BCS title game preview: Keeping Winston in pocket may be key for Tigers

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 5, 2014 

Gus Malzahn press conference Auburn BCS day 6 for the BCS Championship on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014 in Newport Beach, CA. Todd Van Emst

TODD VAN EMST — Todd J. Van Emst

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Measuring Florida State's dominance comes as easily as its 13 wins this season.

The Seminoles haven't defeated opponents this season; "bludgeoned" might be more appropriate. The nation's top ranked team averages 53 points per contest. Defensively, it permits just 10.7.

No team has been able to stand toe-to-toe with the Seminoles. To wit: Florida State's closest game was still decided by two touchdowns, as it went on the road and beat Boston College 48-34.

What's more, the Seminoles' have routinely wrapped up games by halftime, outpacing opponents by nearly 300 points — 369-72 — in the first half.

Needless to say, Ellis Johnson knows his unit has to be on point from the get-go tonight.

"They can look average at times and have 21 points on the board," Auburn's defensive coordinator said. "They've got great athletes that make big plays at important times. We do need to start well. We cannot get in a big, deep hole with a team that's this good and expect to come back and win."

What's the key to trying to slow down an offense that hasn't scored fewer than 37 points in any game?

Easy — make the quarterback a non-factor. The problem, of course, is that it's always easier said than done.

And it doesn't help matters when that quarterback also happens to be the Heisman Trophy winner.

"When you think about Jameis Winston, there's not one thing," Johnson said.

"He can make any throw on the field. I think he's a great leader and a tremendous leader for a young player. … And the other thing is, his mobility, when he doesn't make that throw, his mobility just puts you in a very tough situation when he gets out of the pocket."

If the Tigers can keep Winston in the pocket — and more importantly, get to him with regularity — they believe everything else will be rendered moot.

"I think pressure makes any quarterback pretty average," senior defensive end Dee Ford said. "I think it's just the nature of the game. If you can put pressure on the quarterback, that's just what happens."

Auburn's defense thinks it has a silver bullet, though.

While Johnson concedes his unit will give up points, he's confident Auburn's offense will be able to pick up the slack.

"I think our offense will give us an opportunity not to have to play uphill all day long like most teams have against them," he said, "and maybe we can play downhill a little bit and see what that does."

That's what Auburn did in its last outing, after all, as it smashed numerous offensive records in its 59-42 victory over Missouri in the SEC championship game. Just as it has all season, the Tigers' ground game led the way, as they rushed for 545 yards and seven touchdowns.

Combating Auburn's high-powered rushing attack — tops in the nation at 335.7 yards per game — now falls to Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

One person suggested that having nearly a month to prepare for the Tigers' read-option scheme worked in the Seminoles' favor. Pruitt would hear none of it, though.

All the preparation in the world means nothing if a team can't execute once it takes the field.

"Regardless whether it's a week, a month or whatever, the bottom line is you've got to be able to tackle in space," Pruitt said.

"They're going to get ball carriers out in space. You've got to be able to get lined up. These guys go extremely fast. You can watch (Auburn) Coach (Gus) Malzahn over the years, wherever he's been, goes really fast (and it) seems like he gets teams discombobulated a little bit. You've got to keep them cut off."

If Florida State can do that, it will likely emerge victorious, running its record to 14-0 and capturing its first national championship since 1999.

As Timmy Jernigan attests, the Seminoles' entire season — and whether it will be viewed as a success or failure — rides on the result of today's game.

"That's been the motto the whole season: just stay focused one game at a time," the junior defensive tackle said.

"The reason was really for this one game right here. So it feels good to finally say that we're here. We're just getting ready to play now."

The stakes are similarly high for Auburn, which seeks to put the perfect capper on its remarkable turnaround season.

It's exactly the type of campaign Jermaine Whitehead has always envisioned. Just three years ago, he was a high school senior, watching Cam Newton lead the Tigers to a national title for the first time since 1957.

Whitehead, now a junior, admitted it was "one of the greatest recruiting tools" he had ever seen. Along with the other freshmen who joined the team in 2011, he believed that run of good fortune wouldn't end any time soon.

And in a way, he was right — the Tigers just had to suffer through the 3-9 debacle in 2012 first. But Whitehead took the strife in stride.

Take away the disappointment of last season, and this year wouldn't mean nearly as much.

"It's been an amazing journey, one that's been long, one that's been hard, one that's also been fun," Whitehead said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."

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