Nov. 27, 2009
AUBURN, Ala. - No. 2 Alabama found its championship form in the nick of time.
Outplayed most of the game, the Crimson Tide stayed unbeaten with a 26-21 victory Friday over Auburn, taking the lead with a nearly perfect drive that was capped by Greg McElroy's 4-yard touchdown pass to Roy Upchurch with 1:24 left.
Alabama (12-0, 8-0 Southeastern Conference) completed a second straight perfect regular season in the Iron Bowl, but did it the hard way against its bitter rival. The Tide fell behind in the opening minutes, but came out ahead to do its part to set up 1 vs. 2 showdown with top-ranked Florida in the SEC championship game.
But forget the national and league championship, the state title almost slipped away.
"The strong do survive but the strong do get their (butts) kicked," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "That was my message to the team."
Auburn (7-5, 3-5) pushed the ball to the Alabama 37 on the final drive, but Chris Todd's pass to the end zone was batted down by the Tide defense.
For the second straight day, one of the three teams at the top of the BCS standings and in control of the national title race was knocked woozy, but did not fall. Much like No. 3 Texas, which held off Texas A&M 49-39 on Thanksgiving night, Alabama found out being a big favorite against an archrival sometimes doesn't matter much.
TCU and Cincinnati, the unbeaten teams behind Florida, Alabama and Texas in the BCS standings, are left to hope Florida State can pull an upset against Florida on Saturday that might open the door for them to reach the national title game.
The Tide survived a shaky effort by it's usually stellar defense and a sub-par game from Heisman Trophy contender Mark Ingram.
The SEC's leading rusher was held to 30 yards on 16 carries and was on the bench for most of the game-winning drive. Saban said he believed Ingram had a bruised hip.
"Something like that," the player said. "I'll be all right."
McElroy and Julio Jones took over without him, aided by five runs and a 17-yard catch by freshman Trent Richardson on the 15-play, 79-yard drive that consumed more than seven minutes.
McElroy, who has been criticized at times as a weak link in an offense with a powerful running game, completed his final seven passes for 62 yards on the climactic drive after opening with an incompletion. Jones made four catches, three for first downs.
"We didn't play a great game today," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "It's a great win. I've never been prouder of them.
"I don't think you can say enough about the competitive character that this team showed today."
Auburn fans remained in the stands for several minutes when it was over, some seemingly stunned and others applauding a closer-than-expected game, while a sizable crimson-and-white contingent celebrated. A handful of 'Bama players later returned to the field briefly.
Until the final minutes, Auburn had supplied most of the big plays and its maligned defense largely outplayed the nation's top unit.
Auburn outgained Alabama 332-291 and, more surprisingly, dominated on the ground 151-73. McElroy was 21 of 31 for 218 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He was sacked three times.
It was still a marked turnaround for the Tigers, who were shellacked 36-0 last season to have a six-year Iron Bowl winning streak snapped.
"I just told them that we're not walking out of here with heads down," first-year coach Gene Chizik said. "We're a family. We're a family when we win. We're a family when we lose.
"Everybody in that locker room that played did what we asked them to do. They fought for 60 minutes in that game. I'm not disappointed with anybody on our team. Nobody."
The Tigers stunned the Tide by rocketing out to a 14-0 lead in the first 9:18 when every trick seemed to work. Alabama hadn't allowed a touchdown in the previous two games.
Auburn receiver Terrell Zachery raced 67 yards for a touchdown on an end around on Auburn's opening drive. It was the longest play Alabama's defense had given up all season by 15 yards.
Then the Tigers recovered an onside kick to set up another score.
Alabama regained its footing and threatened to take over. Richardson scored on a 2-yard plunge for Alabama's first points. Alabama then got the ball across midfield thanks to a defensive stand and a nice return by Javier Arenas, who set the SEC mark for career punt returns.
On third-and-9, McElroy hit tight end Colin Peek for a 33-yard touchdown that tied it at 14.
On the first drive of the second half, Auburn hit another big play. Todd pump faked and hit Darvin Adams for a 72-yard touchdown to make it 21-14.
Alabama had three straight trips across midfield, ending with two field goals by Leigh Tiffin and Ingram's failed fourth-and-1 run. Tiffin had earlier had a 42-yard attempt fall well short, another unfamiliar sight this season for the Tide season.
Auburn was left nursing a 21-20 lead going into the fourth.
"We didn't play with a lot of passion, and I don't understand that," Saban said.
The Tigers had a solid chance to extend the lead after taking over at Alabama's 44 following yet another defensive stand. But the Tide defense tackled Ben Tate for a 7-yard loss and then buried Todd for another 10-yard loss.
That set the stage for McElroy, who must have won over even his most ardent doubters with the poise and precision he displayed as the clock wound down.