Destination Atlanta: Newton shakes off troubles, No. 2 Tigers improve to 11-0

By PAUL NEWBERRY / The Associated Press

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Cam Newton did his talking on the field.

Responding to all those allegations of wrongdoing with another brilliant performance, Newton passed for two touchdowns and ran for two more to lead No. 2 Auburn into the Southeastern Conference championship game — and another step closer to playing for the national title.

The Tigers pulled away from Georgia in the fourth quarter for a 49-31 victory that, at least for one day, took some of the heat off college football’s most dynamic player.

“I’m just very proud of the way he played,” coach Gene Chizik said. “He’s a really, really talented, extremely gifted player who means a lot of our football team.”

Newton celebrated with his teammates after the game, yukking it up in front of the student section, but that would be the only insight into how he was feeling after persistent reports that his father solicited money — big money — during the recruiting process.

Auburn officials refused to make Newton available to the media.

Chizik went along with that theme, saying right at the start of his news conference he would only answer questions about what happened on the field. When a reporter asked him about his feelings toward Cecil Newton, the quarterback’s father, this was the reply: “I’m only taking questions about this football game, thank you.”

The Tigers (11-0, 7-0 SEC) will face No. 22 South Carolina for the conference title on Dec. 4 in Atlanta, though let’s not forget that game looming in two weeks — the Iron Bowl showdown against defending national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

“We have another huge football game coming up,” Chizik said. “We’ve got to get ready for that game.”

“SEC! SEC! SEC!” the sellout crowd of 87,451 chanted in the closing minutes, looking forward to the Tigers’ return to the title game for the first time since the perfect 2004 season. For their second-year coach, it was an especially satisfying moment, since many took issue with Auburn’s decision to hire someone with a 5-19 career record.

“Make no mistake, our goal when we got her was to win a championship,” Chizik said. “We’ve not done that yet. We’re not going to act like we have, because we haven’t. But we’re one step closer to being able to do that.”

Auburn survived another high-scoring, back-and-forth affair, rallying from an early 21-7 deficit to tie it up by halftime. The Tigers kept the momentum going with a daring onside kick to start the third quarter, recovering the ball and driving for the go-ahead touchdown.

Georgia (5-6, 3-5) hung tough behind A.J. Green’s nine-catch, 164-yard performance, tying the game again at 28-all before Auburn went ahead for good on Onterio McCalebb’s 4-yard touchdown run. Newton finished off the Bulldogs with his second scoring pass of the game to tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, a 13-yarder over the middle with 8:05 remaining.

Newton rushed for 151 yards on 30 bruising carries, scoring Auburn’s first touchdown on a 31-yard run and capping off the win with a 1-yard leap into the end zone in the closing minutes. The ball popped loose, Georgia recovered and the replay left some doubt about whether he got over.

But the review went Newton’s way, as so many things have this season. The 6-foot-6, 250-pounder celebrated with another leap into receivers coach Trooper Taylor along the sideline, sending the much-smaller assistant flying.

Newton completed 12 of 15 passes for 148 yards, and his one glaring mistake — an interception that set up a Georgia touchdown — was actually off a deflected ball that should have been caught by the receiver.

Along the way, Newton became the first player in Southeastern Conference history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a season.

The only sour note for Auburn came in the closing seconds. Things got chippy as the teams jawed back and forth at each other, and a brawl nearly broke out.

Two of the Tigers’ defensive players, tackle Mike Blanc and end Michael Goggans, were ejected and can’t play in the first half against Alabama.

“I’m embarrassed by it,” Chizik said. “That’s not who we are, that’s not the way we carry ourselves, and we’ll address it tonight.”

Green, whose season began with a four-game suspension for selling a bowl jersey to someone considered an agent by the NCAA, was impressed by the way Newton handled himself amid all the turmoil.

“He had a great game,” Green said. “It’s hard to focus when you’re a quarterback and you’ve got all that stuff surrounding you. He’s a great guy and I feel like he handled the show in a professional way.”

Newton probably would prefer another word besides “professional,” given the sordid allegations that cast doubts on his eligibility and had some Heisman voters questioning whether he should get college football’s highest award, especially in light of 2005 winner Reggie Bush returning his trophy after the NCAA ruled he received improper payouts while at USC.

The lingering issue about Newton’s playing status was answered when he trotted on the field an hour before kickoff, wearing his familiar No. 2, and went through the normal pregame routine with the rest of the offense. The early arriving student body roared when they spotted the quarterback, and the cheers were even louder about a half-hour later when Newton was announced as the starting quarterback.

One fan held up a sign that said, “We Are Cam-ily.”

On the very first snap, Newton dropped back to pass, sidestepped two defenders and broke off a 13-yard run. Four plays later, he got loose around right end and bowled over two defenders as he tumbled into the end zone.

Georgia had won four straight in the Deep South’s oldest rivalry and needed another to become bowl eligible in a disappointing season. Redshirt Aaron Murray passed for 273 yards and three touchdowns, while the Bulldogs defense got some pressure on Newton in the early going.

They couldn’t keep it going, not against a guy intent on leaving his troubles behind.