GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Football games are so rarely what you expect them to be. This was the thought as Auburn's Cam Newton lined up for a play with 10 seconds left and the Tigers tied with Oregon at the odd score of 19-19. This game had been nothing at all like we thought, but maybe we should have known that. This is the nature of football. This is the nature of matchups. Football games are almost never what you think.
On a Monday night in the desert, in the BCS Championship Game, you had two of the highest scoring offenses in America. You had, for the first time in this game, two defenses that did not rank in the top 20. You had a team, Oregon, that played so fast that teams seemingly faked injuries just to get a breather. And you had a team, Auburn, led by a Heisman winning quarterback who had perhaps the greatest statistical season in the history of college football.
Yes, in so many ways, Monday night's game was about Cam Newton. But you already knew that. He was the best player. He was the controversial figure. He was the guy fans made signs about, the guy who trended worldwide on Twitter. He was the unstoppable force. He was the one guy Oregon was going to do everything to stop, even it if meant sending defenders in from all angles, even if it meant letting Auburn receivers run free. The Ducks did all that and more. And they largely did what they had hoped to do. By the time the Newton lined up for the play, his back was throbbing, his head was spinning. He had his good moments, sure, but he seemed strangely off the whole game. The score was 19-all, and Newton lined up over center and ...
... but we're getting ahead of ourselves. The game was nothing at all like the statistics suggested. Neither team scored in the first quarter. Maybe that was rust, the corrosion that sets in when teams have five weeks between their last games of the season and their bowl game. There were three interceptions thrown in the first 10 minutes. Auburn managed just 21 yards of offense.
The second quarter was more of what was expected. Auburn put up 258 yards of offense in that second quarter and scored 16 points. Newton was generally brilliant -- he completed 14 of 18 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns in the quarter -- but it has to be said that he did miss a little 1-yard pass to a wide-open Eric Smith in the end zone on fourth down. Newton short-armed the pass -- just the slightest sign of what was to come. The ball was low and wide and Smith made a sliding effort but could not pull it in. Oregon's offense, meanwhile, managed the longest pass play in the short BCS Championship history -- an 81-yarder from Darron Thomas to Jeff Maehl -- and largely because of that stayed in the game. Yes, the second quarter was about what we had expected. The score was 16-11 at halftime.
But it would never again be that kind of open, free-flowing game. What kind of game was it? That's a hard one to pin down. Oregon had a few good plays but, inevitably, had no answer for the dominance of Auburn's defensive tackle Nick Fairley. He overpowered the Oregon line enough times to disrupt drives and tear up game plans and slow down the fast-break offense. Oregon did manage to get to the Auburn 1 on one drive, but the Ducks could not get in on fourth down. They did not score for 27 minutes in the second half.
The more compelling story, though, was Newton. Oregon's coaches had devised a fascinating defense to stop Newton -- essentially they decided they would not let him run the ball. Newton was, of course, one of the most dynamic dual threats in the history of college football. He was the only quarterback to throw for more than 2,500 yards and run for more than 1,200. He was one of only three to throw for 20 touchdown passes and run for 20 touchdowns. He came into the game on pace to set an NCAA record for pass efficiency (those numbers are still being tallied) AND he led the SEC in rushing. He did all this even as he spent most of the season surrounded by an eligibility controversy that has still not been entirely cleared, a controversy involving his father, Cecil, and Mississippi State, and a lot of money.
"Through all the things said about him," Auburn's Josh Bynes would say, "he came back and played 10 times harder, ran the ball 10 times harder, threw the ball 10 times more accurately and (more) powerful ... and was just so resilient."
Oregon seemed to realize that Newton WAS Auburn. And they figured that if they could pound Newton, if they could take away his opportunity to run, if they could punish him, they could slow Auburn's great offense. They knew the risks. Once in the third quarter, they let receiver Darvin Adams get behind them and if Newton could complete the pass the touchdown was assured. Newton overthrew Darvin. That was two touchdown passes he simply missed. At times he looked hurt -- especially after a helmet-to-helmet collision in the fourth quarter. At times he looked dazed. For a 23-minute stretch in the second half, he missed 7 of 9 passes and fumbled. These were the 23 minutes when it seemed like Auburn was always just one play away from putting away Oregon. But the Tigers could not make the one play. Cam Newton, uncharacteristically, could not make the one play.
And while we thought the game could turn into a high-scoring thrill-a-thon, it turned instead into this tense, strange, sloppy, chippy and frenzied game. Oregon did manage to get the ball back down only eight points with less than five minutes left. The Ducks went on an inspired drive that was kept alive on a fourth-and-five pass from Thomas to D.J. Davis -- a short-crossing-pattern pass made possible by one of the greatest official picks in college football history. The poor official completely wiped out the linebacker on Davis' tail, and Davis ran 29 yards down to the Auburn 11. Three plays later, Oregon scored, and the Ducks completed the two point conversion, and that's how the score became 19-19.
Newton took the field. By now, we know that his back hurt badly -- he would get medical treatment after the game. On the first play of the drive, he hit Emory Blake for 15 yards. On the second play, he handed the ball off to Michael Dyer who made the run that they will be showing on television for the next 100 years -- he ran right, was brought down by Oregon's Eddie Pleasant after a few yards, kind of rolled around and got up. He seemed unsure of he had actually been tackled -- that is he was not sure if his knee had touched. Auburn coach Gene Chizik was not interested in the particulars. He shouted "GO!"
And Dyer went. Replays would be passed along the Internet for much of the night -- some showing the Dyer's wrist may have touched the ground, some showing that some other body part may have touched the ground, some conceding that replays did not seem to show conclusively that he was down. The replay official concluded he was not down. The run went for 37 yards to the Oregon 23 -- into field goal range. Two plays later, there were 10 seconds left, and Cam Newton lined up under center.
"Tonight I kind of picked it up for (Cam)," Dyer would say. "I knew he was in pain and hurt and feeling frustration. But he still played. He didn't quit. He didn't have any reason -- he didn't say, 'My back hurts so I couldn't do this or that.' He just said: 'I'm going to suck it up and keep going.' And he kept fighting."
Newton took the snap. The goal here was, presumably, to run off a few more seconds so that the field goal would be the last play of the game. But, really, the goal was a Newton touchdown. Everyone knew that was how this charmed, remarkable, absurd, contentious and wonderful season should end. Cam Newton had been responsible for 51 touchdowns. The movie finish was touchdown No. 52. So, no, Newton did not take a knee. He drove forward. And, as it was for much of the game, he was stuffed. He was knocked back even for a loss. Oregon had done everything they could do.
On the next play, Auburn kicker Wes Byrum made the field goal that won the game and the BCS Championship.
"I don't want nobody to feel sorry for me," Newton would say after the game, when someone asked him how he was feeling. Newton did look a bit dazed and in pain but also blissfully happy.
"I'm OK," he said of his painful and winning day. "It was worth it."