Joe Medley commentary: A game measured in points NOT scored

January 5, 2014 

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn will make 10 appearances during this year's Tiger Trek. The Auburn Alumni Association announced the locations for the 10 speaking engagements on Tuesday.

BILL WILSON

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Gus Malzahn was once a defensive coordinator.

Hard to believe, but the Auburn head coach now synonymous with his hurry-up, no-huddle system, which is designed to gas and gash defenses, got his start on the dark side at Hughes High School in Arkansas.

That was 1991. How long has it been since he made a defensive call?

"I've given advice," Malzahn said during Sunday's press conference for head coaches, the final prelude to Monday's Bowl Championship Series title game between No. 2 Auburn and No. 1 Florida State, "but it's been a while."

The two coaches who will matter most in Monday's game weren't in the room for Sunday's traditional, day-before press conference of head coaches. Both are known as offensive minds.

Whatever say Malzahn and Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher have in their teams' defenses, their coordinators will have the most to say about which team brings home the Coaches' Trophy.

It will come down to Auburn's Ellis Johnson, finding ways to make Heisman Trophy quarterback Jameis Winston uncomfortable and keep Auburn's suspect secondary from giving up big plays.

It will come down to Florida State's Jeremy Pruitt, finding ways to slow the nation's top rushing offense.

It's about stops, and the defensive coordinator that finds ways to make the most stops in what projects as a high-scoring game will be the quiet keys to Monday's game.

We've seen this. We saw in the 2011 BCS final.

Hype surrounding that game centered on Cam Newton, Auburn's Heisman Trophy quarterback, and Oregon's high-powered, hurry-up offense.

Final score: 22-19.

Newton played what, for him, was an average game in Auburn's victory.

Oregon managed just 19 points, the Ducks' second-lowest output of the season, after averaging 47.

As streamers and confetti fell on the University of Phoenix Stadium field that night, Ted Roof's one shining moment as Auburn's defensive coordinator became apparent. He combatted Oregon's pace with simplicity, giving the Tigers a base defense with minimal calls and minimal thinking between plays.

Defensive tackle Nick Fairley did the rest, blowing up Oregon's offensive line.

Newton had his moments. Running back Michael Dyer, the game's most valuable player, had his get-up-and-go run to set up the game-winning field goal, but Roof's plan and Fairley's play made the difference.

As for Monday's game, Johnson has rush end Dee Ford leading a stout and often-rotated defensive line to make Winston uncomfortable, but Auburn's secondary must give Winston a reason the keep the ball in his hand. The Tigers are 102nd nationally in terms of passing yards allowed per game (260.2), and Winston is the nation's top-rated passer.

Pruitt has the nation's top defense in terms of points (10.7) allowed per game. The Seminoles are 13th (116.5 yards allowed a game) against the run --- a surprisingly low ranking, considering they have played with huge leads and forced opponents to pass more to catch up.

When the Seminoles faced a determined running team, Heisman finalist Andre Williams rushed for 149 yards, and Boston College scored 34 points in the Seminoles' closest game of the season. Auburn has a Heisman finalist in running back Tre Mason.

The challenges are clear for Pruitt and Johnson. Nobody expects either defensive coordinator to make stops all or even most of the time.

Whichever man causes the most possessions to end in punts or field goal attempts wins.

-- Joe Medley is a sports columnist for the Anniston Star. He can be reached at jmedley@annistonstar.com.

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