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Tigers climb to top of the mountain

GLENDALE, Ariz. – As Wes Byrum’s kick sailed straight and true through the uprights and the clock hit 0:00, Auburn players ran, leaped, hugged and screamed in sheer joy.

Defensive MVP Nick Fairley hoists the crystal football/Todd Van Emst photo

In the stands, the Auburn fans who outnumbered and outyelled their Oregon counterparts, went happily crazy.

The Tigers had done it. Oregon had been beaten. They had climbed to the mountaintop, winning Auburn’s first widely recognized national championship since 1957. They had played 14 games and they had won 14 games.

And they won Monday night in a fashion fitting to the glorious season that concluded with the glittering confetti falling from the ceiling of University of Phoenix Stadium and second-year coach Gene Chizik holding the cherished crystal football high over his head.

The Tigers, almost ready to celebrate, found themselves tied 19-19 with 2:27 left. Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, playing in pain after taking a shot in the back, completed a 15-yard pass to Emory Blake.

And then freshman tailback Mike Dyer made a run that will be remembered as long as football is played at Auburn.

Eddie Pleasant pulled Dyer down, but Dyer didn’t hit the ground. He rolled over Pleasant, got up and looked back. He heard his coaches and teammates screaming for him to run. And run he did, 37 yards to the Oregon 23.

Dyer did it again, running 16 yards into the end zone Officials signaled touchdown, but the replay on the second one showed he was down inches short.

After a Newton quarterback sneak lost a yard, Byrum came on with two seconds left. Josh Harris snapped, Neil Caudle held and Byrum kicked it through from 19 yards away.

It was over. Auburn was the national champion.

Chizik, whose arrival was surrounded by controversy after he went 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State, saluted the men who made it happen.

“These guys represent Auburn on the field, off the field, in the community the right way,” Chizik said. “We said that we wanted to go from good to great. I can sit here tonight and I can tell you that Auburn – the Auburn Tigers - are the best football team in the United States.”

The shootout so many envisioned never materialized. Auburn tackle Nick Fairley led the way as the Tiger defense held Oregon more than 33 points below its scoring average.

Newton threw two touchdown passes, but also threw an interception and lost a fumble that opened the door for Oregon to force the final drive.

None of that mattered when it was over, not to anyone in blue. All that mattered was that they had done what they came to do.

Dyer said he wasn’t sure what to think on his crucial run.

“All I knew was the whistle wasn’t blowing and my coach was saying to go,” Dyer said, “so I continued to get some more yards and keep the play going.”

Finally, it came down to Byrum. Was he nervous? Nah?

“It was short,” Byrum said. “I knew we’d make it.”

The Tigers were on the verge of putting it away, leading 19-11 as the clock neared the five-minute mark. But Heisman-Trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton, playing in pain after taking a shot to the back, fumbled at the Auburn 30 and Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris recovered. A personal foul penalty put the ball at the 45, but given a reprieve, the Ducks weren’t stopping this time.

Quarterback Darron Thomas hit All-America tailback LaMichael James with a 2-yard touchdown pass, then hit Jeff Maehl for the two-point conversion with 2:27 left.

But Auburn was ready with its answer.

For most of the game, it was defense that showed the way for Auburn. There was dramatic goal-line stand that turned Oregon away at the 1 in the fourth quarter. Mike Blanc tackled James for a safety. Oregon went seven consecutive possessions without a point.

Dyer rushed for 143 on 22 carries and was named the offensive Most Valuable Player. Fairley had a sack, three tackles for loss and forced a fumble to be named offensive MVP. Zac Etheridge and Demond Washington intercepted Thomas passes.

And Auburn won the national championship.

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