Malzahn quickly got wise. His answer to Aliotti's zone dogs and blitzes and other exotica: hardball runs at the belly of the defense. Dyer started gashing Oregon for chunks up the middle. That, in turn, set up Newton to complete deep passes to his wideouts. Auburn went the length of the field on three successive drives. Newton's long touchdown throws to Burns and Emory Blake bookended a valiant goal line stand by the Ducks—a shining moment they quickly squandered when James was tackled in the end zone for a safety. After gaining a laughable 21 yards in the first quarter, the Tigers exploded for 268 in the second. Dyer, a freshman, would finish with 143 yards on 22 carries. Auburn left the field at halftime with a 16--11 lead and all the momentum.
In the entire week before kickoff the closest thing to trash talk was provided by Thomas, who was asked if he was aware of Fairley's reputation for late hits. Fairley, the Lombardi Award winner, is a highly effective combination of brute strength, sweet feet and latent sadism. His helmet-to-back spearing of Georgia's Aaron Murray—one of Fairley's three cheap shots on the Bulldogs' quarterback on Nov. 13—should have earned him an ejection.
"We've seen that he's got a lot of dirty plays, throwing people around after the play and things like that," Thomas replied. "But that's just football." Apprised of Thomas's statement, Fairley kept his remarks civil: "Hopefully, it's a good thing I'm inside those guys' heads."
Once the game got under way, he also got under their pads, around their blocks and into their backfield. "Nick Fairley is the best defensive lineman in the country. It was a tough matchup for us," Ducks coach Chip Kelly declared after the game, in a massive understatement.
Newton wasn't the only Auburn player to bust out in 2010. A 6'5" 298-pounder out of Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Miss., Fairley spent last season adjusting to the speed and talent in Division I-A ball. This year he dominated, making 21 tackles for loss and 10½ sacks before Monday night. Along the way, he knocked three quarterbacks out of games. For long stretches against Oregon—the top-scoring team in the country (49.3 points per game entering the title game)—he did as he pleased, piling up five tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
His game, his identity, was captured in one brief, telling stretch in the third quarter. On a first down he breathed life into an Oregon drive by committing a mindless personal foul: While extricating himself from the pile, he casually yet violently twisted the helmet, ergo, the head of James. Four plays later, he kneecapped the same drive with a vicious seven-yard sack of Thomas. On the Ducks' ensuing possession, Fairley made a touchdown-saving tackle on the one-yard line on third down and, for good measure, stuffed Kenjon Barner one play later to force a turnover on downs. Fairley is a brilliant player and something of a bully—a one-man study in the nature of good and evil.
This title game was celebrated, rightfully, as a tasty clash of conferences and disparate football cultures. Yet Oregon and Auburn shared a surprising amount in common. Both fielded breathtaking, up-tempo offenses. Both had demonstrated, throughout their seasons, a propensity for slow starts. Both prided themselves on their resilience. On Monday night the Ducks' defense was particularly resilient: It had to be, because for long stretches of the middle two quarters, Kelly's vaunted Blur attack couldn't get out of its own way.
But Aliotti's crew regained its footing. Auburn let the underdogs hang around. When Matthews jarred the ball from the Heisman winner's hands, it appeared that the Newton-Auburn saga might come to an implausibly sad end in the desert. As the stunned quarterback came to the sideline, Malzahn tried to encourage him. "Hey, man," he said, "you got us here. Keep your head up, 'cause you're gonna help us win it."
In fact, Newton was something of an afterthought in a game-clinching field goal drive that will go down in Tigers lore for the hustle and heads-up play of Dyer, whose knee never did touch the ground.
As the confetti swirled and the customary stage was rapidly assembled, a security detail set up barricades around it. Amid the exultation came the discordant voice of an Auburn coach shouting at one of the security guards. "Our whole season's been about family," he complained, "and you're not gonna let our wives in?"