Michael Dyer’s 37-yard fourth quarter run against Oregon was a perfect metaphor for this college football season: It looked simple enough, but it continued long after you thought it was over, and even after it was finished you kept waiting for the officials to call it back.
They still might, by the way.
The play that all but clinched the BCS title for Auburn echoed the gridiron interruptus we face every year thanks to the long stretch between the conference championships and this playoff manqué.
Block, drive, run, tackle. Pause. Pause. Oh, yeah, run some more.
Of all the things wrong with the BCS, one that gets overlooked is the endless wait for game day to arrive. Auburn and Oregon were off for thirty-six days between the time they locked up their spots in the championship game and their showdown in Glendale. Little wonder they spent the first quarter swapping punts and interceptions as though it were a nonconference opener in September.
The fast-paced Oregon offense never did find its rhythm, and the rust contributed but was hardly the only factor. With defensive tackle Nick Fairley dominating the middle, the Auburn defense shut down the Ducks’ running game, limiting a team that had averaged over 300 yards per game on the ground to just 75.
The expected offensive fireworks were also limited by the Oregon defensive scheme that kept Cam Newton contained and forced him to try to win the game with his arm instead of his power running. Freshman back Dyer took on the rushing load, and Newton threw two TD passes of over 30 yards as Auburn took a 16-11 lead into halftime.
In the second half, these two teams that averaged a combined 92 points per game during the season squeezed out just two touchdowns’ worth between them: Oregon 8, Auburn 6. Casey Matthews’ strip of Cam Newton gave Oregon a last chance with five minutes to go, and Darron Thomas hit D.J. Davis for 29 yards on fourth-and-5 to take the Ducks down to the 11. From there, a two-yard touchdown toss and a 2-point conversion tied the score, setting up Auburn’s final drive with two and a half minutes to play.
The key play began as a simple off-tackle run that gained six yards. Dyer was stopped by safety Eddie Pleasant, and Dyer’s knee angled toward the ground but never quite hit. Pleasant tugged at the ball and pulled Dyer to him; Dyer rolled over him and put his hand on the turf –his elbow would have hit the ground, but it came down on Pleasant’s knee – and bounced back up on his feet. He took two steps and stopped, then realized with the help of his sideline that there had been no whistle. He ran past the flat-footed defenders, and was forced out of bounds at the 23.
(Is it just me, or is this the kind of play could get a lot of people hurt in the future? If a defender isn’t one hundred percent sure he’s heard a whistle, he can hardly be blamed for making absolutely certain the ball carrier isn’t getting up. If you’re off your feet and lying on top of someone, maybe we should just say you’re down even if your elbow or knee hasn’t yet been driven into the ground by the next couple of tacklers.)
The winning field goal was now a foregone conclusion. Auburn reached the Oregon 1, set the ball in the middle of the field, and won the game on the final snap.
You don’t go undefeated without having a great defense. You have to be able to win on days when the offense isn’t clicking. These were not, however, two teams who got to the championship game on the power of their defenses. Give a coaching staff five weeks to plan, and they’ll do a pretty good job of taking away the signature elements of any offense. Was this the game anyone hoped to see? Is this how we really want titles to be decided?
No, of course not, we want them to be decided by a tournament, but that’s another column.
So, as coach Gene Chizik might have put it in his postgame interview, Auburn, War Eagle, has a new shiny glass trophy, War Eagle. And Cecil Newton was there to see his son win something they can’t take away from him.
Except, of course, they can, and might. The NCAA cleared Cam Newton to play in the SEC championship game and against Oregon, because no evidence has emerged yet of his seeking or receiving improper inducements to attend Auburn. But investigations continue, new sources emerge, and the Reggie Bush precedent suggests that the files may remain open for a very long time.
It’s all pretty silly, really. Open up the marketplace, let the players share in the obscene bounty they generate, and get the game played in a reasonable time frame. The national title game shouldn’t be an afterthought.