January 11, 2011

Auburn turns title game into SEC slugfest

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Everyone expected a track meet, but a slugfest broke out.

And that's exactly what Auburn wanted.

The Tigers turned Monday night's BCS national championship game into a good, old-fashioned Southern-fried matchup, never allowing Oregon to get its engines started thanks to strong play by -- surprise! -- Auburn's much-maligned defense.

Somewhere, Ralph "Shug" Jordan is smiling following the Tigers' 22-19 victory at University of Phoenix Stadium, which gave the school its first national title since 1957.

"Well, I can start telling you about five weeks ago we challenged our defense, and I think they had about all they wanted to hear about the speed and the tempo [of Oregon's offense]," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "And we made it so fast in practice that I think tonight -- and maybe [the players] can speak differently -- but I thought tonight, with the way we practiced, it was much slower than we practiced. I think that helped."

Welcome to the SEC, Oregon. Aren't you glad you don't toil in this conference week after week? This is a conference with big, fast, physical teams whose hallmarks are rugged defenses. And Auburn's defense won this game.

Yes, the right foot of Tigers kicker Wes Byrum provided the winning points on a last-play, 19-yard field goal. But it was Auburn's defense that did the heavy lifting on this night, a night that was supposed to feature a ton of points put up by two prolific offenses.

Oregon entered this game with the No. 1 scoring offense in the nation, at 49.3 points per game. The Ducks left with 19.

Oregon finished with 449 yards, but it never got its vaunted ground game going, rushing for just 81 yards, more than 220 below its average. Conversely, Auburn did get its rushing attack going, rumbling for 255 yards, and that was a decisive factor in the game.

"You know, the matchup with our offensive line against their defensive line was really the changing point in that football game," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. "I will give Auburn credit; they got a great front four. Nick Fairley proved he was the best defensive lineman in the country. It was a tough matchup for us."

The Tigers' defense was maligned most of the year. Auburn entered the game with the No. 9 defense in the SEC (362.2 ypg). The pass defense was even more abysmal, ranking last in the SEC (250.5 ypg), and Oregon carved up the Tigers for 374 passing yards.

Key defensive moments

Everyone knew about Auburn's offense, but few thought the Tigers' defense would provide the key plays in the Tigers' 22-19 BCS title game triumph. But that was the case.

Following a scoreless first quarter, the offenses began to heat up. Oregon held an 11-7 lead late in the first half, but Auburn drove to the Ducks' 1. But on fourth down, Tigers quarterback Cam Newton short-armed a pass to fullback Eric Smith, who dropped it.

Oregon took over, but that's when Auburn's defense got to work, notching a safety when Tigers tackle Mike Blanc dropped LaMichael James in the end zone. That made it 11-9, Oregon. Auburn took the ensuing free kick and drove for a touchdown, giving the Tigers a 16-11 lead it never relinquished.

Barner stopped on fourth down

In the second half, Auburn's defense delivered again. With the Tigers leading 19-11, Oregon had a first-and-goal from Auburn's 3. But on fourth down from the 1, Tigers linebacker Josh Bynes stuffed Ducks running back Kenjon Barner for no gain to preserve the lead.

"[Defensive coordinator Ted Roof] had a phenomenal game plan," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "He called a phenomenal game. We went into the game with very few things that we wanted to do. We wanted to execute, and if they were better than us on this night, then they were just better than us on this night." - TOM DIENHART

But coordinator Ted Roof's group made big plays at key times during the season, and Monday night was no different.

With Auburn's offense unable to put the game away in the second half, the Tigers' defense kept turning away the Ducks until finally buckling late by allowing a touchdown and tying two-point conversion after a fumble by Newton.

"We just wanted to get as many hats around [Oregon running back LaMichael] James as we could," Roof said. "We practiced fast for weeks. I am proud of our guys."

James, the nation's leading rusher, was limited to 49 yards on 13 carries. The trouble on the ground forced Oregon to go to the air more than it wanted, which resulted in two interceptions and lots of pressure on Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas.

"Man, our defense, we showed America everything we done each and every Saturday," Fairley said. "Man, we have been doing this, like I said, for 14 weeks. We just went unnoticed throughout the year. Now that we got noticed out here on the big stand, we just showed what we can do."

With Auburn's offense rolling up yards (520) but not points, it was up to the Tigers' defense to deliver the big plays. And it registered two huge ones.

With 3:26 left in the first half and Oregon leading 11-7, Auburn defensive tackle Mike Blanc dropped James in the end zone for a safety. On the preceding play, Auburn fullback Eric Smith had dropped a sure touchdown pass on fourth down from Oregon's 1. After the ensuing free kick, Auburn went 66 yards in six plays, scoring on a 30-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Emory Blake to give the Tigers a 16-11 lead they never relinquished.

With Auburn leading 19-11 late in the third quarter, Oregon had a first-and-goal from the Tigers' 3. On fourth down from the 1, the Tigers stuffed Ducks running back Kenjon Barner to preserve the lead.

"Our defense did its homework," Newton said. "And it did its job."

Not even trickery helped the Ducks. Oregon executed a gimmick play on an extra-point attempt for a two-point conversion in the second quarter, and the Ducks also pulled off a fake punt. But it didn't matter. This Auburn team wasn't going to get beat by a team resorting to trickery.

Oregon hadn't seen defensive speed like this in the Pac-10. Time and again, the Ducks tried to get to the edge -- but couldn't.

"I had a lot of respect for them defensively," Kelly said. "I was really, really impressed with their front. We knew it was going to be a test for us."

If you're scoring at home -- and we know fans from Arkansas to South Carolina and from Kentucky to Florida are doing just that -- that's five national titles in a row for the SEC and six in the past eight seasons.

Auburn doesn't figure to be back on this stage next season. Newton is as good as gone to the NFL, and with Newton gone, the Tigers will welcome back only eight starters. But count on another SEC team being in New Orleans this time next year. Maybe it will be LSU, which opens the 2011 season against Oregon. Maybe it will be Alabama, which won the 2009 title.

But that's next season. Monday night belonged to Auburn.

"We wanted to go from good to great this year," Chizik said. "And we did that. Auburn is the best team in college football in the United States."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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