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Monday, January 10, 2011
Updated: January 11, 8:15 AM ET
Title game followed twisted season

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Phil Knight and his cronies watched the Oregon news conference Monday night from the back row of the interview room. When you're the founder of Nike and you've built a college football power on piles of your cash, you go where you want to go, credentialed or not.

When the news conference was over, Knight stood up, looked at a friend and held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. He wasn't smiling.

Cam Newton
The month-long layoff and prepared defenses took their toll on the offenses.

Knight got it right. It was a proverbial game of inches. The skinny space between the University of Phoenix Stadium turf and Auburn running back Michael Dyer's knee decided the national championship Monday night. A chaotic and controversial season turned on a chaotic and controversial play.

It was a game of busted cinches. This Tostitos BCS Championship Game was guaranteed to be a shootout, with both teams averaging more than 40 points per game. Yet it took until the final play for them to combine for more than 40. Final score: Auburn 22, Oregon 19.

It was a game of ethical flinches. Watching Cam Newton get a confetti bath did not qualify as the feel-good moment of the season for anyone other than title-starved Tigers fans and greedy Southeastern Conference backers, who will keep the crystal football in their neighborhood for an unprecedented fifth straight season. The Auburn quarterback withstood an interception, a lost fumble and a wince-inducing back injury to flash one more winner's smile.

"I don't want nobody to feel sorry for me, because throughout this year didn't nobody feel sorry for Auburn," Newton said, setting a BCS record for double negatives in a single sentence. "We got the last laugh."

Maybe not the very last laugh. The lingering question is whether Auburn has its hardware only on loan. An ongoing NCAA investigation, spurred by findings that Newton's father tried to sell his son's quarterbacking services to Mississippi State, could one day result in the school's first title in 53 years being vacated.

But until further notice of allegations, Auburn fans can gleefully carpet-bomb Toomer's Corner with toilet paper and celebrate this long-awaited opportunity to look Alabama fans in the eye. The Tigers don't have as many titles as their hated in-state rivals, but they have the most recent. And you cannot underestimate what that means to their fans, even if they're not joined by many celebrators outside the 334 area code.

"I don't think we felt like everybody was rooting against us," said Auburn center Ryan Pugh. "But it just seemed like everywhere you went or everything you read or watched, they were trying to bring us down."

The scandal-dogged Tigers could not be brought down. Not figuratively. And, in the end, not literally.

Auburn's Michael Dyer
Auburn freshman running back Mike Dyer ran 22 times for 143 yards in the BCS title game.

The embodiment of that was Dyer, the celebrated freshman running back who spurned his home-state Arkansas Razorbacks to become a Tiger. After a stunning late plot twist tied a game Auburn had controlled -- a Newton fumble, followed by an Oregon touchdown and 2-point conversion -- Dyer saved the day. In weird fashion.

On a first-down play from its own 40-yard line with just more than two minutes left, Auburn called a handoff to Dyer. He was hit at the 45 by rover Eddie Pleasant, who attempted to wrestle the ball free as they both went to the ground.

But Dyer landed on top of Pleasant, put a hand on the grass, kept his feet churning and popped upright.

All 22 players on the field stopped. Even though the whistle never blew.

It wasn't until the Auburn sideline erupted in exhortations for Dyer to resume running that he did, indeed, resume running. By the time he was tackled he'd covered 37 huge yards, launching the Tigers into field-goal range. A replay review upheld the call on the field, showing that Dyer avoided going down by the slightest of margins.

Game of inches.

Five plays later, Wes Byrum ended the season with a 19-yard field goal.

Dyer's run was a what-the-hell-happened moment that symbolized this what-the-hell-happened season. The national title was decided on a play in which everyone stood still and stopped playing.

Indecision and confusion reigned, just as it did in the spring when we wondered what would become of conference alignment. Indecision and confusion reigned in the summer, when we wondered how far the rippling agent scandal would go. Indecision and confusion reigned in the past two months, as we tried to process why Newton and six Ohio State Buckeyes were allowed to play in the season's biggest games despite NCAA violations.

But Dyer's start-stop-start dash into Auburn lore was only the last surprising plot twist on a surprising night.

Coming in, nobody foresaw these offensive juggernauts being slowed by uncelebrated defenses. Yet the score was 0-0 after one quarter, and by halftime we'd seen three turnovers, four punts, a safety and about 20 players slipping on the stadium's sketchy new grass field.

Auburn's Nick Fairley
Nick Fairley and the Auburn defense combined for 11 tackles for loss against Darron Thomas and the Oregon offense.

After three quarters, we had only 30 total points. Oregon kept breaking long plays into the Auburn red zone, but the Tigers made saving tackles that wound up keeping points off the scoreboard.

An 89-yard pass from Darron Thomas to Jeff Maehl led only to a field goal. A 43-yard pass to Lavasier Tuinei led to no points, thanks to an Auburn goal-line stand.

The nation's No. 1 scoring offense could not crack the end zone against a defense that was plenty tired of hearing how it couldn't match up.

"Throughout the whole week of preparation and everything before this game, they hadn't showed not one defensive highlight," Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes said. "So what does that tell us as a defense? So basically we got to play at another level and show them what kind of defense we are today."

On this day, Auburn's defense was national championship quality. After a strange season capped by a strange game of inches, busted cinches and ethical flinches, the Tigers held the crystal football at last.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.