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Alabama 21, Auburn 14

BIRMINGHAM, Ala., Nov. 19 -- Usually, things are the other way around at Alabama. Ever since Gene Stallings took over as coach five seasons ago, the Crimson Tide's game plan has been simple: Have the defense keep the game close until the offense finds enough firepower to put the required points on the board. But on Saturday, the offense took care of its business in the first 20 minutes against Auburn. The rest was up to the defense. Jay Barker threw a pair of long touchdown passes in a 4:35 span of the first half, helping the No. 3 Crimson tide build a quick lead and hold on for a 21-14 triumph over the Tigers. Alabama (11-0, 8-0 SEC) completed its second perfect regular season in the last three years to remain in the national-title hunt. The Crimson Tide will play No. 5 Florida on Dec. 3 in the SEC Championship Game, with the winner earning a berth in the Sugar Bowl. 'This was a great game for us,' Barker said. 'The defense came out and played the way they needed to. Offensively, we came out and scored the points we needed in the first half.' But things weren't decided until less than a minute to go, on one of the closest first-down measurements in recent memory. Auburn was driving for the potential tying touchdown when Patrick Nix hit Frank Sanders on a crossing pattern on fourth-and-3 from the Alabama 43. Sanders caught the pass at the 40, but Alabama's Sam Shade and Tommy Johnson stopped his forward progress immediately.

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Officials brought the chains onto the field, with players from both Auburn and Alabama signaling first downs in opposite directions at the same time. In the end, the referee ruled the Tigers came up less than an inch short of a first down. 'It went down to an inches call during the game,' Auburn coach Terry Bowden said. 'I know (the Crimson Tide) won it and they deserved to win it, but I felt like our players would have come back and won that game with one more first down.' It was the first loss in two seasons for Auburn (9-1-1, 6-1-1 Southeastern Conference), which had its unbeaten streak stopped at 21 games. The Tigers' last loss came in Pat Dye's final game, a 17-0 defeat to Alabama on Nov. 26, 1992. Saturday's win allowed Barker to avenge his only loss as Alabama's starting quarterback. The lone blemish in Barker's 34-1-1 record is a 22-14 setback to Auburn last season in a game in which he sustained a serious knee injury. 'When you grow up in Alabama like I did, (you know the) bragging rights as a kid -- kids want to go home and tell their friends that Alabama won,' said Barker, who was raised in Trussville, Ala. 'I realize the importance of this game and I love that.' It usually doesn't take much offense for the Crimson Tide to emerge victorious. Not since Gene Stallings' first game as coach back in 1990 has Alabama scored more than 17 points in a game and not gone on to win. So in a sense, the offense held up its end of the bargain by midway through the second quarter. 'It seems like everything went our way in the first half,' Barker said. Barker, who took over as Alabama's all-time leader in attempts and completions, helped the Crimson Tide to a 14-0 lead on the final play of the first quarter, hooking up with Toderick Malone on a pass over the middle that resulted in a 74-yard touchdown. Marcell West was on the receiving end of Barker's 49-yard touchdown pass 4:35 into the second quarter as Alabama broke out to a 21-0 lead. Of Barker's 177 yards passing, 123 came on the two touchdown passes. 'We saw Florida make some plays against them (on the deep ball) and also saw Georgia -- (quarterback) Eric Zeier throwing ball deep against them down the middle,' Barker said. 'Their safeties were coming up trying to stop the run. I felt like with play-action or just a dropback, we'd able to throw it down there.' Sherman Williams had given the Crimson Tide a 7-0 advantage with a 13-yard touchdown run with 2:28 left in the first quarter. 'They just dominated every phase early,' Bowden said. 'We couldn't do anything right; they were playing perfectly.' Auburn closed its season with a two-game winless streak after winning 20 straight games since Bowden took over as coach to start last season. The Tigers are under NCAA sanctons are not eligible for postseason play or the UPI ratings. 'These seniors are going to cry a little bit tonight and going to be sad,' Bowden said. 'But when they're going to be remembered, they going to be remembered as the winningest team with the longest (winning) streak in Auburn history.' The Tigers pulled within 21-7 with just over five minutes left in the third quarter when quarterback Patrick Nix scored on a 1-yard plunge. Nix had another 1-yard dive with 2:23 left in the game to bring Auburn within a touchdown. Running back Tarrant Lynch recovered Matt Hawkins' ensuing onside kick for Alabama, which was forced to punt after three plays. Bryne Diehl's punt bounced straight up inside the Auburn 5 and was downed by a teammate less than a foot from the goal line. Auburn moved the ball to the Alabama 43 in eight plays, but Sanders was smothered after grabbing Nix's pass at the 40, resulting in the fateful measurement that went Alabama's way. 'Boy, this is a game that if you've never seen one, this is the one to come down and experience,' Barker said. The game marked only the second time both teams entered the 'Iron Bowl' with unbeaten records. Alabama won the other meeting in 1971, a 31-7 triumph.

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