NCAA FOOTBALL: Auburn falls despite stars' best efforts
PASADENA, Calif. — Tre Mason and Nick Marshall delivered everything but the national title.
Auburn’s potent 1-2 backfield punch came through in the clutch again Monday night, but this time it wasn’t enough to prevent a 34-31 loss to No. 1 Florida State in the BCS championship game.
Mason’s 37-yard touchdown run with 1:19 left gave the second-ranked Tigers (12-2) a lead that Jameis Winston and Co. wiped out with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds remaining.
They scored against a defense that had mostly held firm in big moments, but it couldn’t stop the Heisman Trophy winner and his high-powered offense at the end.
That left Mason with an empty feeling after Auburn failed to bring home the title for its fans.
“I feel like I let them down,” said Mason, a Heisman finalist who ran 34 times for 195 yards in his sixth straight 100-yard game.
He pinballed off defensive back Jalen Ramsey downfield for his 23rd rushing touchdown of the season and helped the Tigers become the first SEC team to lead the nation in rushing. They fell seconds short of the state of Alabama’s fifth straight national crown and the SEC’s eighth in a row.
Mason, who said he would speak with family before deciding whether to leave Auburn early and enter the NFL draft, broke Bo Jackson’s school record of 1,786 yards rushing set during his 1985 Heisman season. Mason finished with 1,816 yards.
“It would be a lot better if I was holding up that crystal ball,” he said.
The Southeastern Conference’s leading rusher did come up huge on another big stage. He helped power the Tigers into the game with 46 carries for 304 yards against Missouri to capture the SEC championship and gained 164 yards against rival Alabama.
Those two performances propelled him to New York for the Heisman ceremony, where he finished sixth.
Mason and Marshall were integral parts of a season that matched the biggest turnaround in college football history after a 3-9 debacle in 2012.
Marshall threw for 217 yards and two touchdowns with an interception Monday night. He also ran for 45 yards and a third score, but found little running room.
“That’s the way teams are going to play us. They have to pick one of us to stop,” Mason said. “He’s very dangerous on his feet. I guess they chose to stop him.”
Marshall had deftly operated Auburn’s zone read and the nation’s top rushing attack after a midseason switch in offensive philosophy to capitalize on his strengths. The junior college transfer didn’t arrive on campus until the summer to start mastering coach Gus Malzahn’s no-huddle offense, but learned as he went along.
Not known for his passing, Marshall held his own against Winston. The Auburn quarterback completed 14 of 27 passes and ran 16 times.
It wasn’t a perfect performance. He underthrew a wide-open Ricardo Louis downfield in the first quarter, and the star of the improbable win over Georgia couldn’t pull it in. Marshall also was picked off on an underthrown ball.
“The ball kind of slipped and the DB made a great play on the ball,” Marshall said. “I just put it behind me and moved on to the next play.”
Marshall also had a 50-yard touchdown pass to reserve Melvin Ray, a former minor league baseball player who had caught only four passes for 58 yards coming into the game.
Marshall hooked up with the team’s other offensive star on a 12-yard touchdown pass to Mason in the first quarter. Marshall’s 4-yard touchdown scamper gave the underdog Tigers a 21-3 lead 25 minutes into the game.
“They were daring us to throw the football early in the game and we hit that big one down the middle (to Ray) and it kind of loosened them up a little bit,” Malzahn said. “He’s done an outstanding job this year, not going through spring and leading us to the national championship with a chance to win it. He’s got a very bright future.”
Before the disappointing finish, Auburn beat Georgia and Alabama on two of the most memorable plays of the season, and then overwhelmed Missouri in the SEC title game. The Tigers’ script just didn’t include a fairytale ending.
“It’s always going to be remembered, but it’s always going to eat me up inside that we had beaten some of the top teams in the nation and fell short at the very end,” Mason said. “It’s pretty much like a book that was written. It was a crazy story.”