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Classic Study Hall: Auburn vs Oregon (2010)

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I'm not sure a game that happened less than four months ago should already be getting the "classic" treatment, but here goes nothing.

This game capped off an interesting year for FO's ratings.  While Auburn rather quickly established themselves a ratings favorite thanks to their elitest-of-the-elite offense, Oregon's 'wait a while, then gun it against iffy teams (and Stanford)' approach hurt their play-by-play ratings quite a bit.  They consistently ranked in the 20s in S&P+ for a good portion of the season despite posting video game scores, but it wasn't happening just because of their terrible strength of schedule (though playing an atrocious New Mexico team and a bad FCS team in Portland State didn't help).  Their raw numbers hinted at some issues as well -- their offense ranked just 12th overall in raw, "close" S&P (so it's not like they were being punished for feasting on iffy competition) and 11th in all-plays S&P (so my "they ease the game out of close range, then gun it" theory did not hold much water).  They were both efficient and explosive, and with a good defense adding to the cause, they were obviously a very good team.  It's just that they probably weren't one of the 2-3 best teams on a play-by-play basis.

So how did the Ducks win so many games and score so many damn points?  Pace, of course.  They employed the 2008 Oklahoma strategy of maximizing their per-play advantage by running more plays than anybody else.  Pace is a beautiful weapon as long as you maintain that per-play advantage.  Simply running plays quickly won't matter if you're going three-and-out; in fact, it can be detrimental to your cause if you are not good enough to employ the strategy.  But Oregon figured something out and exploited it; with their success -- and Oklahoma's -- I'm curious to see if or how other good teams attempt to take advantage of a seemingly worthy "Goliath" strategy.  (I'm also curious how long it takes defenses to catch up and adjust.)

Regardless of what my ratings thought about Oregon -- and regardless of how much of an existential crisis this caused me (seriously, I was whining about it in every damn Varsity Numbers), they came within a few plays of the national title, and they should be commended for that.  As should the team who won it.  Let's walk through the stats, then walk through what I said in the post-game Varsity Numbers.

Auburn 22, Oregon 19

Auburn Oregon Auburn Oregon
Close % 100.0% STANDARD DOWNS
Field Position % 41.7% 53.4% Success Rate 57.8% 38.0%
Leverage % 0.762 0.685 PPP 0.34 0.28
S&P 0.921 0.657
EqPts 25.3 22.6 PASSING DOWNS
Close Success Rate 52.4% 38.4% Success Rate 35.0% 39.1%
Close PPP 0.30 0.31 PPP 0.17 0.38
Close S&P 0.825 0.694 S&P 0.516 0.774
EqPts 9.4 3.3 Number 2 2
Close Success Rate 54.2% 26.7% Turnover Pts 8.3 8.9
Close PPP 0.20 0.11 Turnover Pts Margin +0.6 -0.6
Close S&P 0.737 0.378
Line Yards/carry 3.49 1.91 Q1 S&P 0.231 0.634
Q2 S&P 1.131 0.921
PASSING Q3 S&P 0.798 0.681
EqPts 15.9 19.3 Q4 S&P 0.653 0.653
Close Success Rate 50.0% 46.5%
Close PPP 0.44 0.45 1st Down S&P 0.950 0.725
Close S&P 0.942 0.914 2nd Down S&P 0.699 0.631
SD/PD Sack Rate 0.0% / 15.4% 3.9% / 5.9% 3rd Down S&P 0.798 0.574
Projected Pt. Margin: Auburn +3.3 | Actual Pt. Margin: Auburn +3

A game filled with mistakes, shoddy sod, and an odd, polarizing, all-but-title-clinching run, still managed to provide a healthy amount of excitement. A sloppy, nervous start gave way to big plays, goal-line stands, a dramatic game-tying drive, and a game-winning field goal.

As is often the case with games in which a) the offenses are expected to dominate, b) the defenses have five weeks to prepare, and c) the offenses have five weeks to lose their rhythm, this obviously wasn't the light-up-the-scoreboard shootout many expected.  But as with other shootouts-that-never-were games like 2008 Florida-Oklahoma, there were moments.  In the end, Auburn's defensive line (one guy in particular) did more than any other unit to win the game, but both teams had chances late.  And that's really all you can ask for in a competitive national title game.


