Oregon's speedy offense sputters against Auburn
GLENDALE, Ariz. – Nicknamed the blur offense, Oregon's spread-option ran right into a speed trap named Auburn.
Everything that Oregon had become known for this season — the speed, the ability to wear down defenses, the big numbers — was absent for most of Monday night in top-ranked Auburn's 22-19 victory over the No. 2 Ducks for the national title.
Heisman candidate LaMichael James, the nation's leading rusher with 153 yards a game, was held to just 49 yards.
"Nobody likes to lose," he said. "It really hurts."
As a whole, Oregon's rushing attack managed 75 yards, well under its average of 304.
Quarterback Darron Thomas threw for 363 yards and two scores, but he was intercepted twice and sacked twice.
Known throughout the season for his ability to pull off big plays, Thomas really only had one — an 81-yard completion to Jeff Maehl in the first half — until the fourth quarter, when he calmly led Oregon on a scoring drive that tied the game at 19 with 2:33 to play.
It was one of the only times that Oregon's offense appeared to click. Thomas hit D.J. Davis with a 29-yard fourth-down pass that kept the drive alive, then finished it off with a shovel pass to James. Thomas found Maehl in the back of the end zone for the 2-point conversion.
But it was too late for the Ducks to get rolling, and Auburn won it on Wes Byrum's 19-yard field goal as time ran out.
The Ducks scored 49.3 points per game and won by an average margin of 30.9 points this season. They relied on wearing opponents down with their speed and pushing up the score in the second half. But they had not really played a defense as good or as big as Auburn's.
That mismatch was never more evident than in the third quarter. After Oregon faked a punt on fourth down for an 11-yard gain, Thomas hit Lavasier Tuinei with a 43-yard pass to get to the Auburn 3.
But the Ducks couldn't punch it in on four tries. Auburn's defense swarmed Kenjon Barner. Tackle Nick Fairley and linebacker Josh Bynes made the two key stops to keep Oregon out of the end zone.
"You know, it is really tough to get around those guys," James said. "It really was a difficult matchup. Fairley really is a great player and so is No. 17 (Bynes)."
James' 49 yards were a season-low, but he set an Oregon single-season rushing record of 1,731 yards.
Thomas had been a steadying force for the Ducks, guiding them calmly back from a first-half deficit against Stanford midway through the season. But the sophomore who gained the team's confidence after Jeremiah Masoli was booted in the offseason appeared rattled from the start with both his interceptions coming in the first quarter.
Thomas set career highs with his passing yards. He had 30 touchdown passes, two shy of Akili Smith's school record in 1998.
Thomas said it was Oregon — and not Auburn — that slowed the Ducks.
"We stopped ourselves on a lot of the plays. Mental, just mental breakdowns on our own," Thomas said. "They didn't really stop us a lot. We shot ourselves in the foot."
The Ducks started the season ranked No. 11, with uncertainty about their quarterback situation. But the team took Chip Kelly's "Win The Day" mentality into each game, and couldn't lose. The team's only close game was a 15-13 victory over Cal.
Until they met Auburn.
"Nobody likes losing," James said. "When you are a competitor, you don't want to lose. Coach Kelly tells us we play football but it doesn't define who we are. There are going to be better days."