AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn used 15 total defensive players against Alabama in the Iron Bowl, a low number but not an outrageous one considering the pace of the Crimson Tide’s offense.
That probably won’t cut it in the Outback Bowl against Northwestern’s up-tempo, spread attack.
Of the 119 other teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, only three — Houston, Texas and Texas A&M — finished with more offensive plays than the Wildcats, who ran 919 this season. That’s six more a game than Gus Malzahn’s offense at Auburn, which by prides itself on being fast.
It will force the Tigers, who have been hampered by depth all season, to get more players into their defensive rotation than usual.
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“Especially the big guys up front,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “Those are the different guys that played with the rotation up front because we’re out (of players) at other positions. We’d like to play 25, but it just didn’t work out that way.”
Roof is familiar with playing against the Wildcats. He did it last year as Minnesota’s defensive coordinator and two years ago in his final season as Duke’s head coach. The Gophers lost 24-17 last year, but the Blue Devils pulled out a 20-14 win in 2007, their only victory in a 1-11 campaign.
“It spreads you out,” Roof said of Northwestern’s offense.
“It makes you defend the entire width of the field and that’s a change from the last couple offenses that we’ve played. Certainly the last four games were not spread, so we’re kind of flipping gears a little bit and going back and defending something new and something that we haven’t seen in a while.”
Some Auburn players don’t mind the pass-happy nature of the Wildcats’ offense.
“It’s different,” defensive tackle Jake Ricks said. “They throw the ball a lot. But it’s going to be fun at the same time knowing all you got to do is rush the passer really. It kind of takes out the thought process of, ‘OK, what’s this guy going to do?’ ”
Freshman Onterio McCalebb was never quite the same after suffering a high-ankle sprain on a fake punt against Ball State in the fourth week, but coaches think he’s back to where he was earlier this year.
“Probably better, because he has that experience,” running backs coach Curtis Luper said. “He’s played. He’s had success. We expect big things from him on the 1st.”
McCalebb ran for 365 yards in Auburn’s first four games, but the ankle injury sapped his trademark speed the rest of the way. He had only 182 rushing yards in the final eight games.
Right guard Byron Isom calmed some nerves about a potential knee injury on his Twitter page.
The junior posted that he had a knee rolled up on during Thursday’s practice, but he tweeted Friday night that all the tests he underwent came back negative and he merely had a strained patella tendon.
Isom started the final seven games after missing two for a team-imposed suspension.
Auburn’s coaches are staying tight-lipped about what they are going to do in the H-back role without Eric Smith, who is academically ineligible for the bowl.
“There are lots of options,” Luper said. “But we’re not telling.”
Although Mario Fannin is also considered an H-back, he and Smith had different roles at times.
Fannin can duplicate Smith’s pass-catching ability, but Smith was perhaps most valuable for his pass blocking skills.
Fullback John Douglas and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who are 241 and 262 pounds, respectively, might be better options as blockers in place of the 237-pound Smith.