. He also set up the Tide’s final score of the first half with a 28-yard run on a reverse that set up a short T.J. Yeldon touchdown run.
Alabama’s offense enjoyed one of its better statistical days this season against Auburn, racking up nearly 500 yards of total offense against the Tigers.
However, Ellis Johnson’s unit surrendered only one touchdown—a 99-yard strike from AJ McCarron to Cooper—in the second half despite the Tide running 24 plays in Tigers territory in the final two periods.
Despite not forcing a turnover, the Tigers were able to limit Alabama to four third-down conversions on 13 attempts and earn another stop on a critical fourth down late in the fourth quarter.
Despite a strong season to date, Alabama’s issues finding a reliable place-kicker reared it’s head at the worst possible time with the Tide on the doorstep of competing for a third consecutive national title.
Cade Foster, who missed three of his four attempts in the regular-season defeat against LSU two years ago, missed all three of his attempts against the Tigers.
His first miss, in which his stance appeared to be off-balance before the snap, was a 44-yard attempt that went wide left and spoiled a strong opening drive on the Tide’s first possession.
His 33-yard attempt early in the fourth quarter was hooked to the left, and his final kick, a 44-yarder with just under five minutes remaining, was blocked.
While Alabama had plenty of chances to win the game, and there were other breakdowns on both offense and defense, the Tide’s inability to kick field goals hindered their opportunities to put the pesky Tigers away.
Many observers wondered whether Auburn’s dynamic offense, one that leans primarily on production from its potent ground attack, could succeed against an Alabama defense that has been the benchmark of rush defenses under Nick Saban.
Consider the first battle between Malzahn and Saban a win for the Tigers’ rookie head coach.
Auburn rushed for 296 yards and averaged nearly six yards per carry on 52 attempts.
Despite limited production through the air, Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall was able to finally connect on a big touchdown strike late in the game when his team needed it the most.
While Malzahn won Round 1, it will be interesting to see how Saban adjusts his defense when these two teams meet in Tuscaloosa next season.
In the final regular-season game of what has been a storied career, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron got off to a slow start in netting just 20 yards and completing just three of his first six passes in the first quarter.
However, the Tide’s senior leader responded to adversity as he’s done time and time again throughout his career. He piloted the offense to a 21-point second quarter and put his team in position to be in control of the game at halftime.
Despite his second-half heroics on consecutive drives that started on Alabama’s own 1-yard line, his efforts ultimately fell short of leading his team to another thrilling victory.
McCarron finished 17-of-29 for 277 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
Despite rolling up 495 yards of total offense, Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will likely cringe when he reviews tape of the final quarter of the loss to Auburn.
Of the 19 plays that Alabama ran in the fourth quarter, 15 came in Tigers territory, but none of those plays resulted in points. Two of those drives began on Auburn’s end of the field, with one ending in a blocked field goal and the other on downs as T.J. Yeldon was stuffed on a fourth-down attempt.
In an ironic twist, the only score that the Tide were able to generate came with the offense’s worst starting field position. AJ McCarron hit Amari Cooper for a 99-yard play-action touchdown strike that helped give the Tide a 28-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Tide had plenty of chances to shut the door on the Tigers, but they were unable to deliver a knockout blow.
For a team that prides itself on discipline and mental toughness, the Tide made a litany of mental mistakes that are atypical of a Nick Saban-coached outfit.
Whether it was several coverage busts in the secondary, bad shotgun snaps or a costly false start penalty that wiped away a successful field-goal attempt, it was the Tide that made the costly errors late in the game.
While the Tide were able to recover from a shaky first quarter to get control of the game, those mistakes came back to bite them in the end.
After it’s miraculous win over Georgia two weeks ago, one would think that Malzahn’s club had used its allotted strokes of good fortune.
Nick Marshall’s 39-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates knotted the score at 28 with less than a minute to play.
With Alabama given one more chance to avoid overtime and try for a game-winning field-goal attempt, Nick Saban turned to redshirt freshman kicker Adam Griffith in favor of senior Cade Foster, who had missed three earlier kicks.
Tigers corner Chris Davis caught Griffith’s short attempt deep in the end zone and raced 109 yards with no time left on the clock to shock the top-ranked Tide.
In a rivalry filled with dramatic moments on and off the field, Davis and the Tigers just added another defining moment to a battle that lingers for 365 days a year for fans on both sides.
There’s always something on the line when Alabama and Auburn meet.
However, in a scenario such as Saturday’s meeting when conference and potential national championship implications were on the line, there’s no rivalry that can match the intensity, passion and imagination of viewers and fans quite like the Iron Bowl.
With an upset win over Alabama, Gus Malzahn’s remarkable turnaround season on the Plains was given an exclamation point that boosts the Tigers into the national championship hunt, while simultaneously giving this in-state rivalry a much-needed jolt.
The epic finish adds another log to the fire in a rivalry between two teams that have combined to win the last four crystal footballs.
Regardless of how this season ends for both clubs, next season’s meeting is sure to add another layer to a feud that is once again a must-see event for college football fans across the country.