Cam Newton wears No. 2. He’s half of that, and then some.
The Auburn quarterback closed out a brilliant, controversial season with a Heisman Trophy, a national championship and his index finger aloft.
He is No. 1. And after a 22-19 victory over Oregon before a record crowd at the University of Phoenix Stadium, only one questioned remained:
Was this the end of his college career?
Newton wouldn’t say after the game, but if so, the Cardinals had better do their homework. Newton showed off his dizzying array of skills, from his rugged athleticism to great poise in the pocket. His bowl statistics weren’t as flashy as Stanford’s Andrew Luck, but he beat a team that Luck could not.
Newton is 1-0 in Glendale, and if he declares for the NFL draft, he would be tantalizingly close to the Cardinals, who own the No. 5 overall pick.
Imagine how good he’d look in red, returning to the scene of Monday’s triumph.
“I’m a prime example of how a guy can turn something that was bad into something that was very great,” Newton said.
The game was quirky, featuring a fake punt, three 2-point plays, two goal-line stands and some of the funkier footwear on the planet. The real heroes were Auburn’s defense and running back Michael Dyer, who powered his team on the game-winning drive.
Yet everything about Auburn revolves around its star quarterback, the one who fumbled with five minutes remaining.
After Oregon capitalized on the turnover, a delicious scenario emerged: If Newton possessed rare star quality, he would lead his team to a game-winning score. It sounds overly simplistic, but transcendent quarterbacks always find a way to get it done under stifling pressure, in the really big moments.
The Tigers scored without much resistance. It was all Dyer, but the total conviction oozing from Auburn’s offense stemmed from the presence of Newton, who orchestrated at 24-point comeback at Alabama earlier in the season. And moments after Monday’s game ended, it was announced that Newton would fly from Arizona to a seat on Jay Leno’s couch today.
“In my career as a head coach, he’s the best player I’ve seen,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said.
Granted, the low-scoring affair didn’t live up to the hype. Three interceptions in the first 10 minutes muted the excitement. A scoreless first quarter – just the sixth time that has happened in 49 previous quarters of BCS title-game football – had many bracing for disappointment.
There was a feeling this game would be another showcase moment for the SEC, which has produced the past five national champions. On the street, you could feel the difference between the respective fan bases. Auburn fans seemed stoic, hardened by battle. By contrast, many Oregon fans were blowing kazoos that made quacking sounds.
But as the game progressed, it was clear that Oregon belonged on the same field with the unbeaten Tigers. And the full-page ad that ran in The Republic on Monday offered great insight into how Oregon has become an elite football program.
The ad showed LaMichael James walking up a tunnel in a high-tech uniform. It reads: “Yesterday’s Fast is Today’s Slow.” The inference is that players at Oregon have access to innovative apparel that can’t be found at other universities. That’s a powerful recruiting tool.
Still, there is no substitute for a really good quarterback, and that was Auburn’s biggest advantage entering the game.
Newton had some shaky moments. He threw into double coverage, resulting in a bad interception. He short-armed a throw on fourth down near the goal line, failing to connect with a wide-open receiver in the end zone. He overshot a receiver streaking down the middle of the field.
But he accounted for nearly 350 yards of total offense and managed the game extremely well. As the first half evolved, the reigning Heisman winner took command with his arms and his legs. His sensational touchdown pass to Emory Blake, son of former Cardinals quarterback Jeff Blake, gave the Tigers a 16-11 lead at intermission.
Yet both teams left the field to standing ovations.
Auburn’s fans were comfortable with the scoreboard and the pedigree of their team. Oregon fans knew their team’s penchant for second-half domination. Somehow, everyone in attendance knew that the best was still to come.