Ducks linebacker Casey Matthews knocks the ball from the grasp of Tigers… (Matthew Emmons / US Presswire )
A college football season that weaved its way through many bonfires ended in a blaze of glory here Monday night.
Bands played. Fans dressed up in garish orange and garish yellow and whooped it up in a huge building that looks like a spaceship somebody from Mars landed by mistake in the desert and just left there.
As seems to be mandatory in all big sports events these days, and even some small ones, they covered the field with a massive American flag for the playing of the national anthem. Then they sent a trained eagle soaring over the flag from one end of the massive stadium to the other.
After 37 days of awaiting the sport's annual BCS national title game, the pomp had outdone the circumstance. Or maybe it was the other way around.
Finally, it was time to answer the suddenly pertinent question: Is it fair to make a Duck play a Tiger?
And indeed it was. The No. 1 Auburn Tigers beat the No. 2 Oregon Ducks in a thrilling ending, a field goal on the last play of the game. That befits a national title game.
The final 22-19 score was certainly not a chew-'em-up-and-spit-'em out victory. Both defenses, which were supposed to be little more than cinders for the other team's track meet, battled heroically. One Las Vegas wagering establishment had the over-under at 78 points. Seldom do the boys in green shades in the casino back rooms miss by 37 points.
Team blur, the Oregon Ducks, were slowed to normal speed. The treadmill on which they like to play kept getting unplugged by a rugged Auburn defense.
The game, like the season, had a little bit of everything.
A key moment was when Michael Dyer of Auburn was stopped after a short run as his Tigers marched in the closing minutes with the score tied, 19-19. But as he was rolled over by Oregon's Eddie Pleasant, his knee never touched the ground, only Pleasant's body. So when action paused, Dyer either noticed a lack of whistle or heard a teammate yelling, and started running again, getting 37 yards to the 23 and assuring Auburn of its eventual winning field goal.
The difference-maker, even though he almost became the goat when he was stripped of the ball with less than five minutes left by Oregon's Casey Matthews, was Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. With that, Oregon had one more shot at a tie, and did so with a gutsy play on the two-point conversion, Darron Thomas rolling right and throwing way back to the left to sure-handed Jeff Maehl.
Oregon was still alive. Matthews, of the famous football-playing family from Agoura Hills, had played a huge game. His mother had told him to fly around like a lunatic, and so he did.
But Newton was Newton. He was calm, cool and controversial, never appearing the least bit flustered. Every time he appeared trapped, he floated here and there for yardage. At 6-foot-6, he seemed to be able to merely fall down for four yards.
The fact that he was even in the game, of course, will be discussed for years to come.
In a season that began with a cloud over USC for NCAA infractions involving Reggie Bush, and carried through the Sugar Bowl, in which five Ohio State players were allowed to play despite committing infractions that will keep them ineligible for the Buckeyes' first five games next season, Newton remains the poster child for college football strangeness in 2010-11.
There had been controversy at Notre Dame, where a student photographer was killed when allowed to go up in a tower on a windy day. There had been Oregon's own Jeremiah Masoli, the returning quarterback for an Oregon team that was obviously going to be very good, getting in trouble twice with the law, being tossed off the Ducks' team by Coach Chip Kelly, and then getting to play the entire season at Mississippi when the NCAA accepted Mississippi's appeal.
And then, two days before this title game, the attempted assassination of a U.S. congresswoman in a fatal rampage just 90 miles away in Tucson made a football game just up the road seem a little out of context.
But Newton remained the biggest off-field football story. The accusations of his father soliciting Mississippi State $180,000 for his playing services buzzed through the last several months of this season.
Newton was cleared to play, but questions remain of whether a later NCAA investigation will rule differently in the long run. Will the New York Athletic Club, home of the Heisman, now need to open a new wing for returned trophies?
Newton has a year of college eligibility left, but don't bet the house on him passing on the pros. Cynics might speculate that that would mean a pay cut, but he certainly remains innocent until the NCAA shows otherwise.
Monday night showed clearly what an incredible talent Newton is. He rushed for 82 yards, passed for another 265 yards and two touchdowns, and was the rock of Gibraltar every time Auburn had a key third down.
Afterward, Oregon's Chip Kelly was asked one of those silly questions that have no real answer and merely seek a big, dark headline: Was Newton the best college football player he ever saw?
Kelly agreed Newton was a superb player, then shook his head and said, "I wasn't there to see Sammy Baugh."
Great answer. There is no question Newton is an amazing show. Nor is there any question that this college season, in both its negatives and positives, was the same.