- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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PASADENA, Calif. -- There were no miracles this time, only heartache.
And for the longest time, it didn’t look like Auburn would need a miracle Monday night after building an 18-point lead on a VIZIO BCS National Championship stage that not even the most die-hard fan on the Plains would have dreamed the Tigers would be playing on back in August.
But Florida State came storming back with a little late-game magic of its own to win a 34-31 thriller at the Rose Bowl, leaving a lump in the Tigers’ collective throats and bringing to an end the SEC’s national championship streak.
“We’ve been in this position all season long,” Auburn senior cornerback Chris Davis said. “We believe that if the game’s close, we’re going to win. It didn’t go our way tonight, and it’s going to take a long time for this hurt to go away.”
The truth is that Auburn was never supposed to be here, not after going winless in the SEC a year ago, firing Gene Chizik as its head coach and starting over with Gus Malzahn.
But Malzahn’s message to his team in his very first meeting was that the Tigers were going to engineer the biggest turnaround in college football history.
And, boy, were they close, which made Monday night’s loss all the more nauseating for them.
“I apologize to the Auburn family and the rest of the fans that we didn’t finish,” said Auburn running back Tre Mason, who rushed for 195 yards on 34 carries and surpassed Bo Jackson as Auburn’s single-season rushing leader.
“We didn’t finish what we started. That’s a great team [Florida State] and they deserved to win. They found a way to win at the end.”
Mason had given Auburn a 31-27 lead with 1:19 to play on a tackle-breaking, 37-yard touchdown run.
“We knew we were going to take it down and score there,” Mason said. “Even after they returned that kickoff, you could just feel it on our sideline.”
It’s the same script Auburn had followed all season, whether it was Davis’ kick-six touchdown against Alabama, Ricardo Louis’ Hail Mary touchdown catch against Georgia or Nick Marshall’s late touchdown pass to beat Mississippi State.
“Right now, I’m kind of at a loss for words,” Auburn center Reese Dismukes said. “No one gave us a chance at the beginning of the season. We won the SEC championship in the best league in the country. Obviously, it was a successful season, but you’d like to win one more game.”
If not for a handful of plays, Auburn could easily be taking the final BCS crystal trophy back to the Plains.
Jameis Winston’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds to play won it for the Seminoles. But a play earlier, Davis was flagged for pass interference in the end zone when Winston tried to hit Rashad Greene on a third-and-8 play.
“I didn’t think it was pass interference. The ref called it, so it is what it is,” Davis said.
As costly as that pass-interference penalty was for the Tigers, the real back-breaker was Greene’s 49-yard catch-and-run to set up Benjamin’s touchdown. Auburn was in a zone and had a chance to tackle Greene for a modest gain, but he split Davis and safety Ryan Smith and was off to the races.
“We just didn’t come up with a stop when we needed to, and we usually do that as a defense,” said Davis, who was also covering Benjamin on his game-winning touchdown.
Auburn’s defense deserved better. The Tigers pressured Winston repeatedly, sacked him four times and held the Seminoles to three offensive touchdowns.
But Kermit Whitfield’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to put Florida State ahead 27-24 late in the fourth quarter was a killer. Likewise, the Tigers had another breakdown on special teams late in the second quarter when they gave up a fake punt leading to Florida State’s only first-half touchdown.
“They just executed at the times they needed to,” said Auburn defensive end Dee Ford, who had two sacks. “We played great for 3½ quarters. It just came down to that one possession. We had some calls that didn’t go our way, and it just didn’t work out. It’s unfortunate, but we have nothing to hang our heads about.
“Those same guys who were out there on that field were the same guys that helped get us here. We went out and fought. We just came up short. We’re not going to hang our heads.”
9hGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough