With the game tied and just over two minutes to play, Michael Dyer was able to do what so many players failed at in the previous 58 minutes.
He stayed on his feet.
It is Michael Dyer, not Cam Newton, who will be remembered for the iconic moment of the game. Dyer took the handoff from Newton with 2:08 to play at the Auburn 40 yard-line. He moved right, got to the second layer, then evaded an Oregon tackler by rolling over on top of him.
For a brief moment, everyone thought he was down. Dyer slowed, almost completely to a stop, and took a look at the Auburn sideline. “My coach was saying go,” Dyer said. So he took off down the sideline. “(Wide Receiver Darvin Adams) kept saying ‘Go, go, I got the block for you. We were just trying to keep the play going and get more yards.”
The play set Auburn up in Oregon territory, and after running four plays, Auburn sent on their kick team. Wes Byrum nailed the 18-yard chip shot as time expired, and Auburn was celebrating their first national championship since 1957.
“War Eagle!” yelled head coach Gene Chizik as his team stormed the field.
“It is about the Auburn family,” said Chizik after the game, “and it is about those, I don’t know, 30- or 40,000 fans that came into that stadium tonight and probably another 10,000 that were outside and probably another 10,000 that wanted to come back home but couldn’t get here… This is for these players and this Auburn family and the people that care about Auburn and carry the Auburn flag. It is that simple.”
Both Auburn and Oregon rode into this game on the strengths of their offense. Auburn averaged over 45 points a game; Oregon 49. But the 9th-ranked Auburn rush defense did its job, holding LeMichael James to season-low 49 yards rushing. As a team, Oregon was able to get just 75 yards on the ground.
“I think (Strength and Conditioning Coach Rock Oliver) did a great job with the D line getting ready for this tempo with the get-offs and the jump ropes we all practiced,” said Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, a likely top-5 pick in this year’s NFL Draft. “We probably did like 2,000 jump ropes the whole time we was off.”
“But I thought tonight with the way we practiced it was much slower than we practiced. I think that helped,” said Chizik. “Coach (Ted) Roof had a phenomenal game plan.”
“Our defense was focused for one month. They went out and practiced every day to win a national championship, every day. There was not a day that I can sit there and look at, boy, we were just terrible today. And they came out and they executed on game day. Let me tell you something, they made some huge plays.”
“Our defense did their homework,” praised Newton, “and, you know, they did the job.”
A crucial defensive stop came for the Tigers late in the 3rd quarter. Down 19-11, the Ducks drove down the field. They faked a punt at mid-field and found themselves with 1st and goal from the Auburn 3 yard-line. The Auburn defensive line, masterful all game, held their ground, stopping Oregon RB Kenjon Barner right at the goal line on 4th and goal from the 1.
“Coach (Roof) called a good play for us because we knew what kind of an idea of a run they were going to do. We all basically said we will fill our gap perfectly,” explained Tigers LB Josh Bynes, who made game-changing tackle. “I was slightly getting cut off and I just ducked enough to get to the running back’s legs to try to hold him from getting in the end zone.”
Said Chizik of his defense, “You talk about the word ‘respond.’ They responded today. One of the reasons we will be able to wear that ring is because of how well they played, these guys right here.”
Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton did his fair share. Newton overcame an early interception and a late fumble to finish 20-34 for 265 yards and 2 TDs. He also carried the ball 22 times for 64 yards.
“He is a great football player, and he is a great human being,” Chizik described of Newton. “We love him at Auburn and we got his back in everything that he does and everything that he stands for. So everybody in this room knows he is a great player.”
Dyer, whose 162 yards rushing were good enough to claim offensive MVP, knows Auburn wouldn’t have been in this position without their smiling quarterback.
“Throughout the whole season he has been having this team on his back. We were the guys that were trying to make things happen and take the load off his back.”
“He kept us winning. He ran hard tonight. He came out there and he just played Auburn football. He is the Auburn man and we learned a lot. Tonight I kind of picked it up for him because I knew he was in pain and hurt and the frustration. But he still played. He didn’t quit. He didn’t have any reason.”
“For Cam to come in and just do the things he’s done this year has been awesome for this team,” said Bynes. “It has been without a doubt the most amazing thing I have seen from a quarterback by far in my life.”
“Without a doubt, each and every day regardless of what was going on, he came in with the biggest smile on his face and joked around like nothing was going on. And he’s like family to us. And he meant a lot to this team.”
So an embattled coach gets a national championship, just two years after leaving Ames, Iowa and being publicly ridiculed upon arriving at the airport. A quarterback leaves his legacy on the sport just two years after transferring to get out of the shadow of Tim Tebow. Yet that’s not matters to hundreds of thousands of people this morning. What matters is that they can say four words for the first time in 53 years.
“War Eagle – National Champs.”