TAMPA, Fla. — Between them, Auburn coach Gene Chizik and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald have a wealth of defensive experience.
Nearly all of Chizik’s 23 years of coaching have been on the defensive side of the ball, and Fitzgerald, well before he assumed the head job at his alma mater, established himself as one of the best college linebackers of the ’90s.
So there will be a touch of irony today in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium, where both teams plan to unleash their up-tempo, spread offenses on one another.
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“There are two defensive guys sitting up here,” Fitzgerald said during a joint press conference with Chizik earlier this week. “I think we know what gives defenses problems.”
Both schools have made a habit of that this season. Auburn (7-5) made drastic leaps in its first year under the guidance of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, finishing the regular season ranked 13th nationally in rushing offense (213.8 ypg), 20th in scoring (32.9 ppg) and 21st in total offense (432.2 ypg).
Northwestern (8-4), still running the offensive system first installed by the late Randy Walker earlier this decade, has thrived by not being afraid to spread the field and throw the ball at will. Fifth-year senior quarterback Mike Kafka has thrown for 2,898 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, completing nearly 66 percent of his passes.
Both teams move fast. Both teams get their athletes in space. And both teams aren’t afraid to buck conventional wisdom to do so.
“I bought into it right away,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought it made the defense defend the entire field horizontally and vertically. It made the defense defend a tempo. It made the defense defend for verticals and the speed option all in the same formation.
“It’s one thing to be one-dimensional and just be a running team, but I really thought if you had a good quarterback you could spread the ball out and use a lot of different weapons. Philosophically, trying to defend it, I thought it was the right offense for us to run.”
The Wildcats have over twice as many passing yards (3,193) as rushing yards (1,439) this season, numbers that seem decidedly anti-Big Ten. Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who coached last season at Minnesota, thinks that notion is changing.
“If you asked that question eight or 10 years ago, I would have said yes,” Roof said. “But after being in that league last year, almost every team, with the exception of two or three has some form of spread. They are now more the norm. That league has turned into a spread league.”
Auburn, meanwhile, has altered its offense while staying true to its roots. Despite its preferred frenetic pace, Malzahn’s system stays loyal to the run, a philosophical stand that caught Chizik’s eye.
“Our offense is probably different than most,” Chizik said. “It doesn’t mean we can’t go empty and it doesn’t mean we can’t do some of the things the spread offenses hang their hat on. We start everything from trying to run the football. When I’ve been on really good football teams, that’s what we’ve been able to do is run the ball. That’s kind of where my roots are, so this was kind of the best of both worlds.”
The spread has changed what teams have to focus on defensively.
“Part of that is they make you defend the entire width of the field,” Roof said. “There are so many one-on-one tackles. Where 10 years ago there might have been 10 people within 7 yards of the football, so if a tackle got missed it was a 4-yard gain. Now, in the spread, if you miss tackles, they end up as touchdowns.”
Defenses have combated the problem by recruiting speed on the defensive side of the ball, just part of the changing dynamic in college football, one Chizik and Fitzgerald aren’t afraid to embrace.
“I tell my linebackers all the time that I couldn’t play today,” Fitzgerald said. “That whole playing 4-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust is gone.”