ATLANTA — For the better part of Saturday's SEC championship game, Auburn found little success slowing Missouri.
For the moments that counted the most, though, the West champion Tigers were stout defensively.
And with an offense that rolled up SEC title-game records in points (59) and yards (677), the couple of second-half stops by Auburn's defense were plenty.
"They kept us in the game. I'm not ashamed to say it," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said with a smile after his school won its second league title in four years with a 59-42 victory inside the Georgia Dome.
"We made pivotal stops, and that's why we're a team."
After Corey Grant's touchdown run gave Auburn a 38-34 lead late in the third quarter, the defense forced Missouri into a three-and-out, and Cameron Artis-Payne scored to push the lead to 45-34.
With Missouri trying to rally from a 52-42 deficit in the fourth quarter, Ford made a third-down sack of James Franklin and cornerback Chris Davis broke up a fourth-down slant pass intended for Dorial Green-Beckham.
One play later, Tre Mason scored to ice the Auburn title.
"Guys stepped up to the plate," defensive tackle Gabe Wright said in the locker room. "We know when it gets to the fourth quarter, it's grind time. We harp on it every day in practice, I can't even lie to you. When it's crunch time, guys step up.
"That's usually how it is. It's always those 10 to 12 special plays in the game that change the game. Mizzou made their plays -- they capitalized on our mistakes early. We weathered the storm and the valleys and the highs and found success at the end."
Auburn's defense entered the game 11th in the SEC in total defense. Only Missouri allowed more yards passing this season. Under defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, Auburn was allowing just 22.5 points per game, which was fifth in the conference.
Missouri was averaging nearly 39 points per game for the season and surpassed that mark late in the third quarter.
"You've got to give Missouri credit," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "They've got really huge receivers that can run. Their quarterback's one of the best in the league. Their running back is a phenomenal running back."
SEC East champion Missouri finished with 534 yards of offense, which was the third-highest total in an SEC championship game, and only Auburn (56 points in 2010 and 59 Saturday), Florida (45 in 1996) and LSU (42 in 2011) scored as many points in a championship game as Missouri did.
"When we needed it, and the game was on the line, our defense stepped up in the fourth quarter," Malzahn said. "It got us the ball back, stopped them on the fourth down when they went for it and helped us win. That's kind of been their M.O.
"Bottom line, it was heart. It was heart when the game was on the line. Our guys really believed and found a way to stretch it out right there where we could kind of enjoy that last couple of minutes."
And given how its offense continued to roll up the yards and pile up the points, a few stops here and there were plenty.
"We grew up," said linebacker Cassanova McKinzy, who made 10 tackles. "That's the only thing I can say. We grew up, and the team was dependent on us. We had to make plays so our offense can get up by a large margin or try to pull away with the lead. Our offense counted on us, and they came back and did what they said they was going to do.
"The stops that we made today, they were very important stops, and we came through for our offense when they asked us to."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...