What did the Vikings quarterback do well in his rookie season, and how high is his ceiling?
11 Jan 2011
by Robert Weintraub
On my way to the laptop to write this column, I slipped on the University of Phoenix field turf, just as so many players from Auburn and Oregon did Monday night in the BCS Championship Game. Clearly, the grounds crew a) got their agriculture degrees online, and b) bet the under. So I'm writing this recap of Auburn's sloppy but dramatic 22-19 victory over Oregon with a torn ACL -- bear with me.
It may have been slippery out there, but one guy didn't have much trouble keeping his feet -- Nick Fairley. I've been giving the big fella deep tissue rubdowns in this column all season, and I handed him my Lowsman Trophy Award for best non-skill guy in the country. Auburn's monster defensive lineman showed how he earned that hardware in the title game. He also earned that crystal football he pretended to hurl into the crowd after the game. Five tackles for loss, a sack, a stuff at the goal line on fourth-and-goal, a forced fumble, and a single-handed destruction of the Big Green Scoring Machine -- not a bad way to prepare for the NFL Draft, where he should be a Top 5 pick.
On more than one occasion, Fairley and other Auburn defenders were deliberately left unblocked in a midline read play. But Fairley and his mates were too fast for Ducks quarterback Darren Thomas -- the Auburn tacklers made the plays before Thomas could get the ball to the right man. When they talk about SEC speed, it's the 285-pounders, not the flankers, that make the difference.
Auburn's defense made a couple of early interceptions to rattle Thomas, dropped LaMichael James in the end zone for a safety that swapped the momentum after the Ducks had a goal-line stand, and then turned in a memorable goal-line stand of its own. In a sequence full of incident and wonder, Oregon faked a punt when Auburn dropped off the gunners to try and block the kick. A long pass got them inside the 5-yard line. (Brent Musburger incorrectly called it a touchdown, which will haunt the MusMan long into the winter, far more than his "This is for all the Tostitos" call before the final field goal.) But Fairley and the defense rose for four straight stops on Oregon runs (mostly by Kenjon Barner, as James was hurting). It wasn't about scheme here -- the Tigers front just whipped the Oregon offensive line.
For the second straight season, the Heisman Trophy winner has won the title, but Cam Newton was good, not great (20-for-34, 265 yards, two touchdowns, one interception). He missed two wide open, shoulda-been touchdown passes that would have put the game away far earlier than the final gun. One was a bomb, another was a two-yard touch lob, but both had War Eagle fans groaning. And he only exploded on third-down runs a handful of times. But he did find Emory Blake on a gorgeous wheel route late in the first half, after a subtle slide up in the pocket to defeat a blitz. The throw gave Auburn the lead. Hybrid defensive end/linebacker Kenny Rowe was lost in space in coverage on the play, with no chance to stop it. Incredibly, these two explosive offenses would go about 30 minutes before the next touchdown.
And of course, Newton fumbled late in the game, the ball punched free by Casey Matthews on a play from the backside reminiscent of TCU's Tank Carder in the Rose Bowl. A gorgeous pick by the umpire (will he be moved behind the line of scrimmage, as in the pros, any time soon?) helped Oregon convert a fourth down, and they scored with 2:33 left. Jeff Maehl hauled in the two-point conversion to tie the game at 19.
Oregon had a few moments of dash and invention that typified its season. Chip Kelly called an option pitch with his holder and kicker on a PAT for a two-point conversion. The fake punt was a confident decision that made Nick Saban wince in the ESPN booth. Oregon's first touchdown came on a throwback screen to James that was a work of art. And the defense, led by Matthews, worked its tail off to slow Cam and crew.
But it wasn't enough. On the decisive drive, Newton appeared to still be suffering from a jarring hit he took earlier in the quarter (he got X-rays after the game). So he let freshman running back Michael Dyer do the damage. Dyer was fortunate on the game's biggest play. Tackled after seven yards by safety Eddie Pleasant, Dyer was actually boosted up by the tackle attempt -- his knee staying off the ground. After a split-second of delay, Dyer took off for 30 more yards. Kelly had been forced to use two timeouts earlier, leaving the Ducks behind the eight ball in the endgame. Dyer almost scored as Auburn was positioning for the winning kick -- frankly, Oregon should have let him score far earlier. He came up a half yard shy, and to the anguish of all who had Auburn -3.5, Wes Bynum came in to hit the winning chip shot.
So that's two straight titles for the state of Alabama (plus that Iron Bowl -- not a bad 12 months), and five in a row for the SEC. I mentioned something about magic dust covering the Tigers in the SDA preview, and the Dyer (Not) Down play qualifies as being Touched By An Angel. The Tigers walked the tightrope all season, and Philippe Petit couldn't have done it better. So much for the folks who thought Gene Chizik was a terrible hire (cough BARKLEY cough). Though the Auburn defensive front dominated, and it felt for long stretches that the Tigers would blow it open at any time, it appropriately came down to the final play. Oregon had a fantastic season, and will certainly be a Top 5 team to open 2011, but 2010 was the Year of the Cam.
Congrats to Auburn, and thanks to all of you for checking in every week during a fascinating and thrilling season. See you for Boise State-Georgia in the Kickoff Game in the Dome -- only 234 days away!
9 comments, Last at 22 Jan 2011, 2:29pm by Sjt