By Eddie Pells/The Associated Press
GLENDALE, Ariz. — He never heard a whistle, never felt his knee hit the turf. So, Auburn’s Michael Dyer popped up, took a few steps, then stopped and looked around.
In that split second — the amount of time it takes to shout “War Eagle!” — Dyer placed himself right up there alongside Cam Newton, Bo Jackson and every other great player to wear the Auburn uniform.
Realizing the play was still going, Dyer started running again — past the tackler who thought he had him down, deep into Oregon territory. The stop-and-go maneuver — a once-in-a-lifetime run — set up a short field goal on the last play that sent No. 1 Auburn over the No. 2 Ducks 22-19 in the BCS title game Monday night.
“My knee wasn’t down,” Dyer said. “I didn’t hear a whistle, not yet, so I was kind of like, looking, like, what’s going on?’”
With his 37-yard run, the freshman did what most fans thought impossible: He upstaged Newton, the Heisman winner who turned his first — maybe only — season at Auburn into a title-winning run.
Three plays later, Dyer ran 16 yards to push the ball to the 1 and set up Wes Byrum’s 19-yard field goal with no time left. It capped off a perfect 14-0 season, brought the title back to Auburn for the first time since 1957 and left the Southeastern Conference on top of college football for the fifth straight year.
Auburn won The Associated Press title with 56 of 59 first-place votes, capping a first-of-its-kind climb up the rankings — from No. 22 at the start of the season to No. 1 at the end.
“Fifty-three years, baby!” coach Gene Chizik said to the cheering crowd. “This is for you. War Eagle!”
Dyer was the key player in five crazy minutes of football at the end that were vastly different from the first 55, which were more of a bruising defensive battle than the offensive masterpiece so many had predicted.
The dramatic endgame began when Casey Matthews, son of the 1980s NFL linebacker Clay, punched the ball from Newton’s hands while he was trying to lead Auburn on a drive that might have iced a 19-11 lead.
Oregon’s offense, shut down by Nick Fairley and the rest of the Tigers’ stout defensive front for most of the night, moved 45 yards over the next 2:17, and Darron Thomas threw a shovel pass to LaMichael James for a touchdown. Thomas hit Jeff Maehl for the 2-point conversion with 2:33 left and the game was tied — down to the last possession.
And that possession will be remembered for one incredible play.
Dyer took the handoff and ran off right tackle for about 7 yards, or so it seemed. Nothing was routine about this one. He wasn’t sure his knee hit the ground, so he popped up and took a few more steps. Then he stopped and looked to his left. With his coaches and teammates urging him to keep going, and everyone on the field at a standstill, Dyer realized that, indeed, the referee hadn’t blown his whistle. He took off and made it to the Oregon 23. An official review ensued and the replay showed that his knee had never touched the turf.
“All I knew was the whistle wasn’t blowing and my coach was saying ‘Go!’” Dyer said.
Eddie Pleasant, the Oregon defensive back who almost made the tackle, was stunned.
“It hurts, you know?” he said. “It’s not like he broke free and did some spectacular things. He was tackled. Everybody on the side of the defense stopped. He stopped and the coach told him to keep running and he ran.”
Dyer finished with 143 yards and was chosen Offensive Player of the Game — a pretty big accomplishment considering he had the Heisman Trophy winner playing alongside him.
Newton threw for 265 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 64 yards, most in short, punishing bites. He wrenched his back and had to go to the trainer after the game. Indeed, every yard came at a price in this one.
“I’m OK. It was worth it,” he said. “I got the better deal out of the whole thing.”
The game had been billed as an offensive show for the ages but wound up as something much different.
Wearing white jerseys with gray numbers, green pants and DayGlo shoes and socks, the Ducks got only 49 yards rushing from James, who averaged 152 on the season. An offense that had been held under 37 points only once all year managed just the two touchdowns. The last one came on a simple shovel pass from Thomas, who finished with 363 passing yards — 81 of them on a long pass to Maehl that set up the first touchdown.
Oregon didn’t come close to its nation-leading 49-point average, and the fast-paced offense that turned most opponents into mush in the second half couldn’t wear down Auburn.
“Our defense was focused for one month,” Chizik said of the 37-day layoff between the SEC and national title games. “They went out and practiced every day to win a national championship. Every day.”
As did the Ducks, who finished 12-1, three points shy of their first national title but not making apologies for the effort they gave in the desert.
“I said in my first game as head coach that one game doesn’t define you as a person or a football player,” coach Chip Kelly said. “And the same thing still holds true. These guys are champions.”
Only one team gets to take home the trophy, though, and that team was led by Newton, who helped Auburn to its ninth comeback win of this improbable season. He has now won a national title three straight years — in 2008 as a backup to Tim Tebow at Florida, last year in junior college at Blinn, and now with the Tigers.
If he goes pro, this will mark the end of a tumultuous stay at Auburn, shadowed by an NCAA investigation into his failed recruitment by Mississippi State. The governing body cleared him to play before the SEC championship but said his father, Cecil, solicited money from the Bulldogs.
“Anything is possible,” Newton said. “I guarantee, five or six months ago, that no one would bet their last dollar that Auburn would win the national championship. And now we’re standing here.”
The game began with a moment of silence to remember something much more somber. The six victims of the weekend assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson were honored by having their names read, and a choir sang “God Bless America” while the crowd stood at attention.
A few hours later, it was standing for an entirely different reason — to watch one of the more memorable finishes in college football history.
The SEC improved to 7-0 in BCS title games. Four different teams from the conference have won it in this latest five-year run.
LSU. Florida twice. Alabama.
And now, Auburn, the school that has loads of tradition — the Tiger Walk, toilet-papering Toomer’s Corner and a case full of Heisman and other big-time individual trophies. What’s been lacking all these years are championships. Bad luck in the polls doomed the Tigers’ one-loss team in 1983, probation kept them from capitalizing on a perfect record in 1993, and the vagaries of the BCS left them on the outside in 2004, maybe the most painful of all the snubs.
No more pain on this night. Auburn capped what, at times, seemed like a never-ending bowl season — 35 games spread over 24 days — with five minutes that will go down as five of the most exciting the game has ever seen.
These Tigers won one for all the Bos and Beasleys and Terrys and Tracys who came close but couldn’t close the deal down on the Plains. And they fashioned a nice symmetry with that team up the road — the Crimson Tide — that took home the Heisman and the same championship trophy one short year ago.
“I’ve got two words: ‘Class act,’ all the way around,” Chizik said.
Two other words came to mind, though, after this great night for Auburn: “War Eagle.”