As much as I hate to do admit it, I will: I was wrong about Oregon. When the season ended and it was clear the Ducks would be facing No.1 ranked Auburn in the 2010 National Championship, I just assumed that game would be the one bowl game worth missing – but Oregon certainly proved me wrong.
I figured Auburn, coming out of the SEC, would have no trouble handling the Pac-10 Champion Ducks. After all, who did Oregon play? USC? Washington? Washington State? Oregon State? Their most notable games were against Stanford (which was a great 52-31 come-from-behind victory against another ranked opponent) and California (a game they should have lost, but squeaked by with a 15-13 win thanks Cal’s inability to make field goals), so who would have guessed they would be able to go toe-to-toe with the SEC Champions? Clearly, not me.
If there was a chance for Oregon to win, it would have to be because of Auburn’s defense; to see if they could hang with Oregon’s no-huddle offense. They did, and I knew they would. Oregon’s RB LaMichael James carried the offense all season long, but when facing a defense like Auburn’s, he simply could not. James’ offense line couldn’t make any holes for him, and the Auburn defense was too fast for him to beat to the corner. The Heisman candidate could only rack up 49 yards on 13 carries. His counterpart, a speedy Kenjon Barner, wasn’t much help either; he only ran for 32 yards off 13 carries. The Ducks’ vaunted rushing attack was just not there, tallying up only 75 total yards all game. Auburn’s defensive line, particularly DT Nick Fairley, was just too much to handle.
Despite Fairley’s dirty, yet effective play, the Duck’s did manage to make some plays in the passing game – which is why this game was so close. Oregon exposed a weak Auburn secondary which allowed QB Darren Thomas to throw for 363 yards and two touchdowns. The problem came when Oregon had to finish drives. On three different occasions (one of which cost the Ducks the game) their drives stalled inside the five yard line: when Oregon was out of real estate, when there was no room to spread the Auburn defense out with, when it was no gimmicks, just power football…Oregon failed.
The Ducks offense had successfully tired out the Tigers defense on several different occasions, but ran into a one big issue every time: Auburn’s depth. Just when Oregon seemed to have Auburn on the ropes, out come the refreshed and refocused starters to force the Ducks drive to a screeching halt. In the end, depth would be the issue. As the final quarter unfolded, it was Oregon’s defense that couldn’t handle the fast-pace Auburn offense. The Ducks’ defense looked sloppy, fatigued, and confused as they allowed 519 yards of total offense, 254 of it on the ground.
Don’t get me wrong, the defense played great, but in the end they simply ran out of gas. Despite LB Casey Matthews single-handedly getting his team back in it by causing a fumble (that resulted in an Oregon TD) late in the game, the Ducks had nothing left. A spent Oregon defense trotted out on the field and allowed RB Michael Dyer to break a confusing 37-yard run. Dyer was tackled, but not quite. He never touched the ground and when he popped back up, Oregon’s defense seemed to be the only ones that didn’t notice the whistle was never blown.
Dyer’s run set up the game-winning field goal, but, if there is such a thing, Oregon lost in impressive fashion. They had the speed, the size, and the talent to win, but Auburn is an SEC team and SEC teams have speed, size, talent, and DEPTH. That game was a credit to how good a coach Oregon’s Chip Kelly truly is. His knowledge of the game, his heart, his determination, and his guts were all personified in the actions of every Oregon player that night. This was a team that had no business giving Auburn that much of a fight, and they did anyway. Sure Oregon’s offense was just as good if not better, but again, who do they play? Auburn had its mettle tested against South Carolina (twice), Arkansas, Florida, and Alabama. Oregon was tested against Stanford; a team that built a lead but didn’t have the defensive depth to keep it against that potent Oregon offense.
In the end, the Auburn Tigers won a heck of National Championship game, but Kelly’s squad won some prestige in that game. Next year Fairley will enter the draft, Newton will follow suit and look to get paid (again) in the NFL, and Auburn will return to mediocrity, but the Ducks will only get stronger from this game. If Chip Kelly plays his cards right (and something tells me he will), the Ducks will be playing in a lot more of these games – the only question is how many times will they be hoisting that crystal football in the end?