No college football team can know the pain and misery suffered last night by the Oregon Ducks.
Their high-powered offense stifled by Auburn, OU still managed to battle to a 19-19 tie with 2:33 left, thanks to courageous defense of its own, and some gutsy play-calling by its taciturn coach. Chip Kelly will never replace former Ducks coach Mike Belotti in the ESPN broadcast booth, but he came just a few plays from supplanting him, and Rich Brooks for that matter, as the most beloved head coach in Oregon football history.
Instead, the Tigers scored on a field goal as time expired and captured their first national title in five decades. The Ducks and their fans wandered off into the Arizona desert night.
In the world of college football, what could be worse? Nothing. What is almost as bad? Ask Kentucky.
The Wildcats suffered the exact same fate back on Oct. 9. No, the entire nation wasn’t watching, but the stakes were the same for Auburn. Had the Tigers faltered that night in Commonwealth Stadium, it might have been Texas Christian playing Oregon Monday night, “for all the Tostitos.” (A nod to ESPN play-by-play man Brent Musberger. Like him or not, the line – and his underplayed delivery – was perfect).
With Cam Newton shredding UK’s defense for three rushing touchdowns, the Tigers bolted to a 24-7 lead with about seven minutes to play in the half. The only question seemed to be, Just how ugly is this thing going to get?
Then, signs of life from the Wildcats. Derrick Locke returned the ensuing kickoff 40 yards. Kentucky took advantage of a pair of personal foul penalties by Auburn, and Mike Hartline found Jordan Aumiller with a six-yard touchdown pass. It was 24-14 and looking more respectable.
Unfortunately, the Tigers marched right back down the field for another rushing TD by Newton, re-establishing the 17-point advantage at 31-14. But then Kentucky gave us a preview of what lay ahead in the second half.
With just 59 seconds left in the second quarter, the Wildcats started a drive on their own 33. Hartline connected on five of six passes, including a 17-yard strike to LaRod King, and a 12-yard completion to Randall Cobb, which carried to the Auburn 12 with time for one more play. Craig McInstosh connected from 29 yards out, and the Cats trailed 31-17. More importantly, on their final two drives of the half, they moved on Auburn in a way Oregon never could.
There was more of the same in the second half only, more importantly, the UK defense came to life as well. The Cats stopped Newton and company on a pair of three-and-outs, with the second ending at the Auburn 16. A poor punt gave the Cats possession on the Tigers’ 48.
Seven plays later, Hartline hit Randall Cobb from 16 yards out, and it was a one-touchdown game. The UK fans who had stayed behind were watching a real ballgame.
It was three-and-out again for the Tigers and by now, Commonwealth Stadium was getting noisy. UK fans weren’t entirely sold on the notion of an upset, but they were having fun thinking about it.
The noise turned deafening exactly three minutes later. That’s how long it took the Cats to score. On the fifth play of the drive, out of the Wildcat formation, Cobb raced 26 yards to the Auburn one, and scored on the next play. McIntosh’s kick knotted the game at 31.
Auburn’s offense finally came to life, Newton directing a 10-play drive that covered 73 yards. But the Kentucky defense kept the Tigers out of the end zone, Auburn settling for a field goal, and a 34-31 lead.
The Wildcats answered with a field goal of their own, and it was tied again, 34-34, with 6:56 left to play. Kentucky never touched the ball again – at least, not in bounds.
Demond Washington fielded the kickoff but misconnected as he tried to flip it to Terrell Zachary on a reverse. The ball lay on the field for a second before Zachary recovered at the Tiger 7-yard line, where the Cats smothered him. That’s where the game-winning drive began – 93 yards away.
Six plays later, Zachary took a handoff and headed for the left side of the line. Danny Trevathan was waiting for him.
UK’s All-SEC linebacker knocked the ball loose, and it bounced toward the sideline. Kentucky cornerback Randall Burden fell on the ball, but replay showed he was out of bounds. Auburn football.
The drive alive, AU ground it all the way to the UK 7-yard line, where Wes Byrum – the kicker who will never have to buy dinner again in the state of Alabama – calmly booted the winning field goal, keeping the Tigers perfect, and sending the Wildcats home with a bitter taste the Oregon Ducks would come to know three months later.
Stakes were much higher Monday night in Glendale, with the national championship on the line. But it was on the line as well that night in Lexington for one team. Had Burden fallen on that ball a split second sooner, or six inches to the left, the Tigers might not be clearing shelf space for the crystal football that belongs to college football’s national champion.
The Wildcats would have had to find a way to score one more time to pull off the upset, and what were the odds of that? But, then again, what were the odds of:
Auburn (and Newton) surviving a mid-season NCAA investigation;
AU finishing the regular season undefeated, then crushing South Carolina in the SEC Championship game;
The Tigers figuring out a way to hold Oregon, the nation’s top rushing team, to 75 yards on the ground;
Michael Dyer, on the game’s final drive, bolting for an additional 32 yards after landing on top of a would-be Oregon tackler?
Had the Wildcats taken care of business against Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Tennessee, they would have faced a re-match with the Tigers in the SEC title game. Maybe it would have been another classic. Maybe it would have been a blowout. By December, it was clear, nobody was going to hold these Tigers. Not Alabama. Not South Carolina. Nobody.
Oregon came close. And so did the Wildcats.
On one electric October evening in Lexington, Kentucky nearly changed the face of college football – and the fate of the Auburn Tigers. The Cats nearly rendered them a footnote. Instead, they’re the national champions.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 21-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m. ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)