January 11, 2011
BCS Championship: Auburn 22, Oregon 19. Not that any sympathy is due the lowly pundits who unanimously envisioned a shootout for the ages Monday night, but seriously, folks, when the most prolific attack in the nation gets its crack at arguably the most forgiving defense ever to appear on the BCS' biggest stage, the decision isn't supposed to go to the defense. But there was no mistaking the real force of nature on the field for Auburn Monday night: If the Tigers' run to the championship belonged to Cam Newton, conquering hero of the SEC's No. 1 offense, the coronation itself belonged to Nick Fairley.
The highest-scoring offense in the nation was no match and had no answer for the Lombardi Award winner, or the rest of the maligned Tiger D. On the scoreboard, the Ducks' 19-point effort was just four points better than their season low, and 30 below their average. They were held to a season-low 75 yards rushing – their first time below 100 yards on the ground since the 2009 opener at Boise State, Chip Kelly's first game as head coach – on a season-low 2.3 yards per carry. Twice as many Duck runs were stopped for losses in the backfield (11, a season high for Auburn) as went for first downs (5, a season low for Oregon). Their longest carry went for 14 yards. In the red zone, Oregon turned the ball over on an interception in the first quarter, settled for a field goal in the second and was stuffed on 4th-and-1 at the Auburn goal line in the third. Between their only two touchdowns, from the 11:05 mark of the second quarter to the 2:36 mark of the fourth, the Ducks came up empty on six straight possessions, matching their longest drought of the year.
It's a testament to Oregon's all-purpose resilience that it was able to break that streak when its fate looked the most bleak – beginning with a forced fumble by linebacker Casey Matthews that set up a 55-yard march for the game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion with less than three minutes to play in regulation – and that the game was still in reach at that point despite the offense's inconsistency and missed opportunities. The Duck defense turned Auburn away at the goal line, too, on one of five Tiger trips into Oregon territory that resulted in zero points. Cam Newton's 311-yard, two-touchdown night came with two sacks, two turnovers and a sore back that required immediate treatment after the game. His bid for the best single-season pass efficiency rating in Division I history also fell by the wayside.
But even with its own defense's the dominant template of the night from the opening series – a three-and-out by Oregon's offense – was the one Duck fans had most feared: Auburn's consistent superiority on the line of scrimmage. And Nick Fairley was the force driving the narrative forward, into the Duck backfield, a persistent, ill-tempered reminder that as far as offenses have come, there's still no substitute for the ability to get them off the field, one way or another.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.