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The Wishbone has a Date in the Desert


It’s time!  It’s time!  At long, long last, it’s finally time!

Here we go: the Wishbone’s official pre-game guide to what to look for and what to fret over during the game.

1. Game Week

A barren desert plain.  A big silver toaster rising semi-majestically / semi-bizarrely amid the cacti.  A flock of extremely fast ducks in a variety of different colors of outfits.

These are the things that awaited the Auburn Tigers as they finally arrived in the Phoenix area on January 3.  The Tigers swooped down on Sky Harbor Airport in a massive Delta 747, with the seniors happily ensconced in roomy, first class accommodations.  Getting off the plane, they were greeted by hundreds of orange-and-blue-clad well-wishers, a horde of reporters, and an actual red carpet.  For a few hours thereafter, fun and frivolity prevailed.

And then things got serious.

With a layoff of over a month since the Tigers last took the field in the SEC Championship Game,  most of the concern centered around regaining the amazing “hitting-their-stride” form the team had exhibited in the second half of the Iron Bowl and for the better part of four quarters in Atlanta.  Will the offense come out smooth and crisp right out of the gate, or will they be sluggish?  When one reporter asked that very question of a certain Heisman-winning quarterback, he responded, “Which do you think?  We’re trying to shoot for the ‘crisp’ route.”

We all certainly hope so.  Falling behind to Clemson is one thing; falling behind early to a team like Oregon, which tends to light up the scoreboard in the final two quarters, would be catastrophic.

Those same high-scoring Ducks arrived in the desert a day earlier, and by Monday were already practicing hard and fast, accompanied as ever by their blaring musical background noise.  The Tigers didn’t play music at their practice; Newton told reporters, “We’re hoping to create our own soundtrack.”

One can imagine what such a soundtrack might sound like; perhaps it might blend a little of “All I Do is Win” with “Flight of the Valkyries” and Beethoven’s Ninth.  If all goes well on Monday, maybe they can throw in a smattering of “We are the Champions” at the end.

One programming note before we get into this final game preview of the season:  Be prepared, Auburn fans, for the sounds of confusion coming from the homes of your Bama fan neighbors—they will doubtlessly be hurled into fits of uncomprehending madness when they first see the Oregon player with “Barner” on the back of his jersey.  “I’m supposed to root for this guy?!”

2.  Stop the Run!

Auburn and Oregon are two of the top five rushing teams in America. This game could come down to who is able to stop (or at the very least, slow down) the other side’s running game.  Both Auburn and Oregon are good enough at running the ball to make even good defensive teams look bad. (See LSU vs. Auburn, 440 yards, and Stanford vs. Oregon, 388 yards), so the defenses may have to play over their heads to create even an occasional punt.

What are the chances that either defense can find success?  Let’s look at both run-game-vs.-defense matchups.

When Oregon has the ball: Auburn has by far the best rushing defense Oregon has faced this season.  But Oregon is the best rushing team in the nation.  Auburn’s defensive front has found success in the second half of the season by lining up before the snap and then suddenly shifting at the last instant, thereby creating confusion among the blockers about who each is responsible for.  Cal used this effectively against Oregon and it contributed to their holding the Ducks to their worst output of the season.

Nick Fairley and the rest of the Tiger defense will need to get in the backfield and disrupt plays as they develop.  Oregon’s best offensive lineman is their center, and the Ducks had success against the best defensive tackles in the Pac-10. But Fairley should be able to make few big plays through the course of the game to disrupt the offense and kill some Oregon drives.

The fear there, of course, is that Oregon will run their offense the way Kentucky did, constantly rolling the quarterback and the action of the plays back and forth, laterally across the field and the line of scrimmage, wearing Auburn’s linemen down.  Substitution will be critically important to be sure our big guys can still breathe oxygen in the fourth quarter.

It makes for an interesting game-within-a-game: Auburn’s defensive approach has been to wear down the opposing offense—and particularly its quarterback (and by wear down, we mean “wear directly and repeatedly down into the turf”).  Late in games, this approach has usually taken its toll; quarterbacks find their timing disrupted, if not their central nervous systems.  Oregon, on the other hand, loves nothing better than running a defense ragged for two or three quarters and then lighting them up as the second half wears on.  So which will prevail here—the grind ‘em down offense or the grind ‘em down defense?  This could well be the main question of the game.

The other key will be tackling in one-on-one situations—something that has not always been a great strength of the Auburn defense but which has improved over the last few games.  The Oregon running backs can create big plays at any time if Auburn players are out of position or miss tackles.  LaMichael James did not win the Heisman but there is a reason he was at the ceremony: He is an explosive, talented running back.  He does not require his O-line to open a big hole in the defense; if he can find a crease he can slip through and be twenty yards downfield very quickly.  Auburn will have to be strong at the point of attack and not let those creases develop.

When Auburn has the ball: Anyone who believes that Auburn’s advantage in weight along the front line will result in the Tigers pushing Oregon around all game should go back and watch the Rose Bowl.  Wisconsin outweighed TCU by more than the Tigers outweigh Oregon, but the Badgers ended up losing anyway.  (We would also argue that Wisconsin’s failure was the result of attempting to pass too many times.)   The best rushing team Oregon played this year was Stanford, and Oregon held them to 177 yards.

Auburn’s offensive line has a size advantage, but they are also better run blockers than Oregon may have seen in the Pac-10.  Auburn’s linemen have faced off against SEC defensive linemen all season and the prospect of facing smaller, quicker opponents is not going to confuse or intimidate them.

Oregon’s defense is the 16th best in the nation at stopping the run; they are in the same area statistically as South Carolina and Mississippi State. So running against them will not be easy.  Much the way things went in the SEC Championship game, Auburn may have to come out passing to open up the run. With so much time to prepare for a defense, you have to like Gus Malzahn’s ability to examine what Oregon likes to do and create a game plan that can work—not to mention his phenomenal talent for adjusting during the game itself.

