This is getting to be an old hat for the Southeast Conference because it hardly matters whether Tennessee, Louisiana State, Florida, Alabama, or Auburn – which played Oregon in the recently-concluded Bowl Championship Series title game at University of Phoenix Stadium — are going to prevail.
It boils down to speed and power, and the SEC, which has claimed five straight BCS crowns and seven overall in 13 seasons, has these qualities in abundance.
Sure, the Ducks tied it with 2:33 left when quarterback Darron Thomas hit running back LaMichael James with a two-yard pass, and found Jeff Maehl (133 yards and nine receptions) with a two-point conversion. In the end, the Tigers won, 22-19, on Wes Byrum’s 19-yard field goal as time expired.
The kick was aided by freshman tailback Michael Dyer’s eye-popping 37-yard burst after appearing down, but whose body never touched the ground. There was no whistle, and he took off. The short run became a long one.
Dyer had 143 yards on 22 carries, and was selected offensive player of the contest.
Quarterback Cam Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner, played well enough to push Auburn past the feisty Ducks, who fell behind, 16-11, at the intermission as a stadium record-crowd of 78,603 looked on.
Newton, embroiled in controversy after his father Cecil tried to sell his son’s talent to the highest bidder, a violation of NCAA rules, completed 20 of 34 passes for 265 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception.
“I just wanted to stay calm and focused,’’ said Newton, who ran for 64 yards, and has made himself eligible for the NFL draft. “I had faith that everything was going to turn out fine.”
Newton hit two of four throws for 12 yards with a pick in the first quarter, then rebounded with 174 yards, while drilling 14 of 18 in the second quarter, including a 35-yard scoring pass to Kodi Burns with 12 minutes left, giving Auburn a 7-3 lead, after Oregon’s Rob Beard notched a 26-yard field goal with 14:13 showing.
The Ducks, who averaged 49.3 points and 537.5 yards a game, while using a hurry-up offense, led 11-7 when Thomas (27 of 40 for 363 yards and two interceptions) found James with an eight-yard pass, and Beard ran it in for two points on a fake extra point.
James paced the nation in rushing by averaging 153 yards, but was stuffed and mounted by Auburn’s unrelenting defense, led by defensive tackle Nick Fairley (three tackles for a loss and one sack). Fairley was named defensive player of the game.
James had 49 yards on 13 carries, Kenjon Barner 32 yards on 11 rushes, as the Ducks totaled 75 yards.
When James was caught in the end zone by Mike Blanc for a safety with 3:26 left in the second quarter, Auburn trailed 11-9.
The Tigers (14-0) made it look easy when they forged a 16-11 lead after Newton spotted Emory Blake (54 yards and four catches) uncovered with a 30-yard strike and 1:47 left before intermission.
The 66-yard, six-play march was a heart-breaker for Oregon’s defense, which was being pushed around by the stronger and tougher Tigers (519 total net yards).
Byrum’s 28-yard field goal early in the third quarter made it 19-11, and Auburn’s defensive stand, when Oregon (12-1) had the ball at the Tigers’ one-yard line late in the same quarter, will live in Auburn lore.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.