GLENDALE, Ariz. — As they have done 13 times before this season, the Auburn Tigers stormed down toward their student section Monday night moments before the fourth quarter. It’s obviously become a good luck charm of sorts, for each time it led to victory.
The message to the fans is clear: The fourth quarter belongs to us.
This time, though, it took on new meaning:
Just fifteen more minutes to victory.
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Just fifteen more minutes to ending 53 years of waiting.
Just fifteen more minutes to claim their first national championship since Eisenhower was president. Most of the players’ parents probably weren’t even born the last time Auburn won a national championship -- 1957.
Just fifteen more minutes?
No, fifteen long, agonizing, torturous minutes.
The Tigers clung to an eight-point lead over Oregon in this BCS national championship game. But fifteen minutes is an eternity against these Ducks, who need a play clock like they need more uniforms.
This wasn’t just football. It was fastbreak basketball on grass. Auburn and Oregon push the ball downfield at 4G speed. Maybe AT&T and Verizon should have bought out Tostitos as title sponsors.
Who’s running the controls for these teams, any way -- Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin? No, wait. At least they take pit stops. Auburn and Oregon don’t pit stop. They just slow down just long enough to look to the sidelines for the next play.
The first half might have disappointed those wanting 80 points in the first 30 minutes. A scoreless first quarter can be thanked for that. But the pace was every bit as frenetic as expected. The four scoring drives totaled -- TOTALED! -- eight minutes and one second. That’s one drive for most teams.
And it only got faster and faster as the game blurred on.
The game’s first scoring possession, resulting in an Oregon field goal, took an eternal three minutes and six seconds.
Auburn needed a mere 2:13 to answer with a touchdown.
Oregon said, “Eh, that’s nothing. Watch this.”
Sixty-two seconds, touchdown.
It’s somewhat ironic that Auburn decided to slow things down a bit, grinding out 68 yards over seven minutes and nine seconds. Yet it resulted in nothing, as Eric Smith dropped a low pass from Cam Newton in the end zone.
But the Tigers did produce another touchdown drive, this one in 1:40. So that’s three touchdown drives in less than five minutes.
Yet, this was not the desert shootout everyone expected of two teams that came into the game averaging 90 points and more than 1,000 yards between them. But the pace was every bit as frantic as advertised. One thing the Tigers couldn’t hurry was the clock. A fumble by Cam Newton -- who for once this season seemed human -- gave Oregon the ball at its 45 yard line with just under five minutes.
Quickly -- of course -- the Ducks were standing 11 yards from the end zone, needing a touchdown and two-point play to tie it. Just as quickly, LaMichael James squeezed into the corner of the end zone for a touchdown to make it 19-17. The Ducks had already gone for two and made it earlier in the game. This time, they had no choice. Darron Thomas ran right and threw back over the middle of the end zone and hit Jeff Maehl for the tying score.
Now, time stood still. The Tigers had just two and half minutes to go the length of the field for a chance. Then came perhaps the most bizarre play in BCS championship game history. Michael Dyer ran around right end and was met by Oregon’s Eddie Pleasant. But as Pleasant tried to make an arm-tackle, Dyer rolled over Pleasant and never touched the ground. He sprang up, listened for a whistle, then took off. Forty-seven yards down to the Oregon 23. Another Dyer run gave Auburn first-and-goal from the 1 with 10 seconds to play.
Fifty-three years reduced to 10 gut-wrenching seconds.
Would it be a bad snap? A botched hold? A block? A shank.
Every catastrophic scenario imaginable undoubtedly crossed the minds of the 40,000 or so Auburn fans who made this pilgrimage to witness history.
Wes Byrum’s 19-yard field goal pierced the uprights as time expired. Suddenly, the clock didn’t matter any more. The only numbers on the scoreboard that mattered now were the ones in the left column:
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org