3. The Other Guy

Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas will be “the other guy” this week as the media spotlight shines directly on Cam Newton.  But Thomas is a dangerous player—his play early in the season made Oregon fans quickly forget Jeremiah Masoli, who transferred to Ole Miss because they had a great graduate program in Victorian English literature.  (Or rather, they had a desperate coach and a need for a quarterback who could make plays.)

Thomas is more of a passer than a runner.  Averaging 41 (net) yards per game rushing, he is not in the same class of rushing quarterback as Cam Newton or Michigan’s Denard Robinson.  So his running the ball is not a central focus of the Oregon offense, but his passing is.   Nonetheless, when Oregon needed it, he came though carrying the ball, to the tune of 117 against Stanford, 62 vs. Cal and 62 vs. Arizona.  So it is not that he cannot run the ball, it is that he only had three games with more than ten carries.  Thomas is a good ball handler and many of his runs will seem familiar to Auburn fans (such as the fake handoff to the tailback, followed by a keeper/read option to the outside).

One thing to note about Thomas:  he started off great but did not finish as strong as a passer.  (This contrasts starkly with Cam, who appeared to improve every single week in the passing game.)  In the first nine games, Thomas averaged 230 yards passing per game.  Over the last three games (against Cal, Arizona and Oregon State), he averaged 149 yards per game.

Auburn has been susceptible to good passing attacks this year; with the focus of the Auburn defense on stopping the run, Thomas could come out passing and move the ball successfully on Auburn’s defense.  In the “receiver who will scare Auburn fans this week” role we have Jeffrey Maehl of Oregon—definitely Thomas’s favorite target and a big-game player. Maehl averages twice as many yards per game as the next best receiver for Oregon, so he will be one to watch.

4. The Cam Factor

In the SEC Championship game the Auburn offense finally unveiled the full package.  Cam Newton’s improvement as a passer over the course of the season has made this offense almost unstoppable.  Oregon will choose to focus on stopping the run—and Auburn must exploit that fact by coming out passing.  Oregon’s secondary is very good—but they like to play man-to-man coverage because they blitz a lot.

In fact, Oregon blitzes as much as any team Auburn has faced this year—something the players became aware of (to their seeming surprise) as they watched film of the Ducks.  The boys from Eugene want to get in the backfield and disrupt the opponent’s offense and they will bring players from everywhere on the field to do so. This can be successful against Auburn if the Tigers’ plays get broken up before they get started.  However, this can also be extremely risky against Auburn because Newton is such a great broken field runner.  If the ducks blitz Auburn and they miss, Newton will be taking off with the ball, and the Oregon defensive backs may be in man-to-man coverage with their backs turned to him.  Make no mistake: Oregon will get to Auburn at times.  They will stop some running plays before they get going, especially the slow-developing plays.  (Can we all hope that, this time, Gus leaves some of his fancier and more complicated creations back in the Loveliest Village and just goes with what works best?)  But if they blitz as much as they have all season, we can expect several game changing plays from Cam Newton when he breaks containment and runs.  In last year’s Rose Bowl, Oregon had real problems defending Terrelle Pryor—and as we all know, Pryor is no Newton.

The bottom line is this: When the game is on the line and Auburn needs a first down, Cam will get that first down.  He will make the plays when Auburn needs it.

5. The Second Half

Both of these teams played their best football after halftime.

Oregon was amazing in the second half this season, outscoring opponents 277-77 after halftime.  That is due to the Ducks’ depth, their offensive pace wearing opponents down, and good coaching adjustments on both sides of the ball.

Auburn has outscored opponents 246-117 after the half.  Both teams adjust well and both teams have the kind of offenses that can wear opponents down over the course of the game.

What does this mean?  It means that this game will not be decided until the very end.  With these two teams, no lead is ever safe.  Auburn most play a complete game to win.

And so if you look up at some point in the second quarter and see that either team is winning by a sizeable margin, don’t get too excited and don’t panic.  It won’t be over till it’s over.

6. Game Predictions

Oregon is an excellent football team.  They range from good to great in every area (if you look at the statistical rankings of every team in college football, the worst thing Oregon does is kickoff returns (and they are only two yards worse than Auburn in that area).  They are in the top twenty in almost every category.  So while the offense gets all the attention and the headlines, this is a definite top five team from top to bottom.  Auburn is going to have to play very well to win the game.

John: Oregon’s offense is too good for Auburn to shut them down, but Fairley and company will have enough success that the Tigers can pull away at the end and win a close, high scoring game.  Cam Newton will show why he deserved the Heisman by making plays when Auburn needs them.

Auburn 48 – Oregon 44.

Van: Many expect a high-scoring shootout, along the lines of the AU-Arkansas game; others go the counter-intuitive route and predict that one or both defenses will somehow rise up and hold the scoreline to a more reasonable sum.  I think the truth lies somewhere in between.  I expect the game to most resemble our clash with Kentucky back in October.  Oregon is much better than Kentucky, but Auburn is playing much better than they were at that point in the season, too—so it’s a wash.  That game saw Auburn jump out to an early lead, then hang on for dear life as the Wildcat offense (led by a mobile, quick-throwing quarterback and an elusive ball-carrier) came roaring back to tie the game late.  I envision something along the lines of this:  Auburn leads early; Oregon jumps ahead before halftime; Auburn retakes the lead and then extends it into the third quarter; Oregon catches up late and forces Auburn to go on a long scoring drive to win at the end.  There’s no way I could ever pick against Auburn in this game, but I honestly think we are going to win.  I will say:

Auburn 45 – Oregon 42.

Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.

John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.

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About Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer

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