While running back Michael Dyer emerged as the defining moment in the Tigers’ championship, it was quarterback Cam Newton the Ducks and defensive coordinator Nick Alioti were most concerned about.
On Chip Kelly’s line of scrimmage, quarterback Darron Thomas and his mates were most focused on stemming the relentless rush of Auburn’s defensive front and in particular nose tackle Nick Farley.
Neither team scored in the opening quarter as the irresistible force of Kelly’s blur offense was matched by the immovable object of the 298 pound Farley and the Auburn line.
The Ducks got on the board first with a Rob Beard field goal less than a minute into the second frame after Farley had spoiled a promising Oregon drive with a six-yard sack of Thomas but it was enough to spark the offenses to life.
Newton and the Tiger took just over two minutes to answer on a 35-yard scoring completion to Kodi Burns.
Oregon struck back even quicker. Thomas and Jeff Maehl hooked up for an 81-yard pitch and catch to start the drive and put the Ducks in position to retake the lead 11-7, covering 94 yards all told with four snaps and in less than a minute…Kelly’s offense at its most lethal.
Trapped at their own one yard line after Newton was stuffed on fourth and goal by linebacker Casey Mathews on Auburn’s next posession, Oregon yielded points anyway when Farley blew through the line to tackle LaMichael James in the endzone for a safety.
Newton capitalized on the subsequent possession as well, engineering a six-play drive in just over 90 seconds, finding Emory Blake in the Oregon endzone from 30 yards out to give the Tigers the lead at 16-11.
And that’s where things stood when the teams took the field for the second half.
But instead of extending the fireworks of the second quarter the game turned back to the trenches with Auburn taking a 19-11 lead into the fourth on Wes Byrum’s 28-yard field goal.
And Oregon didn’t see their fortunes change much as the game extended deep into the final quarter. Despite holding Newton and the Auburn offense to a field goal so far in the half, it was more than Thomas and the Oregon offense could muster as the teams traded punts for the first 10 minutes of the frame.
With 5:05 remaining and with possession at their own 29 yard line, Newton rushed for one yard and Kelly burned a time out.
On the next snap, Newton scrambled to his right and was about to break contain when Matthews separated him from the ball with a swipe tackle and Oregon safety Cliff Harris pounced on the loose ball to give the Ducks life at the Tiger 40-yard line.
The thing that 2010 team did better than any Oregon team had done up to that point was take advantage of every game changing opportunity that came their way. All teams try – but Kelly’s offense was deadly in quick change. But needing a score and a two point conversion made the margin of error just that much tighter.
Not to worry. Thomas opened the series with a 10-yard completion to Maehl , as sure handed a receiver as perhaps the program has seen. After keeping for a five yard gain, Thomas connected with D.J. Davis for 29 yards to the Auburn eleven. A quick hitch to tight end David Paulson netted seven more and after James was held to no gain on the dive play, Thomas went back to James, this time with a shovel pass for the two yard touchdown.
For the most important two-point attempt in program history, Kelly and Thomas went to that sure-handed senior, Maehl. Slipping underneath the DB’s and just behind the goal-line scrum, Maehl popped open on a crossing route and Thomas hit him in the hands. Tie ballgame.
There isn’t much to be gained reliving the next two minutes for Oregon fans. Dyer rolling over the top of Eddie Pleasant and extending his run 49 yards was an immediate top-10 highlight and remains an ongoing debate about whether his knee touched the ground or not. The only thing that was a slam dunk was Byrum’s 19-yard chip shot field goal that gave Oregon its only loss of the season.
Obviously it will be two completely different teams lining up to open the 2019 campaign for the AdvoCare Classic on Aug 31 at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Texas but there are some similarities in the rematch.
One thing that will be the same is Gus Malzahn will be calling plays for the Tigers; this time as the head coach rather than as the offensive coordinator as in 2011.
The Tigers are coming off an 8-5 2018 season with losses to LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. They did beat Washington to open the season 21-16 and walloped Purdue 63-14 to close things out in the Music City Bowl.
Malzahn’s biggest problem is he will be opening the 2019 season with zero experience at quarterback, whether it be redshirt Joey Gatewood or true frosh Bo Nix who gets the nod coming out of camp.
Gatewood has a year of Malzahn’s system under his belt and Nix is a five-star recruit so the situation isn’t hopeless. And it is a true fact more and more first year quarterbacks are coming in and catching lightening in bottle from the get go. Such a turn of events would be Malzahn’s dream come true.
The Tigers did lose their two top receivers and as camp gets underway there are reports injuries have further thinned the herd at the position. Depending on recovery times and the performance of a pair of receivers who missed all of last year with injury, this position group could be a liability in Auburn’s hope to return to the top of the SEC standings.
Both the offensive and defensive lines give Malzahn reason for hope. Expected to be among the best in the country on both sides of the ball, if the Tigers can live up to potential in the trenches a lot of the “maybe’s” can solve themselves.
Defensively the Tigers have open questions at both linebacker and cornerback but Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson are both solid at safety and will be expected to plug any leaks in front of them.
As with nearly every team in the SEC, Auburn is loaded with talent and with so many variables in the depth chart as the Tigers open camp it becomes near impossible to envision what kind of team Auburn will have when they host Alabama at the end of November, let alone on opening night.
What is clear is the winner will have an early inside track to hold serve on the 2019 schedule and end up in the BCS. A loss won’t preclude the possibility but obviously it is preferable to have the game in hand.
So while it will be two completely different teams meeting than the two that squared off in Glendale, it will be two programs who are in a similar circumstance and share the identical ambitions. Kick-off is set for 4:30 pm PDT. ESPN will host the season opening edition of GameDay onsite and the game will be televised on ABC.
~ Rick Morgan