January 11, 2011

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Wes Byrum, who has been making game-winning kicks for Auburn since 2007, had two simple thoughts Monday night as he lined up a field goal shorter than an extra point.

Just make the kick. Just put it through.

"Fortunately," Byrum said, "that was a nice short one."

No, it was a huge one.

Byrum's 19-yarder as time expired lifted Auburn to a 22-19 win against Oregon and the second national title in school history. The Tigers, picked in the preaseason near the bottom of the Top 25, ended a controversial, thrilling campaign with orange and blue confetti raining on them at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Cam Newton, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who played through an NCAA investigation that has yet to end, smiled and ran to celebrate with the Auburn fans. Nick Fairley, the defensive tackle who rocketed to stardom amid accusations of dirty play, was named the defensive MVP after making several huge plays -- including a fourth-down stop on the goal line.

A game that was supposed to be dominated by offense turned into a defensive struggle until the final two heartstopping scoring drives.

Down eight, Oregon got the ball back for one last try when linebacker Casey Matthews forced a Newton fumble. The Ducks faced fourth-and-five from their own 40, but Darron Thomas hit D.J. Davis for a 29-yard gain. Three plays later, LaMichael James scored on a two-yard shovel pass from Thomas. After catching a bad snap, Thomas ran right, threw left and hit a leaping Jeff Maehl for the two-point conversion to tie the score at 19.

But Auburn still had time. Freshman tailback Michael Dyer appeared to be tackled by Oregon rover Eddie Pleasant, but Dyer rolled over Pleasant without his knee touching the ground and kept running for a 37-yard gain."I thought he was down," offensive lineman Byron Isom said. "I stopped. He kept going."

Later, Dyer carried to the one. Newton took a knee with two seconds remaining to set up Byrum's kick.

The offenses weren't always so productive. Oregon's first sign of offensive life came in the second quarter when Thomas hit Maehl for an 81-yard gain that set up an eight-yard touchdown pass from Thomas to James. A two-point conversion gave Oregon an 11-7 lead.

Auburn then moved 68 yards in 15 plays and seemed poised to take the lead on a goal-line plunge, but the Ducks stuffed Newton on third-and-goal, and Newton short-armed a pass to a wide-open Eric Smith.

When Oregon took over on downs, Auburn's defense took over the game. An illegal motion penalty wiped out a nine-yard pass to Kenjon Barner and left Oregon backed up against its own goal line. On the next play, Auburn defensive tackle Mike Blanc dragged down James in the end zone for a safety. Auburn took the ball and took the lead less than two minutes later on a 30-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Emory Blake.

Newton capped a controversial season Monday. Reports broke on Nov. 5 that Newton's father, Cecil, used a middleman to pitch a pay-for-play scheme to coaches at Mississippi State. The NCAA investigated and found those allegations to be true, but since it was never proven that Newton knew of his father's actions, an NCAA committee ruled on Dec. 1 that Newton was eligible to play. The following Saturday, Newton led the Tigers to the SEC title with a win against South Carolina. A week later, Newton won the Heisman Trophy. Cecil Newton did not attend the ceremony.

Those who attended Monday's game saw a sloppy affair turn into a thriller in the final moments. As Byrum's toe met leather, the Ducks flew over Auburn's blockers. The ball went through the uprights, and Oregon's Pleasant and Casey Matthews sank to their knees at the five-yard line. Byrum ran toward midfield, where he was swallowed by a celebration befitting the biggest win in Auburn history.

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