GLENDALE, Ariz. — Auburn running back Michael Dyer never heard any whistle, so he just kept running – past the tackler who thought he had him down and deep into Oregon territory.
Dyer broke stride, then took off on a once-in-a-lifetime run in the final minutes, setting up a short field goal on the last play that led No. 1 Auburn over the No. 2 Ducks 22-19 in the championship game Monday night.
The freshman running back upstaged Auburn’s Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton with a 37-yard run, in which he appeared down but wasn’t – his knee never hit the ground – as he rolled over defender Eddie Pleasant to put the Tigers in scoring position.
Three plays later, Dyer ran 16 yards to push the ball to the 1 and set up Wes Byrum’s 19-yard field goal with no time left. It was his sixth career game-winning field goal – the one that capped off a perfect, 14-0 season, brought the title back to Auburn for the first time since 1957 and left the Southeastern Conference on top for the fifth straight year.
“Fifty-three years, baby,’‘ coach Gene Chizik said to the cheering crowd. “This is for you. War Eagle!’‘
A classic sequence to close out a wild finish – five crazy minutes of football that made up for the first 55, which were more of a bruising battle than the offensive masterpiece everyone had predicted.
The craziness began when Casey Matthews, son of the 1980s linebacker Clay, knocked the ball from Newton’s hands while he was trying to ice a 19-11 lead.
Oregon’s offense, shut down by Nick Fairley & Co. for most of the night, moved 45 yards over the next 2:17 and Darron Thomas threw a shovel pass to LaMichael James for a touchdown. Thomas hit Jeff Maehl for the tying 2-point conversion with 2:33 left and the game was down to one possession.
And that possession will be remembered for one incredible play.
Dyer, who chose jersey No. 5 because that’s how old his brother was when their father died in a car accident, took the handoff from Newton and ran off right tackle for what looked like a 6- or 7-yard gain. Nothing routine about this one, though. He never heard a whistle, wasn’t sure his knee hit the ground, so he popped up and kept going. Almost everyone on the field had stopped playing, but the referee never blew the play dead. Dyer made it to the Oregon 23. An official’s review ensued and the replay showed that, indeed, his knee had never touched the turf.
“I was going out there, trying to make a play. I just kept my feet moving,’‘ he said.
In a statement released after the game, referee Bill LeMonnier said he was confident of the call: “The ruling on the field was there was nothing other than the foot that touched the ground,’‘ he explained.
The freshman finished with 143 yards and was chosen Offensive Player of the Game – no small feat considering he had Newton playing well on the same offense.
Newton threw for 265 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 64 yards, most in short, punishing bites.
It was a good performance, but not spectacular – par for the course in a game that was projected as a possible 60-55 shootout by Steve Spurrier and a 74-point touchdown-fest by the oddsmakers who set the over-under.
Wearing white jerseys, green pants and DayGlo shoes and socks, the Ducks got only 49 yards rushing from James. An offense that had been held under 37 points only once all year managed just the two touchdowns. The last one came on a simple shovel pass from Thomas, who finished with 363 yards – 81 of which came on a long pass to Maehl that set up the first touchdown.
Oregon was held below 37 points for only the second time all season and the fast-paced offense that turned most opponents into mush in the second half had trouble wearing down Auburn.
Fairley, Auburn’s 298-pound defensive tackle, did the most damage. He lived up to his reputation as a game-changer for better, with three tackles for loss, including a sack – and for worse, when he got a 15-yard penalty for shoving James’ face into the turf after the whistle.
Newton was a game-changer as always, keeping Auburn ahead in this tight game, the final outing in a season shadowed by an investigation into his failed recruitment by Mississippi State. The governing body cleared him to play before the championship but said his father, Cecil, solicited money from the Bulldogs.
Cecil, not in the stands Monday night, missed a heck of a finish.
And the end of a memorable season for Auburn, the school that has loads of tradition – the Tiger Walk, the War Eagle yell and a case full of Heisman and other big-time individual trophies – but not nearly as many titles to go with it. Bad luck in the polls doomed their one-loss season in 1983, probation kept them from capitalizing on a perfect record in 1993 and the vagaries of the left them on the outside in 2004, maybe the most painful of all the snubs.
So, really, this one is for all the Bos and Beasleys and Terrys and Tracys in the Auburn family who came close but couldn’t close the deal. And it fashions a nice symmetry with that team up the road – Alabama – which took home the Heisman and the same crystal championship trophy one short year ago.
