By Stewart Mandel
January 11, 2011

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- We all thought he was down. The viewers at home. The 78,603 people in the stands. The Oregon defense. Even, for a brief moment, the player himself.

But Michael Dyer wasn't down. Just as his team has done so many times this season, the running back somehow escaped -- breaking the tackle of Oregon's Eddie Pleasant, landing on top of the defender instead of beneath him, balancing with one hand and regaining momentum. The whistle never blew, just as the curtain never came down on the Tigers' 2010 season. So Dyer kept running.

"I heard a lot of voices [from the sideline] shouting 'Go! Go! Go!'" said the Auburn freshman. With less than two minutes remaining, the score tied 19-19 and a national championship hanging in the balance, Dyer popped up and raced down the field to finish off an astounding 37-yard run that put the Tigers in position for a potential game-winning field goal.

Three plays later, Dyer burst for another 16 yards to the brink of the goal line, setting up the 19-yard Wes Byrum field goal with no time remaining that gave Auburn a 22-19 win over Oregon and the school's first national championship since 1957.

The Tigers took the hardest road imaginable to get to 14-0. Eight second-half comebacks. A 24-0 deficit to their arch-rivals. An NCAA investigation that could have wiped out their star quarterback's season. On Monday night, that same star quarterback, Cam Newton, injured his back and coughed it up twice.

Auburn had watched its 19-11 lead go up in smoke only moments before Dyer rolled off of Pleasant and ran toward daylight. Some might suggest Dyer caught a break when his wrist never touched the ground -- and that the officiating and replay crews agreed with that assessment.

Center Ryan Pugh wouldn't argue.

"A lot of times you say make your own breaks," said the senior. "But it was a heck of a run."

Despite not garnering his first touch until the second quarter, Dyer finished with a game-high 143 yards on 22 carries. His team's much-maligned defense, meanwhile, held Oregon's normally potent rushing offense to just 75 yards on 32 attempts, the Ducks' lowest output in nearly two years.

Meanwhile, Newton seemed to suffer a case of the "Heisman curse," accounting for 329 total yards but hardly dominating the way he did all season. His fumble with 4:50 remaining set up Oregon's game-tying touchdown.

But Auburn still found a way to win. Again.

"This truly was a team, and it will always hold a special place in the hearts of the Auburn community because of what we went through this year," said Pugh. "The whole time we were going through this season, all we wanted to be was out here on this field. There's no doubt in my mind this was the best team in the country, and what we did on the field can never be questioned."

There are a few folks in Fort Worth, Texas, who might disagree with that sentiment. TCU went undefeated as well, but won't get a trophy. Auburn fans can certainly empathize. They went through the same thing in 1993 and 2004.

There are plenty more people who will always consider the Tigers' season tainted, no matter what the NCAA ultimately does or does not uncover about Newton's recruitment. On that issue, you'll find no such sympathy from anyone in orange and blue.

"We're national champions," said guard Lee Ziemba before politely walking away from a reporter who dared ask about the legitimacy of their title.

The Tigers won that title first and foremost with defense, something no one expected from a team that came in with the nation's 51st-ranked unit and was facing the nation's highest-scoring offense. Viewers tuning in to watch the speed-racer Ducks run up and down the field were sorely disappointed. Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas and Heisman finalist LaMichael James could never get their high-wire act going primarily because their linemen couldn't block Auburn's physical defenders.

In particular, Lombardi winner and potential No. 1 draft pick Nick Fairley spent much of the night delivering pulverizing hits, from a crushing blow on Thomas as the quarterback released on a first-quarter interception to a six-yard tackle for loss to stuff Thomas on a third-and-two from the Auburn three. In the fourth quarter Fairley helped stuff James at the goal line on a fourth-down rush from the Tigers' one-yard-line.

"The matchup with our offensive line against their defensive line was really the changing point in the game," said Ducks coach Chip Kelly. "Nick Fairley proved he was the best defensive lineman in the country. It was a tough matchup for us."

Fairley also served a reminder of why so many people find it difficult to enjoy the Tigers' success. The oft-labeled cheap-shot artist delivered a zinger on James in the third quarter, grabbing his facemask at the end of the play and driving his face into the ground. It garnered a personal-foul call and an interesting postgame conversation with James.

"It was nothing bad. It was all love," said James before adding: "I was calling him a cheater because he kept grabbing my facemask."

Two plays later, however, Fairley came barreling through the line to sack Thomas and force a fumble, stalling an Oregon drive. There was nothing dirty about that one. And Fairley hardly did it alone. The Ducks seemed determined from the outset to break outside runs (they ran more option pitches than usual), but defensive end Nosa Eguae and pursuit safety Mike McNeil were having nothing of it.

For nearly 56 minutes, the Tigers' previously leaky secondary allowed just one back-breaking play: an 81-yard pass from Thomas to Jeff Maehl that helped set up an eight-yard touchdown pass from Thomas to James and an ensuing two-point conversion to put Oregon up 11-7 with 10:57 left in the second quarter. The Ducks went more than 30 minutes from there without scoring. Meanwhile, Auburn produced a safety when Mike Blanc stuffed James in the end zone, notched two interceptions and produced a goal-line stand.

"It's a team deal," said Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof. "The plan was to line up, keep the ball in the park and be physical. Our players really bought in, and it wasn't a surprise [how they performed]."

Give ample credit to Oregon's defense, too, which kept the Ducks in the game until the end despite an uncharacteristic performance from their offense. In particular, they bottled up Newton the runner, holding him to 2.9 yards per attempt. They produced their own goal-line stand in the second quarter when Casey Matthews stuffed Newton on third-and-goal from the two and Newton delivered an incompletion on the following play.

And after Auburn went up 19-11 early in the second half, the Ducks held the Tigers without a point for nearly two full quarters, forcing three straight punts, then producing the game-turning Newton fumble -- forced by Matthews and recovered by cornerback Cliff Harris (who also had an interception) -- that gave Oregon new life with 4:50 remaining.

"Our defense was doing a good job at least containing them," Kelly said. "We were hoping they were going to come up with a big play. You watch how excited our offense is thriving off what our defense did."

Indeed, for one last drive, the Ducks looked like the Ducks, marching 55 yards on eight plays capped off by Thomas' shovel pass to James and two-point conversion pass across his body to Maehl. Unfortunately, they left too much time on the clock. The Tigers took over on their own 25 with 2:27 left having been down this road plenty of times before.

"They had that look in their eyes like they we're fixing to get it done," said Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. "To win a national championship, you have to have a great player make great plays."

The only surprise was that the great player making the two greatest plays turned out not to be the Heisman Trophy winner. Instead it was Dyer, who broke Bo Jackson's school record for rushing yards as a freshman (1,093) and forever etched himself into War Eagle lore when he just ... kept ... running.

"We really appreciate Cam throughout the things he went through the whole season," Dyer said. "He kept his head up and played great games. He kept us winning. ... Tonight I kind of picked it up for him because I knew he was in pain and hurt."

Newton had to leave the postgame press conference early for an examination of his back. Before he did, he gave one parting message.

"I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me because throughout this year nobody felt sorry for Auburn," he said, then smiled. "We got the last laugh."

And the last great escape.

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