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A Loser’s Review of the 2011 National Championship Game

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Bummer...

Tostitos BCS National Championship Game - Oregon v Auburn Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

GLENDALE, ARIZONA

TIGERS 22 - DUCKS 19

The 2011 National Championship game was billed as a sure-fire shootout between two undefeated teams. Chip Kelly in his second year as head coach led an Oregon team averaging 47 points and 286.2 rushing yards per game, while Gene Chizik in his second year had Auburn not too far behind with 41.2 points and 284.8 rushing yards per game.

LaMichael James and Cam Newton were certainly the stars of this event. James came into this game with an NCAA-leading 1,682 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns, a mere 41 yards away from breaking Jonathan Stewart’s single-season record. A few weeks before the “Natty”, as Cliff Harris would coin it, Newton beat out James for the Heisman. Having transferred from the junior college level, Newton surprised the SEC and the country by racking up 49 total touchdowns and 3,998 yards before heading to Glendale, apparently good enough to make the NCAA forget about his off field issues.

With high-powered offenses like these, no wonder we were all expecting a shootout. But perhaps what we should have been paying attention to are the defenses on these undefeated squads: the Ducks were in peak bend-don’t-break mode, allowing 346.0 yards per game but also 2.8 takeaways and a measly 18.7 points. The Tigers weren’t on Oregon’s level as far as defensive stats were concerned (a strange moment in time when a PAC-12 defense was significantly better than an SEC champion’s D) but they had a higher level of blue-chip talent and a terror on the line named Nick Fairley.

Below is a series of clips from the 2011 BCS National Championship game. HERE’S THE THREE-HOUR VERSION! I highly recommend this, even if it is hard to stomach at the end.


OREGON RUSHING

LaMichael James: 13 car - 49 YDS

Kenjon Barner: 11 car - 32 YDS

Darron Thomas: 8 car - (-6) YDS

NCAA Photos Archive

The Ducks had built a reputation for big plays and big stats on the ground, but on this day Chip Kelly was forced to take it to the air due to a tenacious Auburn defense. Nick Fairley lived in Oregon’s backfield and the extra preparation time, combined with a defense that regularly competed against the option in practice led to the disappearance of Oregon’s prolific run game.

By halftime, Oregon had a net 38 rushing yards and a shockingly low score of 11 points. It was clear Chizik was intent on stopping the run, specifically LaMichael James, and Fairley did a stupendous job doing just that. The 6’5, 298 defensive lineman had a reputation of playing aggressive bordering on dirty football and he definitely lived up to his reputation. On seemingly every play, Fairley collapsed Oregon’s line and went straight for the mesh, resulting in either a hurried hand-off or a tackle for a loss.

James would find other ways to impact the game in favor of the Ducks, but would ultimately finish as Oregon’s leading rusher with a mere 49 yards on 13 carries and zero rushing touchdowns. Kenjon Barner struggled even more to find production, averaging less than three yards on 11 touches.

As far as the running game is concerned, the quintessential play took place on Oregon’s one-yard line. Auburn had been held scoreless on their previous drive thanks to an impressive goal line stand on the two-yard line, which put the Ducks in terrible field position made worse by an illegal motion penalty. The ball was given to James who tried his hardest to escape his own end zone, unfortunately, his outstretched arm fell just short of avoiding the safety (pictured above.)

Kelly’s decision to go for it on 4th and 1, down by eight with 2:26 left in the third quarter, is another one of those plays that changed the course of the game. Oregon became a pass-first offense after this point in the game, apparently having finally learned not to run straight at this surging Auburn front seven.

OREGON PASSING

Darron Thomas: 27/40 - 363 YDS - 2 TD - 2 INT

Jackson Rice: 1/1 - 11 YDS

NCAA Photos Archive

Darron Thomas could be Oregon’s most underrated player of all time. Thomas tends to be lost in the shuffle when the average Duck fan lists their top Oregon quarterbacks, and even during the 2010 season he was often overshadowed by James and Chip Kelly’s system in general. Coming into this game, the sophomore quarterback tallied 2,518 passing yards, 492 rushing yards, 28 passing touchdowns. five rushing touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Along with James and Barner, Thomas was made ineffective on the ground, finishing with -6 yards due to the NCAA’s baffling choice to make sacks count towards rushing stats. Things looked grim for the young quarterback; after their opening possession ended in a three-and-out, Thomas threw back-to-back interceptions. Fortunately, the potentially disastrous turnovers were sandwiched by a Newton interception.

The score was tied at zero until Oregon broke the seal with a 10-play, 62-yard drive that resulted in a field goal. Thomas seemed to regain his composure after the early mental mistakes and eventually was able to take advantage of Auburn’s aggressive defense, spreading the ball to a slew of receivers that were able to find holes against the frequently blitzing Tigers.

Oregon’s most impressive offensive play took place on their own 7-yard line with 12 minutes left in the second quarter. Auburn had just taken the lead with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Kodi Burns, and an especially rough kick return forced the Ducks to start deep within their own territory. On the first play of the drive, Oregon suddenly looked like their old familiar selves when Thomas made a huge play, connecting with the ever-reliable Jeff Maehl for 81 yards.

Two plays later, Thomas connect with James through the air for an eight-yard touchdown, his first score of the night. In true Kelly fashion, the special teams unit lined up in the swinging gate formation only to seemingly abandon the two-point attempt and realign in the traditional PAT formation only to run a trick play that led to a Rob Beard touchdown off the option toss, giving the Ducks an 11-7 lead with 10:58 left in the first half.

