Auburn 28, Alabama 27. Remember those old "Nothing But Net" ads for McDonald's, in which Michael Jordan and Larry Bird continued heaping layers of impossible obstacles onto shots to force a miss that never came in a game of H-O-R-S-E? Cam Newton doesn't, because he was like four years old when those commercials came out. But today was his version of those spots as he makes his own bid for the sports pantheon.
Down three touchdowns. On the road. To the defending national champions. In front of a hostile, 100,000-strong crowd baying for your blood. Against a top five defense selling out on every play to neutralize your bread-and-butter. With the national championship on the line. Nothing but net.
The odds, after Alabama's first quarter barrage, were staggering. The Crimson Tide had two weeks to prepare for this game, and executed everything on the blueprint. Quarterback Greg McElroy and receiver Julio Jones lit up the suspect Auburn secondary for career highs. The defense consistently pressured and hit Newton. The Tigers' prolific spread attack finished with a season low in total offense, coming in more than 200 yards below its season average on the ground. If you can't beat them after racing out to a 24-0 lead, running up a 120-yard advantage in total offense, holding the soon-to-be Heisman winner to 1.8 yards per carry on a long gain of 12 and getting an ear-splitting effort from a demonic home crowd, my god, when can you beat them?
The answer may be that there is no blueprint for this guy. Alabama focused all of its defensive energy on penetrating the line of scrimmage to disrupt the running game, forcing Newton to make them pay through the air, and succeeded wildly. So he made them pay through the air. After a 1-of-4 start with three straight three-and-out series in the first quarter, Newton was 12 of 16 passing over the final three, with three touchdowns. He connected on three third down throws that kept eventual scoring drives alive and completed a critical 4th-and-3 pass in the fourth quarter that set up the eventual game-winning TD pass to Philip Lutzenkirchen (Bavarian for "scores in the clutch"). Faced with an obstacle as intimidating as the Crimson Tide front seven, Newton went over it to lead his fifth second half comeback of the year.
The Auburn defense had a lot to do with that, recovering from the initial shellshock of the first quarter to turn the Tide away on four red zone trips the rest of the way, which amounted to two 'Bama field goals and a pair of lost fumbles created by Tiger hustle. Auburn's offense, for all its struggles, scored a touchdown every time it crossed onto the Tide's side of the field. Sometimes, that level of opportunism is disappointing in a championship frontrunner, the lack of dominance a cause for concern. The Tigers still have a lot of work to do in the secondary, but today was not one of those times. It was the kind of day only a champion survives. With win No. 13 next week in Atlanta, the title will be official.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.