GLENDALE, Ariz. — Auburn’s 53-year wait is finally over.
The Tigers ended a half century national championship drought Monday night, ironically enough in the desert, when place-kicker Wes Byrum split the uprights with an 19-yard field goal as time expired, lifting No. 1 Auburn to a 22-19 win against No. 2 Oregon before 78,603 at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Orange and blue confetti rained from the ceiling as Auburn’s players and coaches poured onto the field to celebrate the school’s 14-0 season and first national championship since 1957.
“Fifty-three years, baby! This is for you,” Tigers coach Gene Chizik shouted to fans afterward. “War Eagle!” Byrum’s kick capped the program’s remarkable turnaround under Chizik, who took a downtrodden team that went 5-7 in Tommy Tuberville’s final season to the top of the college football world in two short years.
It also ended three decades of frustration for Auburn fans, who experienced several near championship seasons. The 1983 team went 11-1 but was voted No. 3 behind one-loss Miami and Nebraska. The Tigers went undefeated in both 1993 and 2004 but were denied their shot at the playing for the national title, the first time because of NCAA sanctions, the second due to a BCS snub.
This year’s team removed all doubt about who was No. 1, running the SEC gauntlet and emerging as the conference’s fifth straight BCS national champion.
“Anything is possible,” said Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton, who played through a back injury to finish with 265 passing yards, 64 rushing yards and two touchdown passes. “I guarantee that five or six months ago nobody would have said that Auburn University is going to win the national championship. Now, on Jan. 10, 2011, we can say we did it.”
Auburn’s win is sure to be talked about for years, and not just for its thrilling finish. The Tigers’ championship will undoubtedly come under fire as a result of the Newton recruiting scandal that dominated headlines for close to a month.
Although both he and Auburn were cleared of wrongdoing, Newton knows the Tigers won’t garner much sympathy.
“Throughout this year, ain’t nobody feel sorry for Auburn,” said Newton, who swooped in from junior college a year ago to become the 14th player to win the Heisman and national title in the same season. “And we got the last laugh.”
In typical fashion, the Tigers didn’t decide things until the very end.
Oregon (12-1) looked left for dead late in the game, its high-powered offense, like Auburn’s for most of the night, looking oddly out of sorts in what turned out to be an unexpected defensive battle.
The Ducks, who led the nation scoring 49.2 points per game, finished 30 points below their season average. Oregon’s vaunted rushing attack was held to only 75 yards after averaging 303.5 during its first 12 games.
Auburn tackle Nick Fairley, who took defensive MVP honors after finishing with three tackles for a loss and a forced fumble, thought it was about time the defense got its due.
“Our defense, we showed America everything we done each and every Saturday out there on the field,” he said. “We just went unnoticed throughout the year.”
But, trailing 19-11 and having just punted back to Auburn, Oregon got the break it needed. With 4:50 remaining, Ducks linebacker Casey Matthews popped Newton on a running play, jarring the ball loose for teammate Cliff Harris to fall on at the Auburn 40. It was Newton’s second lost fumble all season.
Eight plays later, LaMichael James, the nation’s leading rusher, scored on a 2-yard run. Quarterback Darron Thomas’ two-point conversion pass to Jeff Maehl tied the game at 19 with 2:33 on the clock.
But it was too much time to leave the Tigers, who revved up their version of a the two-minute offense in a moment’s notice. Newton started the drive with a 15-yard pass to Emory Blake before freshman running back Mike Dyer reeled off a 37-yard run, keeping his balance near the line of scrimmage by propping himself up on a Ducks defender, then racing down the field.
“At the time I wasn’t really sure (if I was down),” Dyer said of the play, which was upheld by replay. “All I knew was the whistle wasn’t blowing and my coach was saying, ‘Go.’ ”
Dyer, who ran for 144 yards to earn MVP honors despite not playing in the first quarter, nearly put a touchdown capper on the game, busting up the middle for a 17-yard run that ended up with him in the end zone with only 10 seconds remaining. Replay showed that he was down at the 1.
After a kneeldown took the clock down to two seconds, on came Byrum, who famously did the Gator chomp after a game-winning kick at Florida as a freshman. He has an ever better tale to tell now, capping his college career with his sixth game-winner.
“We know without question when the game comes down to the end, wherever we put that ball within reason, he is going to make it,” Chizik said. “And there was no question in our mind today.”
Afterward, Chizik was still taking in the entire night.
“I’m not sure if 15 weeks ago anyone believed that we could do this except us,” he said.
“We said that we wanted to go from good to great. And I can sit here tonight and I can tell you that the Auburn Tigers are the best football team in the United States.”
(c) 2011, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, Ga.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.