We spent most of the first half wondering just how badly TCU might have beaten either one of these two teams, but by the end, the title ambiance took over.

I'm not the biggest playoff guy in the world, but at the very least I really would love a Plus-One game, if only because I think TCU-Oregon and TCU-Auburn would have both been fascinating matchups this year.

Congrats to Auburn for doing what it took to lock away a national title. Newton and the 2010 Tigers get to place their crystal football next to ... whatever hardware the 1957 Tigers and their dominant defense took home with their national title. Here's to hoping they don't have to relinquish the title in a few years. I want this one to end up legitimate, just for college football's sake, not to mention the sake of my two Auburn friends.

I've said many times that I did not enjoy the 2009 season because of the scandals and injuries that dominated the headlines.  I enjoyed the hell out of 2010 ... right up until the Cam Newton saga threatened to derail everything.  With the sheer number of infractions and investigations Auburn has been involved in just since the season ended, I do still fear that we might still be headed for a vacated title, but hopefully not.

(By "hopefully not," I mean "hopefully Auburn didn't do anything that will result in vacated wins," not "hopefully the NCAA will just stop paying attention."  Not that that actually needed clarification, but just in case...)

Throughout the final three quarters, it felt like Auburn was in control, and it was but a matter of time before they broke the game wide open. This is reflected most clearly in both leverage rate and success rate. Auburn was consistently staying in standard downs and moving the ball effectively, while Oregon needed big plays to bail them out of what were far too many passing downs.

I caught a little hell in the comments section about this statement, so I should clarify.  If Oregon had won, they'd have deserved it because, last I checked, "needing big plays to bail you out" is a fine way to win a game if you're actually getting those big plays.  But what the game told me was that Auburn's advantages were more high-percentage advantages, meaning if the teams played ten times, I'd have picked Auburn to win 6-7 times because of their advantages.  That obviously wouldn't have mattered had the game gone to overtime and Oregon won.  It is a one-game series, after all.

The Ducks were dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage, but in times of need, they came up big through the air. Darron Thomas found Jeff Maehl for 81 yards to set up the Ducks' first touchdown, then found Lavasier Tuinei for 43 yards to set up what appeared to be the game-tying, third-quarter touchdown. Auburn freshman Demetruce McNeal made the tackle of his life, however, tripping Tuinei up at the three to set up Auburn's goal-line stand. Then, with a pick from the umpire, Thomas and D.J. Davis hooked up for 29 yards on fourth-and-5 to set up Oregon's game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Oregon's major problem: The 70 plays not mentioned above recorded only 296 yards, and they gained more on passing downs than standard downs. That is not a recipe for success.

I love giving credit to the hustle plays and tackles that end up making as much of a difference in games as the plays we remember.  We'll always have a strong memory of Michael Dyer's big run at the end, and for good reason, but McNeal's tackle probably made as much of a difference in the game's outcome.

What Auburn lacked in explosiveness, they made up for in efficiency. Their rushing success rate more than doubled Oregon's, and while the Ducks had the really big plays, the Tigers more effectively stayed on schedule. Field position wrecked their chances of sticking in the dagger -- their average starting field position in the second half was their own 21, and they would typically move the ball a decent amount then stall before stretching the lead to double digits.

Big plays are huge, but dictating field position like Oregon did is another way of winning a game when you perhaps aren't the clearly superior team.  It gives you much needed margin for error.

This was not the festival of offensive fireworks that we imagined, of course. Both teams moved the ball, but they would usually trip before reaching the goal line. My colleague Rob already heaped a sufficient amount of praise on Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley and the havoc he wreaked, so I do not need to go too much further into it here. But in the end, Oregon's inability to move the ball on the ground resulted in them needing one too many magic tricks to win the game.

I understand the hesitancy of some when it comes to picking Nick Fairley too high in the draft, simply because he really was a 'one-year wonder' kind of guy.  But he was, to me, the clear MVP of this game.  If he played for Oregon instead of Auburn, Oregon would have won.  He was magnificent, with five solo tackles, three for loss, and a forced fumble.

