My overall impression of the game is that I am going to need to pull out the hoariest of football cliches and say that Auburn won because they dominated in the trenches. Pat Dye wouldn’t have it any other way. Coming into the game, all of the attention was on the offenses and rightly so. On one side, Cam Newton and Gus Malzahn; on the other side, the Darron Thomas/LaMichael James combo coached by Chip Kelly. With the stage set for a shootout between two Spread teams, we got a tight, relatively defensive game that Auburn controlled (for the most part) because they won on both lines. On offense, Auburn was able to run between the tackles with Newton and Michael Dyer. (Nick Saban figured this out quickly and made the point at halftime. You’d almost think that he’s familiar with this Auburn team.) That inside running game set up the rest of the offense. On defense, Auburn’s defensive line was unblockable (and not just Nick Fairley, although he was outstanding). Oregon’s offense was a big doughnut. Chip Kelly did as good a job as he could scheming around the hole in the middle as the game progressed, but there’s only so much that a coach can do when the base play of the Spread offense – the inside zone play – is not an option. Sure enough, the game was ultimately decided by two big runs from Dyer. Kudos to Brent Musburger for identifying the difference-maker for the SEC in the consistent ability of its teams to win big games against opponents from other conferences: athletic defensive linemen. (Contrast him making this simple, precise point with Kirk Herbstreit attributing SEC national titles to “speed.” Gee, that helps.)
- 2010 was the year of Cam Newton, both in a positive and a negative sense, but Newton was not the star tonight. He had 330 yards passing and rushing, but needed a combined 56 pass attempts and carries to put up those number. He threw one pick, should have thrown a second, and missed two wide open touchdowns, one on a crucial fourth and goal and the other on a third and long when Darvin Adams broke wide open. A one-man band shouldn’t win a national title, so it’s appropriate that Auburn won its championship on a night when Newton was not at his best.
- Let’s not get carried away with the claim that this game was a defensive struggle because it finished 22-19. The teams combined for 975 yards of offense. Auburn-LSU ‘88 this was not. A related and somewhat contradictory point: this game finished with almost the same score as the Rose Bowl, but in this game, there were 25 possessions and 158 plays, whereas the Rose Bowl featured 16 possession and 116 plays. See how much can be squeezed into a game when the teams are playing at a fast pace? Also, these defenses accomplished a lot more than the Rose Bowl defenses did and vice versa for the offenses.
- One aspect of the coverage of the bowl games that bothered me was the efforts to relate everything back to the NFL. I realize that the NFL is the most popular sports league in the country, but college football isn’t exactly indoor lacrosse. For the biggest games of the year, I don’t need a dissertation on Andrew Luck’s draft status or the differences between college and pro rules. At times, the coverage of the bowl games mimicked NBC’s unwatchable coverage of the Olympics, which is inevitably ruined by efforts to cater to casual fans as opposed to their core audience. Fox’s abominable Cotton Bowl coverage was the worst example, but we had an instance even in this game. When Auburn was driving in Oregon territory up 19-11 with six minutes remaining, Musburger suddenly started talking about Newton’s draft status. Of all times to play the NFL card, you’re going to choose a critical moment in the national title game? To his credit, Herbstreit brushed the discussion off in about five seconds and then made the argument that we were watching a massive set of downs because Oregon would have a hard time coming back if they fell behind by two scores.
- And now that I’ve said something nice about Herbie, this seems like a good time to mention that he kept yammering in the first half about how the two defenses were playing well because they had emotion on their sides and they had gotten tired of hearing about the opposing offenses. It took Herbstreit 28 minutes of game time to make the point that was blindingly obvious to people who had watched the Ducks and Tigers this year: both offenses start slow and then ring up numbers in the second half when they have worn out their opponents. What was interesting about tonight’s game was that the offenses didn’t get on track in the second half. We ought to credit Gene Chizik/Ted Roof on the one side and Nick Aliotti on the other, although both defensive brain trusts were aided by the fact that they were familiar with defending fast tempo Spread attacks having seen them in practice all year.
- And now that I’ve complained about shoehorning the NFL into college coverage, here’s an NFL thought that occurred to me during the game. Auburn’s touchdowns came from Emory Blake (AU’s third-leading receiver on the season) and Kodi Burns (Auburn’s sixth-leading receiver on the season). One of the hallmarks of the Spread generally and Gus Malzahn’s offense specifically is that lots of receivers and running backs get the ball, so no one receiver is integral. Am I overreacting by saying that Bill Belichick’s work with Urban Meyer has led New England to import the spread concept of ball distribution around? Probably. After all, New England won three Super Bowls with a series of “who dat?” receivers. My point ought to be more limited: modern offenses tend towards using a number of fairly even backs and receivers, rather than copying the Irvin-Emmitt model of focusing on one receiver and running back. That makes our Falcons something of an outlying team.
- I realized tonight that my “stop hitting your brother” point is a copy of Urban Meyer’s glare and point. I’ll miss you, Urban. You make me a scarier father.
- Surely I wasn’t the only one thinking on Auburn’s penultimate snap “Gene Chizik, Jim Donnan is on the line and he’d like to suggest that whatever you do, don’t give the ball to Jasper Sanks here.” And am I wrong in saying that other than that kneel-down, the only other play in the game in which a quarterback was under center was the Auburn safety that swung momentum from the Ducks to the Tigers?