AU offense vs. Vols defense tough test
By ANDY BITTER
AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn never has been accused of being underprepared. Auburn’s offensive coordinator studies opposing defenses with a fine eye, looking for any kind of deficiency or weak spot to exploit when Saturday rolls around.
In watching film of Tennessee, led by former NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, weaknesses have been hard to find.
“There have been very few, if any,” Malzahn said. “We’re going to have to earn everything we get.”
It will be a battle of wits when Malzahn’s fast-paced Auburn offense matches up with Kiffin’s give-nothing Tennessee defense in Knoxville this Saturday.
Malzahn’s Tigers rank third nationally in total offense (526.3 yards per game) and scoring offense (45.2 points per game). Kiffin’s Vols rank eighth in total defense (233.0 ypg) and 33rd in scoring defense (18.9 ppg).
“It’s going to be a good challenge,” Auburn running back Ben Tate said. “It’s going to be a real test to see where we’re really at. Tennessee is probably going to be one of the best defenses we face all year — if not the best.”
The respect is mutual, judging by Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin’s comments Tuesday.
“There’s so much stuff going on around it,” he said of Auburn’s offense. “I talked to my dad the other night, and he said it’s like trying to read a book with someone waving their hand in front of the book — trying to look at it, what’s going on, but you can’t really see it. You can’t really focus because there’s so much misdirection and so much shifting motion.”
The 69-year-old Kiffin, who the Vols paid $1.2 million per year to leave his established position with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and lead his son’s defense at Tennessee, is best known for the “Tampa 2” scheme, which values speed over size, stresses turnovers and is more concerned with preventing scores than giving up yardage.
The Volunteers run some “Tampa 2,” Malzahn said, but Kiffin mixes in more traditional looks along the way. It doesn’t change what Tennessee’s defense is capable of.
“They are great,” said Auburn head coach Gene Chizik, who looked to Kiffin for ideas in his formative years as a coach at Central Florida. “(Kiffin) is one of the best in the business.”
Kiffin shouldn’t get all the credit. Tennessee had a formidable defense even before his arrival, finishing in a third-place tie with Alabama last year nationally in total yardage, a figure overshadowed by the Vols’ offensive ineptitude in Phil Fulmer’s final season.
Tennessee safety Eric Berry is a big reason for that success. The reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year is on everybody’s radar, a potential top-five pick in next year’s NFL draft.
“He’s not a good one; he’s a great one,” Chizik said.
The 5-foot-11, 203-pound junior is an all-around threat. He’s already the SEC’s career interception return leader, taking 13 interceptions back for 487 yards, and he plays a physical brand of football needed at the safety position in Monte Kiffin’s schemes.
“He’s a difference-maker,” Malzahn said. “They give him some freedom, and he makes plays. And he makes big plays. So we’re going to have to be aware of where he’s at, be smart and protect the football, especially when we’re around him.”
Tennessee relied on Berry to shadow Florida star quarterback Tim Tebow a few weeks ago. Tebow had a solid but not spectacular day in the Gators’ closer-than-expected 23-13 win in Gainesville, throwing for 115 yards and a touchdown and running for 76 yards and another touchdown. Good stats but not what fans are accustomed to seeing from the former Heisman Trophy winner.
“Their plan against Tebow, that was his guy, and they did a really solid job with it,” Malzahn said. “That’s a big task. That just tells you what type of player he is.”
Berry fits Tennessee’s history of physical defenses. Tate, who has experienced the matchup first-hand, gave fellow Auburn running back Onterio McCalebb advice heading into what is expected to be a slug-fest on Saturday.
“I just tell him to pop a couple aspirin before the game,” Tate said, “because it’s going to be hard-hitting.”