Auburn's defense faces major challenge

Florida State brings No. 2-scoring offense into title game

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 6, 2014 

Auburn's Dee Ford, left, and Jermaine Whitehead tackle Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham during the SEC Championship game at the Georgia Dome. Auburn beat Missouri 59-42 to take the 2013 SEC title and a spot in the BCS National Championship game. 12.07.13

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn's defense walks a tightrope every game.

Opposing offenses haven't had a problem piling up yardage, as the Tigers allow 423.5 per game, which ranks 88th in the country. When things are tight at the end of games, however, Auburn has risen to the occasion every time.

That doesn't make defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson feel any better, though. As one of his unit's leaders admits, the Tigers wouldn't need any fourth-quarter heroics Monday against Florida State in the BCS national championship game if they simply cut down on mistakes earlier in games.

But that message hasn't resonated yet, Dee Ford said, so he and his fellow defenders hear the same criticism from Johnson every week.

"We're getting by because we're playing such good defense at pivotal times, even though we're putting ourselves in these situations," the senior defensive end said. "We're just tough enough as a defense to prevail in the end, but we keep shooting ourselves in the foot.

"He's just saying games would be so much easier if we would do this, this and this. He's going to keep pushing us to really play the perfect game. We have not played the perfect game, not even been close to playing the perfect game as a defense, and that's what we're striving for as a defense."

And in Florida State, Auburn will face a team that has been near-flawless offensively. The Seminoles have the second-best scoring offense in the country (53.0 points per contest) — and their worst showing this season still saw them put 37 on the board. Florida State is every bit as good when it comes to accumulating yardage, as it ranks sixth in the FBS in total offense at 535.5 yards per game.

That, of course, leads to the components that make up the Seminoles' dynamic unit — and they have it all. It starts up front, boasting a physical, enormous offensive line flush with NFL talent. Then there are the skill players, with deep units at receiver and in the backfield.

To top it off, Florida State has this year's Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Jameis Winston.

So where does one start to game plan against the Seminoles?

For the Tigers, at least, it begins and ends with the receiving corps.

They have squared off with their share of top-flight quarterbacks, from a Heisman winner (Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel) to a Heisman finalist (Alabama's AJ McCarron) to the holder of nearly every major SEC career passing record (Georgia's Aaron Murray). Auburn had varying degrees of success against each.

What they haven't been able to do this season is slow down opposing receivers, which is why the Tigers' secondary is looking for another chance at redemption.

"It's going to be a big challenge," junior corner Jonathon Mincy said. "That's all I've been hearing about — their wide receivers. It's a great opportunity that we (have) to go out there and … show that we can be one of the outstanding DB (units) in the country."

Compared to some of the other receiving corps Auburn has tussled with this season, Florida State is on the smaller side. Only one of their top four receivers stands taller than 6-foot-2, and it comes in the form of the 6-5, 234-pound Kelvin Benjamin.

Mincy already knows he'll be matched up against him, but despite standing only 5-10, the Georgia native believes he'll be able to have some semblance of success in his one-on-one matchups with the massive third-year sophomore.

"Receivers like that, you want to show them you can play them man and press them at anytime," he said. "You can bring the game to them, too. You can be physical as well."

Of course, just because so much focus is being placed on the Seminoles' wideouts doesn't mean the Tigers have forgotten about the Heisman winner.

"We've played some really talented receivers, but it's a complete defensive deal," head coach Gus Malzahn said. "It's not just 'receivers versus defensive backs.' We need to find a way to put pressure on the quarterback. Everything works together."

Malzahn is no stranger to Winston. When he was still Auburn's offensive coordinator two seasons ago, he tried to convince the Alabama native to stay in-state and play for the Tigers.

While it didn't happen, Malzahn was still able to appreciate Winston's uncanny ability.

"He's phenomenal, there's no doubt," Malzahn said. "He's good within his system, but when things break down, he's very good. He's strong. He's got that baseball arm and the ball can get there in a hurry from a long, long distance. And that's in addition to his feet."

And therein lies the biggest problem for teams that have played the Seminoles, Malzahn said. Take away one aspect of their dynamic attack, and they beat you with another.

All Malzahn could do was chalk it up to coaching.

"They've done a great job recruiting. They've got a whole lot of good players," Malzahn said. "It's not a coincidence they're the No. 1 team in the country and undefeated."

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