Defenses won’t rest in title game
Prolific offenses define both Oregon and Auburn
The Associated Press
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Steve Spurrier, the ball coach who knows a little about offense, said the game could wind up 60-55. Kirk Herbstreit, the TV analyst who knows a little about these teams, said defenses must bristle when they keep hearing about scores in the 55-53 range. The bookmakers in Las Vegas, who don't throw out their numbers just for fun, envision something more like 38-35.
There's a reason Auburn and Oregon are playing in the BCS national title game Monday, a reason the matchup has turned into a red-hot ticket.
These are two newcomers to the championship scene, both with offenses that, almost literally, never take a break. Auburn has Cam Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner who led the Southeastern Conference in rushing, passer efficiency and scoring. Oregon has LaMichael James, the key to an offense that likes to snap the ball 9 to 11 seconds after the end of the previous play, and one that scores a nation-high 49.1 points a game.
"We're anticipating it being very quick, obviously, from the things that we've heard," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "But we're prepared for that."
Chizik and Oregon's Chip Kelly are, quite possibly, the most obscure coaching duo to pace the sideline in a championship game since the BCS began in 1999.
Both are in their second seasons as head coach at their schools. Chizik is a former defensive coordinator at Auburn and Texas who came back to the Plains despite a 5-19 record at his first head-coaching job at Iowa State. Kelly was hand-picked by his predecessor, Mike Bellotti. After his first game as Oregon's head coach, a 19-8 loss to Boise State to start 2009, Kelly famously cut a check to reimburse a season-ticket holder who wrote him to complain about the performance.
Chizik and Kelly are both success stories in their own right but have spent the week puncturing the long-held theory that the most intriguing characters in college sports often are the coaches. Neither has said much memorable in the weeklong build up to the game. After posing stiffly for the cameras in front of the crystal championship ball Sunday, the coaches headed into their final pregame news conferences.
Asked for his opening statement, Kelly responded: "Game is tomorrow night. Let's go play. Questions?"
So much for insight.
Auburn has been pummeled all season with questions about Newton's status, the result of a meandering investigation into allegations that his father was involved in a failed pay-for-play scheme during Newton's recruitment to Mississippi State.
The NCAA cleared Newton to play shortly before the SEC title game, and with the Tigers confident - at least for now - they won't have to give back the crystal ball if they win it, the most notable thing to pass for controversy this week has been the debate over whether Auburn defensive lineman Nick Fairley is a cheap-shot artist.
Fairley, the Lombardi Award winner as the nation's best lineman, has brandished a reputation for playing very hard through the whistle, and sometimes beyond. How Oregon's quick - but not huge - offensive line handles Fairley could dictate how well Oregon's fast-paced offense runs.
"He's got speed, strength, technique," Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. "Basically, all the things you don't want to see as an offensive guy lining up against him, he's got."
James, who has averaged 152 yards and almost two touchdowns for an offense that has been held under 37 points only once all year, said he can tell when a defense is breaking down.
"You start seeing a lot of hands on hips, broken tackles, things like that," he said. "You see them blitzing but not really blitzing because they don't have the energy."
Knowing Oregon will try to push the pace in this game, the way the Ducks have all year, Chizik said he would have a very specific conversation with officials before the game, urging them to enforce a rule that allows the defense time to make substitutions if the offense does. Kelly said it won't make a difference, "because we don't sub."
"When we want to play fast, we know the rules," he said. "If we are trying to play at a fast tempo, we are not trying to sub in those situations."
Oregon's mission on defense is to try and become the first team to stop Newton, who has the body of a linebacker - 6-6, 250 pounds - but the skills of a top running back and quarterback.
He averages 108 yards rushing a game, completes 67 percent of his passes and has accounted for 49 touchdowns - 21 running and 28 passing. After he passed for 335 yards and four touchdowns and ran for two more scores in a 56-17 blowout of South Carolina in the SEC title game, Spurrier, the Gamecocks coach, said a 60-55 score was a possibility in the title game.
"You have two of the best offensive minds in football," he said, speaking of Kelly and Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.
All of which may really mean that whichever defense plays better will lead its team to a championship.
"I think both defenses have something to prove and want to show up and are tired of answering questions about how it's going to be 55-53," Herbstreit said. "I think they have a point to prove. I think it will be a low-scoring game, lower-scoring because of the way the two defenses are going to show up in a bad mood."
But while defense wins championships, offense sells tickets, and almost everything points to this being a high-scoring game. Auburn heads into the game favored by 2 1/2 points, though more telling is the over-under for the contest, set at a whopping 74 points.
Demand for this game was, according to ticket seller StubHub, at a record level. So high at one point that the company had to shut down sales when it ran into a glitch with one of its sellers. That problem was remedied, but tickets for the game were still averaging in the $2,000 range Sunday on a variety of broker websites. An estimated 15,000 Auburn fans came to Arizona without tickets, hoping to be part of a championship moment that hasn't happened at that school since 1957.
Oregon has never won a national title, and hadn't had one on the radar until about a decade ago. The school that produced Norm Van Brocklin, Dan Fouts and Ahmad Rashad on the football field is still probably best known as a counterculture track school where the late runner Steve Prefontaine, of 1970s fame, remains the top sports figure.
Kelly, however, does not plan to use this game as a way to change the culture. He's more about a great offense than grand pronouncements.
"We stand for three things: playing fast, playing hard and finishing. We've done it with our 12 opportunities," he said. "Our vision has not to do with championships. Our vision has nothing to do with getting a crystal ball or rings. It is all about playing the game. That's what we've done all along and that's what our vision is."
No. 1 Auburn (13-0) vs. No. 2 Oregon (12-0) on Monday at 8:37 p.m. ET (ESPN)
- Series Record: First meeting.
What's at Stake
For Auburn, its first national championship since 1957. For Oregon, its first national championship - period. The Tigers could also make it five consecutive national championships - between four teams - for the Southeastern Conference. Oregon could become the first Pac-10 team to win a BCS title other than Southern California.
Auburn DT Nick Fairley vs. Oregon's interior offensive line: Auburn's All-American has the potential to be the Ducks' biggest problem. The 298-pounder is quick off the ball and light on his feet. Oregon's offensive line is workmanlike and solid, but asking center Jordan Holmes and guards Carson York and C.E. Kaiser to handle Fairley might be asking too much.
Players to Watch
Auburn: QB Cam Newton. Defenses and scandals have done nothing to slow down the Heisman Trophy winner. The 250-pound All-American became the first player to run for more than 1,000 yards and pass for more than 2,000 yards in SEC history
Oregon: RB LaMichael James. The nation's leading rusher with 1,682 yards finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. The All-American isn't the biggest guy at 5-9 and 185 pounds, but he's speedy and tough enough to run between the tackles.
Facts and Figures
Oregon leads the nation in scoring at 49.1 points per game and is second in total offense at 597 yards per game. ... Auburn is sixth in scoring at 42.7 points and seventh in total offense at 497 yards per game. ... This is the first BCS championship game in which both teams started the season ranked outside the AP top 10. ... Ducks QB Darron Thomas has 28 touchdown passes, second-best in school history behind Akili Smith's 32 in 1998. ... Auburn has eight come-from-behind victories, four from double digits. ... Both Oregon coach Chip Kelly and Auburn coach Gene Chizik are in their second seasons in their jobs.