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Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010

So how do you slow down those Oregon Ducks?

- abitter@ledger-enquirer.com
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Facing an up-tempo offense is nothing new for Auburn’s defense, which lines up against one every day on the practice field.

But even the Tigers admit Oregon takes it to a whole different level.

“It’s as fast-paced as we’ve seen,” Auburn safeties coach Tommy Thigpen said. “We think we work against (one) with Gus Malzahn. This is even faster than what we’ve seen in practice.”

There will be little time for instant replays in the Bowl Championship Series national title game Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz., because Auburn and Oregon prefer to push the pace on offense, eschewing the huddle to rush to the line, prevent defensive substitutions and, if they’re quick enough, catch opponents off guard.

“It’s similar in a lot of aspects (to us),” Auburn defensive tackle Zach Clayton said, “but you don’t quite get the feel for the pace just watching film.”

Both teams have thrived with their up-tempo approach. Oregon leads the nation, averaging 49.3 points per game. Auburn is sixth at 42.7. But the Ducks have bought into the idea of out-pacing opponents more than the Tigers this year.

Although Malzahn’s stated goal is to run 80 plays per game, Auburn hasn’t met that benchmark yet this year. Oregon, in its fourth year running Chip Kelly’s scheme, has reached that mark seven times this season.

Including the time it takes for the officials to set the ball, the Ducks run a play every 21 seconds. The Tigers get one off every 26 seconds, while conventional teams take closer to 34 seconds between snaps.

“We have to be on top of our game, and there can’t be any hesitation,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said about making substitutions. “If you’re trying to match exactly their personnel group every time, that can get you into some trouble.”

Oregon, like Auburn, forges its fast-paced mentality during practice, which moves rapidly at all times. By the time the Ducks get to a game, they’re used to moving that quickly. Their opponent isn’t.

It pays dividends in the fourth quarter. Oregon has outscored its opponents 115-24 in the fourth quarter this year.

“You’re gassed,” Thigpen said. “They run you, they run you, they run you, then, all of a sudden your eyes start looking in the backfield, and then guys are running down the field wide open. You see that every week.”

That’s not to say Oregon is impossible to defend. Although the Ducks average 537.5 yards per game and scored 40 or more points 10 times this season, they struggled in a 15-13 win Nov. 13 against California.

The Golden Bears controlled the line of scrimmage, holding the Ducks to 317 yards and no points in the final 29 minutes (although Oregon milked the clock in the final quarter, chewing up 9½ minutes to end the game).

Chizik doesn’t think it requires exotic schemes to defend the Ducks.

“You can’t trick yourselves,” he said. “The key is you have to get lined up, and you have to play technique. You have to play very fundamental football against these guys, or one guy out of a gap or one guy misses the line can lead to a touchdown.”

One thing is for sure: Auburn has to show up ready and in shape to play a full 60 minutes at a frenetic pace.

“That’s stuff I think you can take care of before the game even starts,” defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “So that’s stuff we try to make sure we stay on top of and make sure we can handle.”

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