So, like Santa Claus, Marcus Lattimore is coming to town. And, forgive the tortured metaphor, we’re going to find out once and for all whether Auburn’s run defense is going to be naughty or nice this year.
The good news is that my knee-jerk appraisal of Auburn’s run defense to date under the Chizik/Roof regime would be: solid against power backs and more conventional schemes, wobbly against speed backs and runs out of the spread. Given that a) Lattimore is most definitely more power than speed b) Spurrier’s schemes are sound but hardly a mystery by this point, you’d think Auburn might be well-prepared for The One That Got Away.
But, like I said, that’s a knee-jerk appraisal I’m forced to admit could be too-heavily colored by the job Roof’s charges did against Mark Ingram. It was an amazing effort, but it was still just one game. Does the power/speed dichotomy really hold up over the course of the 16 games Auburn’s played under Chizik and Co.?
I thought I’d do some quick research to answer that question. Below is a list of the noteworthy backs Auburn has faced, divided into rough “power” and “speed designations, with their stats and cumulative totals for each category listed. Results:
Noel Devine (West Va. ’09): 15 carries, 128 yards, 8.5 YPC, 3 TDs
Derrick Locke (UK, ’09): 19 carries, 126 yards, 6.6 YPC, 0 TDs
Michael Smith (Ark. ’09): 18 carries, 145 yards, 8.1 YPC, 1 TD
Dexter McCluster (Miss. ’09): 22 carries, 186 yards, 8.5 YPC, 1 TD
Andre Ellington (Clemson ’10): 22 carries, 140 yards, 6.4 YPC, 1 TD
Totals: 96 carries, 725 yards, 7.6 YPC, 6 TDs
Anthony Dixon (Miss. St. ’09): 20 carries, 92 yards, 4.6 YPC, 1 TD
Montario Hardesty (Tenn. ’09): 21 carries, 90 yards, 4.3 YPC, 1 TD
Charles Scott (LSU, ’09): 10 carries, 20 yards, 2.0 YPC, 0 TDs
Washaun Ealey (UGA, ’09): 18 carries, 98 yards, 5.4, 1 TD
Mark Ingram (‘Bama ’09): 16 carries, 30 yards, 1.9 YPC, 0 TDs
Trent Richardson (‘Bama ’09): 15 carries, 51 yards, 3.4 YPC, 1 TD*
Jamie Harper (Clemson ’10): 19 carries, 44 yards, 2.3 YPC, 0 TDs
Totals: 119 carries, 425 yards, 3.6 YPC, 4 TDs
Secondary options for virtually all the teams listed above continue to follow the expected speed/power split. On the speed side, Kentucky’s Randall Cobb went for 109 yards on 12 carries (9.1 YPC); LSU’s Russell Shepard for 71 yards on 6 carries (11.8 YPC); and Georgia’s Caleb King for 66 yards on 10 carries (6.6 YPC), if you want to include him under “speed.” (He’s a little tougher to define than most.) On the power side, Ole Miss’s Brand Bolden gained only 12 yards on 6 carries while Arkansas thumpers Ronnie Wingo and Broderick Green combined for only 35 yards on 14 carries, a 2.5-yard average.
Let’s first of all make clear that there’s not enough evidence here to suggest that Auburn is likely to shut Lattimore down entirely. The Ingram, Scott, and Harper stonings aside, Ealey had himself an excellent day against Auburn, and Dixon, Hardesty, and to a lesser extent Richardson all had relatively productive (if not spectacular) outings. Even if Auburn is on its game, as solid as Lattimore and the Carolina line have been to date, he’s almost certainly going to get some yards here and there.
But in my opinion it’s also very unlikely, looking at the above, that Lattimore blows up for the kind of win-the-game-singlehandedly-type performance he enjoyed against Georgia. Of the power backs listed above, only Ealey had a legitimately game-changing level of production, and he had the benefit of playing Auburn at their most vulnerable–at the very end of last year’s 11-week slog and with one of our starting linebackers out for most of the second half. Since then, the Auburn rush defense has completely stuffed a Heisman winner and mostly stuffed that same back’s entire ground game, one of the best in the nation; largely shut down a well-coached and -conceived Miss. St. running game on the road; and held Clemson’s rugged Jamie Harper to precious little. The trend is positive, and indicates there is a chance, at least, that Auburn renders Lattimore nearly irrelevent.
That said, Ellington’s success a week ago is a warning that not everything is perfectly hunky-dory. Lattimore may not be as quick or nearly as shifty as Ellington, but if Auburn’s linebacking play doesn’t improve (especially against the draws and delays that are a Spurrier staple), there’s also a very real possibility Lattimore could have an Ealey-style big day all the same.
Still, the bulk of the evidence points towards Stephen Garcia having to make plays on a regular basis for Carolina to emerge with the win. If Lattimore was a McCluster or Devine he might have been able to almost take the day off, but the most likely outcome is that Lattimore won’t be able to do enough all on his own against this Auburn defense for the ‘Cocks to come away with a victory on the road.
*Richardson is a difficult back to categorize, since he’s got more jets than Ingram but obviously has a lot of grind-it-out strength as well. I finally decided his ruggedness was more definitive of his “style” than his speed. Also, ‘Bama’s straightforward pro-style approach fits much more snugly with UT’s, LSU’s, UGA’s approaches than WVU’s, Kentucky’s, etc.