AUBURN'S PERFECT RECORD BELIED A SEASON OF GRITTY, GRINDING comebacks. So when the Tigers jumped to a two-touchdown lead after the first quarter of the SEC title game, it seemed as if they had finally been granted some breathing room. But South Carolina would not concede a coronation without a fight. It rediscovered its running game and rammed the ball down the field before a one-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery cut Auburn's lead to seven points with 16 seconds remaining before halftime.
Then, Hail Cam.
The box score lists the final play of the first half as a 51-yard touchdown pass, but Tigers quarterback Cam Newton's laser beam actually originated at his own 45 and didn't make contact with Gamecocks safety DeVonte Holloman's hand until it was two yards deep in the end zone. The ball bounded away from Holloman and into the hands of a leaping Darvin Adams as the half expired. In that moment South Carolina's momentum evaporated too. Buoyed by the miracle play, Auburn rolled to a 56--17 win that clinched the Tigers' spot in the BCS championship game.
Four days earlier Auburn had declared Newton ineligible to play following the NCAA's conclusion that his father had violated its amateurism rules. A day later the NCAA reinstated the son, who showed no signs of being affected by the controversy as he took his victory lap around the Georgia Dome after throwing for a career-high 335 yards and four touchdowns and running for 73 and two.
Tigers coach Gene Chizik, a man not given to hyperbole, or even faint praise, called Newton "probably the best football player I've ever seen." He didn't make that statement lightly. After all Chizik was the defensive coordinator on the 2005 Texas team led by quarterback Vince Young.
On Saturday the Gamecocks sold out to stop the run. They would not let Newton, the SEC's leading rusher, beat them with his legs. So he destroyed them with his arm. Newton easily would have cracked 400 yards had his receivers been more sure-handed in the first half. Adams dropped two key passes (but finished with seven catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns).
Auburn's line helped by denying South Carolina a single sack and giving Newton an eternity to throw. "He's got about four or five, six seconds back there," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said. "Auburn's offensive line is one of the best in the nation."
South Carolina was overwhelmed by Newton's aerial display and the running of Newton and freshman Michael Dyer. "It's just embarrassing," Gamecocks defender Antonio Allen said. "I don't even know what the score was. Fifty? Forty-nine?" Actually, it was worse. In the second half the Tigers scored on the pass, twice on the run and even once on an interception return, while South Carolina mustered just a field goal.
Less than two hours later Newton sat on a podium pondering the fact that his Tigers had just earned a shot to play for the national title.
"Honestly, it hasn't even sunk in right now," Newton said. "[I've] just been living the dream this whole year.... I can't stress it enough how blessed I truly am."