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November 18, 2006

Alabama falls to Auburn, again

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox and his offensive linemen posed at midfield, flashing five fingers while a photographer clicked away.

The 15th-ranked Tigers wanted to preserve this moment for posterity, Saturday's 22-15 victory over Alabama, their fifth in a row in this bitter rivalry.

Put your thumbs up, Auburn. Then breathe a big sigh of relief.

This one wasn't over until David Irons' interception on Alabama's final drive.

``My last name is Irons, and this is the Iron Bowl,'' said Irons, who was struck in the face by a plastic water bottle thrown from the stands after the game. ``I'll have that forever.''

The Tigers (10-2, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) hadn't won five Iron Bowls in a row since 1958, Bear Bryant's first year with the Crimson Tide (6-6, 2-6).

The seniors leave with perfect marks in the series.

``They can stick their chest out for a long, long time,'' said coach Tommy Tuberville.

He ran over to the Auburn fans waving his hat and put up five fingers celebrating the win, the Tigers sixth in as many tries in Tuscaloosa. Defensive end Quentin Groves climbed a ladder and directed the band in a tongue-in-cheek rendition of Alabama's fight song ``Rammer Jammer'' - as well as he could while waving five fingers.

The loss left Alabama coach Mike Shula winless in four tries against his team's biggest rival and answering questions about his job security.

``I haven't even thought about all that stuff,'' said Shula, who received a vote of confidence from athletic director Mal Moore several weeks ago.

Auburn stuck to a conservative gameplan with Cox struggling and leading receiver Courtney Taylor out with a hamstring injury. He did come up big in the third quarter with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Prechae Rodriguez. The third-and-15 play capped the scoring.

Desperately seeking an end to that string of futility, the Tide went for it on fourth-and-15 from Auburn's 18 with five minutes left. John Parker Wilson's pass to Nikita Stover fell incomplete in the end zone.

Alabama had initially sent the field goal team in but Shula called time out and reconsidered. His team had driven from its own 11 largely on passes of 21 and 25 yards by Wilson, but he couldn't come through again.

``That was a tough call,'' said Shula. ``You're down by seven with five minutes left, you really need to get a score. I eventually felt like that was the best thing to do.''

The Tide outgained Auburn 364-261, but also had three fumbles and the interception in yet another close loss to a ranked team.

Alabama had the ball at its 41 with 1:50 to play and no timeouts. Wilson completed a short pass across the middle to Stover - who had a 52-yard touchdown earlier - but Irons picked off his next attempt downfield with 1:17 left.

Alabama finished the regular season 0-5 against ranked teams - all of them fairly close - though this was the first of those games at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

``You always want to finish on a good note,'' Alabama senior linebacker Juwan Simpson said. ``Nobody wants to finish on this note.''

The losses against Auburn especially have brought heat to Shula, but Wilson said the Tide players are ``behind him in every way.''

Tide players had fumed all week over photos of Auburn players and Tuberville waving four fingers after last year's game and appearing at the bowl game in a ``Fear the Thumb'' T-shirt. That slogan became popular with Auburn fans and a symbol of Alabama's frustrations.

``They did a lot of talking before the game,'' said Groves, who forced two fumbles in the first half to set up touchdowns. ``When you do a lot of talking, you're trying to make up for something. We came out and did it on the field.''

Cox finished just 6-of-14 for 137 yards, 97 of them coming in the third quarter. Intercepted four times last week in a 37-15 loss to Georgia, his first five passes fell incomplete.

``I think I came out a little too fired up,'' Cox said. ``I had to settle down.''

The Tigers used two big pass plays from Cox to retake the lead with 1:28 left in the third. He hit fullback Carl Stewart for a 37-yard gain down the left sidelines then lofted the pass to Rodriguez in the end zone. Stewart then threw to Lee Guess for the two-point conversion.

Alabama had taken the lead on Wilson's 13-yard pass to Travis McCall midway through the third. Then, the Tide missed its second straight two-point try.

Wilson finished 18-of-33 for 252 yards and two touchdowns in his first Iron Bowl start, but also had those two first-half fumbles deep in Alabama territory.

Those turned into touchdown runs by Brad Lester and Kenny Irons.

The Tide's season-long troubles with finishing drives continued on its opening possession. Alabama set up first-and-goal at the Auburn 3, but the Tigers stopped three running plays up the middle to force Jamie Christensen's field goal.

``We had some good play calls, I felt like, that gave us a chance to really set the tone of the game,'' Wilson said. ``We just didn't make a play when we had to.''



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