Updated: 1/11/11 6:05 a.m.
GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — For a brief moment, Michael Dyer stopped running.
No whistle. No ref raising his hand.
So he started running again – past the tackler who thought he had him down, deep into Oregon territory. A once-in-a-lifetime run, the kind that wins championships.
Dyer’s stop-and-go maneuver set up a short field goal on the last play that sent No. 1 Auburn over the No. 2 Ducks 22-19 in the BCS title game Monday night.
“All I knew was the whistle wasn’t blowing and my coach was saying `Go!'” Dyer said.
With his 37-yard run, sure to be preserved in college football’s highlight reel, the freshman running back did what most fans thought was impossible – he upstaged his teammate, Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton.
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!”
Dyer was the star of a classic sequence that closed 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 NFL 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 the last 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 nearly two decades ago, 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 wasn’t sure his knee hit the ground, so, urged by his coaches on the sideline, 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.
“Really, it was going through my mind to get the first down, hold onto the ball,” Dyer said. “And the time being tackled, my knee wasn’t down … I didn’t hear a whistle, not yet, so I was kind of, like, looking, like, what’s going on?'”
In a statement released after the game, Big Ten 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.
Eddie Pleasant, the Oregon defensive back who almost made the tackle, was as shocked as anyone.
“It hurts, you know,” he said. “It’s not like he broke free and did some spectacular things. He was tackled. Everybody on the side of the defense stopped. He stopped and the coach told him to keep running and he ran. It’s not like it was a blown assignment. It’s not like he busted a 50-yard run down the middle. It was just a crazy play.”
Dyer 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. He wrenched his back and had to go to the trainer after the game. All in a night’s work: “I’m OK. It was worth it,” he said.
It was a good performance, but not spectacular – par for the course in a game that was projected as a possible 60-55 thriller by South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier and a 74-point touchdown-fest by the oddsmakers who set the over-under.
Wearing white jerseys with gray numbers, 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 didn’t come close to its nation-leading 49-point average and the fast-paced offense that turned most opponents into mush in the second half couldn’t wear down Auburn.
The Ducks finished 12-1, three points shy of their first national title, but not making apologies for the effort they gave in the desert.
“When it comes down to a field goal at the last second, you can always point to play here, a play there, but it really doesn’t do much for you,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “We’re a forward-thinking operation, and we’ll learn from this thing and move forward.”
Fairley, Auburn’s 298-pound defensive tackle, had the Ducks moving backward much of the night. 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, helping Auburn to its ninth comeback win of this improbable season. He has now won the national title three straight years – in 2008 as a backup to Tim Tebow at Florida, last year in junior college at Blinn and now with the Tigers.
If he goes pro – as some people expect – this will mark the end of a tumultuous stay at Auburn, shadowed by an NCAA investigation into his failed recruitment by Mississippi State. The governing body cleared him to play before the SEC championship but said his father, Cecil, solicited money from the Bulldogs.
“Anything is possible,” Newton said. “I guarantee, five or six months ago, that no one would bet their last dollar that Auburn would win the national championship. And now we’re standing here.”
Standing with a crystal football, the biggest jewel in a bowl season that, at times, felt never-ending, beginning on Dec. 18 with the BYU-UTEP game and wrapping up in Arizona with a most improbable finish.
The SEC improved to 7-0 in BCS title games. Four different teams from the conference have won it in this latest five-year run.
LSU. Florida twice. Alabama.
And now, 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 BCS 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 – the Crimson Tide – 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 drugstore and the rest of the street 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.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)