Mark Edwards commentary: More teams should copy what Auburn is doing

December 7, 2013 

ATLANTA --Credit Missouri coach Gary Pinkel for an honest answer after a bad, bad day.

After watching Auburn run up and down (and down and up) the field against his Missouri football team Saturday night, Pinkel was asked for about the dozenth about how to stop the Tigers' terrific running game.

"Everybody has problems with it," Pinkel said, as he was beginning another coach-speak style of answer.

Then he switched directions and added, "You know what? I'm the wrong person to ask because I'd have stopped it if I could have."

Auburn pounded Missouri 59-42 behind an awesome rushing attack that piled on 545 yards, which is almost 200 yards more than any team has rushed for in the SEC championship game.

A week after piling up nearly 300 yards against Alabama, which has defended the run better than anybody in the nation the last five years, Auburn mauled Missouri, which were ranked second to the Tide in the league in run defense.

College football can shift to high-flying, no-huddle, fast-paced attacks all it wants, and the SEC will follow suit -- to a point. But the bottom line is that running the ball still wins games, especially in the SEC.

And if it wins in the SEC, it will win anywhere.

Nobody combines fast-action offense with a run-first philosophy as well as Malzahn. It's surprising more coaches don't copy what he does, especially since this isn't new.

Malzahn ran this type of offense for Auburn in 2010 when Cam Newton quarterbacked the Tigers to an unbeaten season and a national championship.

Newton had a better arm than the current Auburn quarterback, Nick Marshall, and was bigger physically.

Newton essentially served as his own fullback in the Malzahn attack, which looks kind of like the Wing-T.

Marshall, who is 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, rarely runs up the middle. Instead, bruising tailback Tre Mason, who is only 5-10 and 205 pounds, handles much of that.

At first glance, Auburn's offense seems so easy to slow down -- just stack the line and force Marshall to throw, which he rarely does.

But the Tigers don't make it as easy. They don't give you a good idea of what direction they're going to run. Malzahn typically has one -- sometimes two -- running backs or receivers sprinting by Marshall and around end, keeping the outside of the defense in place, just in case.

And if you don't think Marshall will give the ball to those guys, consider what he did to Missouri on Saturday.

He handed off to receiver Ricardo Louis twice in those situations.

He gained 23 and 20 yards on his two carries. Corey Grant gained 43 on another.

Marshall keeps the ball himself sometimes, especially if the defense bunches too heavily in one particular place. He had a 42-yard run when that happened Saturday night, finishing with 101 yards.

It's the old triple-option attack, which Alabama and Auburn ran with great success in the 1970s and early 1980s.

But back then, teams essentially gave away what direction they were going to move from the start.

In Malzahn's offense, any play could sweep right, sweep left or plow between the tackles.

Defenses know Auburn is going to run but don't know the direction.

They spread out a defense so that defenders get matched up in open space with Auburn ball carriers.

Auburn struggled at times early in the season with its offense. Mississippi State limited the Tigers to 120 rushing yards in the third week of the season.

As Marshall ran the offense more and more, it got better and better. He didn't join the team from Garden City (Kansas) Community College until this past summer, and when the season opened, he knew only about a quarter of the offense. That's what Malzahn estimates.

If he had gone through spring training, as Newton did in 2010, would Auburn be unbeaten? It's easy to think the Tigers might.

Again, the most puzzling thing is that more people don't copy this. It seems that across the country, college programs prefer a fast-paced attack with a fast quarterback who runs a dual-option attack.

The passing part of the offense is much more important than it is at Auburn, and if those quarterbacks can't throw, they can't play.

Marshall probably wouldn't get off the bench at a place such as Oregon or Baylor, but he is leading a better offense at Auburn. Go figure.

-- Mark Edwards is the sports editor for the Anniston Star. You can write to him at medwards@annistonstar.com.

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