Oregon would not score again until the 2:33 mark in the fourth quarter. To fully realize the futility of this offense on this day I’ve listed every Oregon drive below:

  • Punt
  • Interception
  • Interception
  • Field Goal
  • Touchdown
  • Safety
  • Punt

- HALF -

  • Punt
  • Turnover on downs
  • Punt
  • Punt
  • Touchdown

It became clear that Oregon would have no luck on the ground, so Thomas was forced to put the team on his back. He didn’t commit another turnover for the rest of the game and when the Ducks needed him most in the final minutes of the game, down by eight, he not only connected with James once again for his second touchdown catch, he also found Maehl in the end zone for the vital two-point conversion.

If not for that miserable final Auburn drive, Thomas would have probably had the opportunity to win in overtime. Perhaps then he would be remembered for more than handing the ball off to James and Barner.

NCAA Photos Archive

OREGON RECEIVING

Jeff Maehl: 9 rec - 133 YDS

Lavasier Tuinei: 3 rec - 75 YDS

Drew Davis: 6 rec - 60 YDS

David Paulson: 3 rec - 48 YDS

LaMichael James: 4 rec - 39 YDS - 2 TDS

Marvin Johnson: 1 rec - 11 YDS

Kenjon Barner: 2 rec - 8 YDS

NCAA Photos Archive

Oregon’s receiving corps was never thought of as a weakness, however, it regularly played second fiddle to their counterparts in the backfield. Once the ground game was taken away Thomas and his receivers picked up the slack, and it was nearly enough to force overtime.

Maehl was solidified as an Oregon great at his position thanks to a heroic performance in this game, finishing with 133 yards on nine receptions. His 81-yard play set up the Ducks’ lone touchdown of the first half, then his two-point conversion reception tied the game late in the fourth. It’s safe to say that Maehl would have remained Thomas’ top target in the event of an overtime, but alas, it wasn’t in the cards.

Lavasier Tuinei, David Paulson, and Drew Davis tallied a combined 138 yards in the second half as Oregon was suddenly able to pick up yards in big chunks: Tuinei snatched a 43-yard pass in the third quarter, tight end Paulson caught a 33-yard ball when the Ducks were perilously close to their own end zone in the fourth, and then Davis caught a crucial 29-yard pass on 4th & 5 during the Ducks’ final touchdown drive.

LaMichael James was held in check on the ground, but the resilient running back still managed to score 12 of the team’s 19 points. In the first quarter, twice he was able to extend a drive with his pass-catching ability, vital plays considering the first 15 minutes of the game were essentially dedicated to field position.

James also caught both of Oregon’s touchdown passes, which felt redemptive after his earlier stretch fell short of preventing the safety. His first touchdown was a wide-open walk in to the end zone after some clever misdirection and his second was a toss on the goal line. The threat of James rushing was present throughout the game, even if it never fully amounted to much, this allowed him to be utilized as an effective surprise weapon in key moments.

NCAA Photos Archive

WHAT EVERYONE EXPECTED TO BE A SHOOTOUT TURNED OUT TO BE A LOW-SCORING SLUGFEST, AND THE FINAL BLOW WILL FOREVER HAUNT DUCK FANS...

NOTABLE TIGERS

Scam Newton: 20/34 - 265 YDS - 2 TD - 1 INT - 22 car - 143 YDS - 1 Fumble

Michael Dyer: 22 car - 143 YDS

Emory Blake: 4 rec - 54 YDS - 1 TD

Kadi Burns: 1 rec - 35 YDS - 1 TD

Nick Fairley: 5 solo, 1 Sack, 3 TFL

Mike McNeil: 12 solo - 14 total

Zac Etheridge: 1 INT - 2 solo - 3 total

Demond Washington: 1 INT - 7 solo - 1 TFL

NCAA Photos Archive

OREGON DEFENSE

TIGER PASSING: 278 YDS - 2 TD - 1 INT

TIGER RUSHING: 254 YDS

TURNOVER BATTLE: Ducks 2 - Tigers 2

Auburn’s offense mirrored Oregon’s in that both teams were held well below their season average in scoring and neither team was able to successfully run the option look that got them there. Nick Aliotti’s bend-don’t-break was living up to the name; the Tigers may have been better at marching down the field, but the Ducks were able to force two takeaways and essentially neutralize the Heisman winner in the red zone.

A few of Oregon’s defensive highlights include Harris’ momentum preserving interception in the first quarter, the team’s goal line stand in the second, and Casey Mathews’ punch to pop the ball out of Newton’s hand - resulting in one final Oregon drive that tied the game late in the fourth.

Outside of the two 30-yard touchdown passes to wide-open receivers, Oregon’s secondary did an excellent job making sure Newton didn’t burn them for big yardage. And if you forget about Dyer’s final minute dash (something I recommend for all Duck fans), the defense made sure their team was still in this game by limiting Auburn’s yards after contact.

Oregon’s defensive performance made many around the country finally take notice of what was a fantastic unit all season. overshadowed by a revolutionary offense.

NCAA Photos Archive

ALL-GANG GREEN TEAM

  • Casey Mathews: 4 Solo, 6 Total - stripped the ball to force a turnover.
  • Cliff Harris: 3 Solo, 1 Int - had a second potential interception in the second quarter questionably waved off,
  • Kenny Rowe: 8 Solo, 9 Total, 1 sack
  • John Boyett: 10 Solo, 11 Total - led the Ducks in tackles, frightened Cam Newton into under-throwing a wide open receiver in the end zone,

Now that we have explored this painful memory, let us not forget about the joy our fan base shared when we finally knew that we were going to our first National Championship. The leadership of Rich Brooks and Mike Bellotti helped transform the Ducks into a contender and Chip Kelly was the absolute perfect fit for that exact moment and that exact team.

How lucky we are to be Duck fans!

So where were you when Oregon finally made the Natty?