Auburn ground game, Alabama rushing defense to battle for supremacy

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 25, 2013 

TUSCALOOSA & AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown against Alabama since 2010.

Last season, the Tigers were blanked by the Crimson Tide in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Two years ago, Auburn’s two touchdowns came on a kickoff return and a fumble recovery in the end zone.

While Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was the Tigers’ offensive coordinator for the 2011 game, the unit taking the field Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium will be far more potent.

And Tide coach Nick Saban knows that.

“They’re one of the leading offensive teams in the country,” Saban said. “Gus has always done a fantastic job with the offense, with their ability to run the ball effectively, throw it when they need to (and) score the points that they’ve been able to score on a pretty consistent basis against just about everybody in this league.”

In Malzahn’s Iron Bowl matchups as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator, his offense was able to find success against the Tide in two of the three meetings. In 2009, Auburn amassed 332 yards (216 passing, 108 rushing) in total offense, but lost a 26-21 nailbiter. The 2010 contest saw the Tigers outgained 446-324, but Auburn found a way to escape Tuscaloosa with a 28-27 victory.

But his final game of the series was a different story.

The Tigers managed only 140 total yards (62 passing, 78 rushing) and failed to score an offensive touchdown en route to a 42-14 thumping at the hands of the Tide.

“Any time you have experiences against certain people or coaches, you’ve got to use that,” Malzahn said. “I’m sure they will, too. That’s part of the game.”

Statistically speaking, it will be strength on strength when Alabama’s defense faces Auburn’s offense. The Tigers field the Southeastern Conference’s top rushing attack with 320.27 yards per game while the Tide is stout against the run, only allowing a league-best 91.27 yards on the ground.

Auburn’s up-tempo offensive attack forces defenses to adapt on the fly, which means Alabama will once again have to rely heavily on linebacker C.J. Mosley’s experience and leadership. Mosley, who leads the Tide with 88 total tackles, makes every on-field call and adjustment for the defense.

Saban said with Auburn’s multiple formations, a player like Mosley becomes even more valuable.

“I think that both of those things are going to be critical factors in this game,” Saban said. “There’s a lot of adjustments that you have to make on defense, especially to be able to stay sound on the perimeter and to make sure that everybody’s in the right gaps when they run the inside runs. He’s the guy that’s going to try to adjust that defense all the time to try to get us in the right spot. It’s not only going to be his ability to make plays (but) also his ability to help us execute the game plan and get guys in the right spots. You’ve got to do it at a fast pace. I think that the experience that he has will help us do that.”

Which is exactly what Rhett Lashlee is planning on. Auburn’s offensive coordinator has seen more than enough of Alabama’s top tackler to know the senior’s capabilities. Lashlee believes Mosley is comparable to Tennessee’s A.J. Johnson , who Auburn faced earlier this season. Alabama uses Mosley the same way most teams use their linebackers, Lashlee pointed out — they all play in the box, after all.

The difference is that the Crimson Tide do a masterful job of putting him in a position where he can wreak havoc.

“We know he’s a guy that they try to free up and keep people off of him and when he’s unblocked he makes plays. He’s as good as anybody in the country at doing that,” Lashlee said. “We’ve got to account for him. Whether it’s the linemen, whether it’s the backs, we’ve got to know where he’s at, we’ve got to block him. That’s just the bottom line.”

More often than not, the player Mosley will be locked in on is Tre Mason. Auburn’s junior running back leads the SEC in rushing yards (1,153) and touchdowns (17). It's no surprise, then, that Mason garners the lion’s share of the headlines when it comes to the Tigers’ formidable ground game. And Saban noted slowing the junior down will be of the utmost importance for his team Saturday.

However, it's a lesser-known player paving the way for Mason that has Alabama's coach every bit as concerned.

“If you didn't have a guy that was a good blocker at fullback, you wouldn't be able to have the success running, even though they have very talented runners, that they do,” Saban said, alluding to senior fullback Jay Prosch . “You talk about a tough, physical guy. He doesn't get the ball much, but he sure does a good job of finishing, playing with toughness, blocking the right guy, blocking the right play. You can't say enough about what that guy does for them.”

The Tigers said they aren’t taking the matchup against the Crimson Tide’s defense personally, despite its paucity of points the past two seasons.

As C.J. Uzomah was quick to point out, “the past is the past.”

“We feel like we've been doing a great job offensively running the ball, passing the ball when we need to in clutch situations,” the junior tight end said. “So I think we feel confident in our offense.”

So what has to change for Auburn to start turning things versus Alabama’s vaunted defense?

One thing the Tigers can’t afford to do, Uzomah said, is to let their intensity level drop at any point in the game. That’s what Uzomah said happened against Georgia.

After taking a 20-point lead just minutes into the final period, the Tigers “took our foot off the gas,” the tight end said, allowing the Bulldogs to mount a comeback and briefly take a 38-37 advantage with just 1:49 to play.

“We're going to have to play all four quarters (on Saturday),” he said. “Start off strong and finish strong against them, because they're a really good team, and if we let up for a second, they'll be right back in it.”

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