Alabama was beating up on Cam Newton and the No. 2 Auburn Tigers like no one had all season.
But just like the Crimson Tide has done all year, or has failed to do, it could not sustain its full potential, allowing the same flaws to set in and induce an Auburn comeback.
After building a 24-point lead, Alabama watched the Tigers slowly chip away until a 28-27 final score left Auburn with a 12-0 record and magnified national championship hopes.
“Around here, we pride ourselves on finishing, and we just didn’t finish tonight,” said junior running back Mark Ingram. “Everybody’s frustrated. We just didn’t execute as much in the second half.”
Ingram started the first-half onslaught by capping a 7-play, 71-yard drive with a 9-yard touchdown run. After playing off the crowd to force a three-and-out, Alabama extended its lead to 14-0 on a 68-yard pass from quarterback Greg McElroy to wide receiver Julio Jones.
After Marcell Dareus and Courtney Upshaw recorded back-to-back sacks on Newton on Auburn’s next two plays, McElroy threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Darius Hanks to cap a 10-play, 61-yard drive.
“That was about as fine of first half of offensive football that we’ve played here in a long time,” said head coach Nick Saban.
The Tide’s next three possessions could have sealed the game before halftime. Ingram caught a 41-yard pass that he fumbled out of the end zone for a touchback, and the Tide got a short field goal after running back Trent Richardson dropped a sure touchdown. After Auburn got on the board with a 36-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Emory Blake to make the score 24-7, McElroy lost a fumble on the Tigers’ 8-yard line just before the half.
“We had opportunities, we just didn’t cash in,” Ingram said. “We were just beating ourselves.”
Auburn carried its momentum from the end of the first half into the third quarter. On the Tigers’ second play from scrimmage, safety Mark Barron misplayed a deep pass, leading to a 70-yard touchdown pass from Newton to wide receiver Terrell Zachary.
What had seemed easy for Alabama in the first half looked nearly impossible in the second. After McElroy threw for 335 yards and two touchdowns before the break, every completion in the second half was a struggle. The Tide only managed three second-half points while Auburn slowly made its comeback.
The Tigers cut the lead to 24-21 with 4:25 left in the third quarter when Newton took it in from 1-yard out after an 8-play, 75-yard drive. After kicker Jeremy Shelley made the score 27-21 with a 32-yard field goal, Auburn took its first lead when Newton found Philip Lutzenkirchen for a 7-yard touchdown with 11:55 left in the game.
“We came into the game knowing we had to stop Cam Newton,” said sophomore linebacker Courtney Upshaw. “We were kind of on the verge of doing that, but we’ve got to finish.”
Jones bruised his knee on the ensuing kickoff and came out of the game, and McElroy suffered a concussion when he was sacked on third down with less than six minutes remaining. Backup quarterback AJ McCarron got a chance to lead the Tide from its own 19 with less than a minute to go, but four straight incomplete passes secured Auburn’s one-point victory.
“I’m responsible for the fact that we didn’t finish the way we needed to,” Saban said. “This team will learn from this. Hopefully when we get another opportunity, we’ll be able to be a better team because of some of the lessons learned today.”