Tide fans, of course, will remind you that it still has five more AP titles than the Tigers. But this celebration is going on at Toomer’s Corner in Auburn, where the traditional toilet-papering of the area was going on in full force in the bitter cold as Monday night turned into Tuesday morning.
“Winning a championship for the Auburn family, I can’t really describe it right now,’‘ Chizik said. “To try would probably cheapen it.’‘
At Auburn, the words “War Eagle’‘ would almost surely suffice.
Oregon Postgame Notebook
No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 1 Auburn • Jan. 10, 2011 • Glendale, Ariz. (University of Phoenix Stadium)
• Despite being held to a season-low 49 yards, SO RB LaMichael James set a new Oregon single-season rushing record at 1,731, breaking Jonathan Stewart’s former mark of 1,722 in 2007.
• James broke a tie with honorary captain Ahmad Rashad (1969-71) with his 37th career touchdown in the 2nd quarter. He added a second receiving TD on the night for No. 38 and is seven behind Derek Loville (45, 1986-89) for first all-time at UO.
• James also moved up to third in career scoring at Oregon with 228 points and extended his season records for scoring (144) and touchdowns (24).
• With his sixth interception of the season, SO CB Cliff Harris is now tied for fourth in the this season.
• SO QB Darron Thomas moved up to second on the single-season chart for total offense with 3,367 yards.
• Thomas set career highs with 363 passing yards, 27 completions and 40 attempts. He equaled his season-high with two interceptions (Oct. 2 vs. Stanford). Thomas’ only two incompletions of the 1st quarter – he was 9 of 11 for 84 yards – were picked off.
• With two TD passes, giving him 30 on the year, Thomas became just the second Duck to pass for 30 touchdowns in a season. His 35 total TDs (5 rush) are second in a season behind Akili Smith, who had 36 (32 pass, 4 rush) in 1998. Thomas finished the year with 2,881 yards passing, fifth-most at Oregon.
• SO RB Kenjon Barner made his second start of the season and first since the season opener vs. New Mexico. He replaced the slot receiver position, which had been FR WR Josh Huff the past two games.
• Oregon made back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in school history and is 1-2 all-time in bowl games.
• JR WR Lavasier Tuinei played for the first time since being injured at Cal Nov. 13 as did SO P Jackson Rice (sick). Tuinei was the game’s second-leading receiver with 75 yards on three grabs.
• SR WR Jeff Maehl tied Samie Parker’s 2003 UO single-season receptions record at 77. His 81-yard reception in the second quarter was the longest in Championship Game history (79, by Tee Martin to Peerless Price, Tennessee vs. Florida State, Jan. 4, 1999).
• Maehl had the third-best season by an Oregon receiver in terms of yardage with 1,076 and was UO’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Demetrius Williams had 1,059 in 2006.
• SR DE Kenny Rowe, who had one sack, tied Matt LaBounty (1988-91) for fifth on the UO career sacks list with 23.5.
• Maehl, Rowe, SR DT Brandon Bair, SR CB Talmadge Jackson and SR LB Spencer Paysinger tied the Oregon record for most games played in a career at 52.
• Oregon’s last three defeats have come on grass.
• The 3-point loss was Oregon’s closest defeat since losing 30-28 at Oregon State in 2006. That game was decided with an field goal with 1:12 left.
• UO failed to score in the 3rd quarter for the first time this season.
• Oregon scored first for the seventh time in 13 games this season. UO is now 11-1 all-time when scoring first under Chip Kelly.
• UO finished the season 3-1 vs. teams ranked in the top 25 and 1-1 vs. the top 10. Oregon is now 3-2 vs. the top 10 in the Kelly era.
• The Ducks failed to rush for 100 yards for the first time since gaining just 31 yards in a loss at Boise State, Sept. 3, 2009. UO was held to 75 yards on 32 carries.
• Oregon allowed a safety for the second time in its last three games.
• The Ducks trailed in the 4th quarter for the first time this season.
• Monday’s 1st quarter was the sixth scoreless quarter in 52 National Championship Game quarters.
• The crowd of 78,603 was a University of Phoenix Stadium record.
• UO had won its last three games vs. schools, but fell to 4-5 all-time vs. the conference.
• The Ducks school-best 12-game winning streak came to an end..