Targets and Catches

Targets Catches Catch% Target% Rec. Yds. Yds. Per Target
Terrell Zachery (WR)
Darvin Adams (WR)
Emory Blake (WR)
57.1% 20.6%
Kodi Burns (WR)
Philip Lutzenkirchen (TE)
100.0% 5.9%
Onterio McCalebb (RB)
100.0% 5.9%
Mario Fannin (RB)
100.0% 2.9%
Eric Smith (RB)

Apparently Nick Saban allegedly told recruits recently that Auburn would have won four games without Cam Newton.  That's obviously an exaggeration, but ... honestly?  Not a gigantic one.  Auburn won seven games by eight points or less in 2010, and though Newton was not the only play-maker, it's easy to see how he could have made at least a (very conservative) 3-4 point difference by himself.

I bring this up because ... honestly, I just wasn't very impressed with the receiving corps at Newton's disposal.  The unit picked its spots well -- Kodi Burns scored on a 35-yard touchdown, and Emory Blake scored on a 30-yarder -- but on a pass-for-pass basis, it was only a solid unit, not a spectacular one.  And it was a unit that was overmatched by Cliff Harris and the lovely Oregon secondary.  Passes to receivers found their mark just over 50% of the time, and aside from the two touchdown passes, netted just a 4.8 yards per pass average.  Oregon's defense was 17th in the country in Passing S&P+ despite a ranking of just 71st in Adj. Sack Rate.  That hints at one helluva secondary.

Oregon Targets Catches Catch% Target% Rec. Yds. Yds. Per Target
Jeff Maehl (WR) 11 9 81.8% 26.8% 133 12.1
Lavasier Tuinei (WR) 7 3 42.9% 17.1% 75 10.7
D.J. Davis (WR) 7 6 85.7% 17.1% 60 8.6
LaMichael James (RB) 6 4 66.7% 14.6% 39 6.5
David Paulson (TE) 4 3 75.0% 9.8% 48 12.0
Kenjon Barner (RB) 4 2 50.0% 9.8% 8 2.0
Marvin Johnson (WR) 1 1 100.0% 2.4% 11 11.0
Josh Huff (WR) 1 0 0.0% 2.4% 0 0.0
TOTAL 41 28 68.3% 100.0% 374 9.1
TOTAL (WR) 27 19 70.4% 65.9% 279 10.3
TOTAL (RB) 10 6 60.0% 24.4% 47 4.7
TOTAL (TE) 4 3 75.0% 9.8% 48 12.0

First of all, power to Darron Thomas for eventually collecting himself.  Early on, he did not respond well to the pressure of either the game or Nick Fairley, but with Auburn's defense keying on taking away LaMichael James and the run, Thomas eventually figured out how to move the ball.  Even without the 81-yard pass to Maehl, Thomas still averaged 7.3 yards per pass.  Tuinei was a nice boom-or-bust weapon to complement Maehl's efficiency (5.2 yards per pass to Maehl if you take out the 81-yarder), and in the end, it's hard to find too much to complain about from a line that included a 68% completion rate, 374 yards, and a 9.1 per pass average.

Unfortunately, of course, Oregon couldn't run the ball.  It's impressive to see just how much Auburn was keying on James and Barner, even in the table above.  While numerous receivers and a tight end found success, 10 passes to James and Barner gained just 47 yards, 21 of which came on one pass to James.  Including incompletions, Oregon attempted to get the ball to James and Barner 34 times and generated just 128 yards from the attempts (3.8 per play).


This really was a rather enjoyable game, even if it was sloppy in the early going.  Despite a back injury and the lack of tip-top form even before the injury, Cam Newton engineered the title he was expected to engineer -- this coming weekend, he has a chance to become a Heisman winner, BCS champion and No. 1 draft pick in a short amount of time.  Both teams made plays on both sides of the ball.  There were goal line stands involved.  Good game.  I think the right team won -- Auburn was the better team for the season as a whole, and they were just a smidge better in this game -- and as I said above, as long as the win isn't vacated, I'm pretty satisfied with the 2010 season as a whole.

Now we move to other random classics from the last six seasons of play-by-play data.  I've gotten a few requests, but if there's a game you want to receive the Classic treatment, send it along in comments.