Despite its offense being stuck in neutral in the first half, Auburn was very much in the game in the third quarter thanks to big plays by the defense and special teams.
When Onterio McCalebb returned the second half kickoff 83 yards for a touchdown, the Tigers trailed 24-14 and had done a reasonable job keeping the Tide's running game in check giving hope to the fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium. However, with the game there for the taking, the offense was not good enough to get the job done.
Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn noted after the game that his offense wasn't "able to deliver" when the defense and special teams gave the Tigers opportunities to pull off the upset vs. the nation's second-ranked team.
Auburn's offensive bugaboo throughout the season, lack of production on third downs, haunted the Tigers again on Saturday as they converted just three of 15 opportunities.
The Tigers had also been struggling with turnovers in the last month of the season. They had two on Saturday, including a critical one with 14:38 left in the fourth quarter and the Tigers down 27-14. Clint Moseley's ill-advised throw into coverage resulted in a 35-yard touchdown return by Demarcus Milliner. With the No. 1 ranked defense in the country protecting the lead, Auburn was finished.
Malzahn said that he will do a lot of re-evaluation of the offense as the Tigers begin preparations for a still-be-determined bowl game and opponent. "What I am going to do tomorrow is figure out how I can get this stuff fixed," the coordinator and quarterback coach stated.
One of those things he will re-evaluate is the quarterback play after Moseley hit 11-18 passes for just 62 yards and missed some open several receivers in the process.
Kiehl Frazier runs the football on Saturday.
Auburn finished the game with just 140 yards of total offense on 55 plays. The Tigers netted just 78 rushing yards on 35 carries with Michael Dyer leading the way with 13 runs for 48 yards while backup quarterback Kiehl Frazier added 28 yards on eight runs.
Alabama's Trent Richardson ran the ball 27 times for 203 yards. As a team the Tide netted 213 yards on 35 carries. A.J. McCarron came up big for the Tide, hitting 18-23 passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns.
"I thought we did a good job against them in the first half, but in the second half they did a good good job of scheming us and we let a couple of runs break out," said linebacker Daren Bates, who led the Tigers in tackles with six solos and four assists.
Bates said the loss will hurt a while. "We played good in the first half on defense and we had a chance to pull it out, but we just couldn't get it done," he said. "Alabama has a good team. LSU and Alabama are both real good teams. That is why they are rated No. 1 and No. 2."
Coach Gene Chizik, whose Tigers finished the regular season with a 7-5 record and a 4-4 mark in the SEC, said it has been a season full of ups and downs. "This is certainly one of the huge disappointments," he said. "I have a locker room full of guys right now and coaches that are hurting and a lot of fans I know who are hurting as well so this is a tough day. This is a tough day.
"We wanted to keep the game close until the fourth quarter, and have a chance to make a play here and there, and have a chance to win the game," Chizik said. "We got to the fourth quarter and felt like we were somewhere in that ballpark, and the fourth quarter got away from us. We kind of self-destructed…threw, obviously, the interception for a touchdown (when we were) backed up.
"We missed some open passes and in the fourth quarter. We had been playing the run pretty well all day and let a couple of runs get out of there, and the game got away.
"It's my job as the head coach at Auburn to make sure that this program continues on the right path and that will happen here," Chizik added. "That will happen here.
"We will continue to grow as a football team, no question about it. We will continue to move forward, and we are going to figure out what is next for us as a team, but more importantly, we are going to make sure as a program right now moving in the right direction which again, I am very sure that's going to happen. That's the direction that we are going."
Alabama improved its record to 11-1 and will watch the SEC Championship Game matching LSU and Georgia to see where the Tide lands in the BCS bowl mix.
"I would be excited for our team if they had the opportunity to play for the national championship," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who evened his record vs. Auburn at 5-5. "I think they deserve it, and I think they have worked hard. They have all made a tremendous commitment. We didn't do the things that we needed to do in the LSU game to win."
Auburn's defense did a solid job early against the Alabama running attack, but Alabama took control of the game with a pair of long pass plays to take a 14-0 lead.
The first, on a flea flicker, covered 41 yards as McCarron hit Kenny Bell for a 41-yard pass as the receiver got behind the AU secondary. That put the Tide up 7-0 with 6:33 left in the first period.
Following a three-and-out for the Auburn offense after a pass to Emory Blake was incomplete on what looked to be pass interference, a blunder in the kicking game gave the Tide great field position at the Auburn 35 after Steven Clark shanked a punt that traveled just 10 yards before going out of bounds.
On the next play the Tigers were in a bigger hole when tight end Brad Smelley was uncovered on a bootleg pass play putting the visitors up 14-0.
The next points were also set up by a punt, this one an unconventional one. On fourth and three at the Alabama 49, Auburn lined up like it was going for a first down. Instead, Moseley punted the ball, which rolled dead at the 10-yard line.
Corey Lemonier causes a fumble to set up Auburn's first touchdown. On the next play, McCarron took a deep pass drop and was hit by defensive end Corey Lemonier, who knocked the ball loose. Defensive end Nosa Eguae tried to get on the fumble, but couldn't get a handle, however, tackle Kenneth Carter fell on the football in the end zone for a touchdown with four seconds left in the first quarter. Cody Parkey's PAT cut the lead to 14-7.
The second quarter, as it has been much of the season for the Tigers, was a struggle. Alabama scored the only points of the period. Richardson caught a five-yard swing pass for a touchdown with 9:11 to cap a drive that covered 80 yards in 12 plays as the Auburn defense struggled to make stops on third downs.
Alabama made the score 24-7 at halftime, the same as last year's Iron Bowl halftime score, when Jeremy Shelley hit a 30-yard field goal with 2:44 left before intermission.
At halftime the Auburn offense had just one first down and 31 total yards on 18 plays while Alabama had 13 first downs, 57 rushing yards on 19 carries and 164 yards through the air hitting 14-18 passes.
A key halftime statistic was third down production. Alabama converted 6-9 while Auburn was 1-6.
Auburn excited the crowd to start the third quarter as McCalebb raced 83 yards for a touchdown on a short kickoff to cut the Alabama lead to 24-14. The defense limited Alabama to a field goal in the third quarter, but the offense couldn't dent the Tide defense.
The key moment offensively came with Auburn on third and two at the Tide 48. Tre Mason rushed the ball at right end and appeared to make a first down with room to spare, but was ruled out of bounds short of the marker. Chizik said the coaching staff considered challenging the spot, but was concerned about using a timeout. That decision proved unwise.
On fourth down the Tigers lined up with Dyer in the wildcat formation. That fooled nobody and he was cut down before he could get back to the line of scrimmage. Although the Auburn defense forced a three-and-out, the field position was changed by Alabama's fourth down stop. Backed up at their own nine after a punt, Auburn turned the ball over on Moseley's third down pass to put the game out of reach.
Alabama added another score after a 57-yard run by Richardson that set up a 15-yard scoring run by Jalston Fowler with 6:40 to play.
Auburn's coaches will now turn their attention to recruiting and preparing for a bowl game with the most likely destinations the Gator Bowl to play a Big 10 team or the Chik-fil-A to play an opponent from the ACC.