AUBURN, Ala. — Every week Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof is asked by reporters to give a vague scouting report of the Tigers’ opponent.
Invariably, he starts by stressing the importance of stopping the run, a fact pointed out to him leading up to the Iron Bowl.
“You mean I repeat myself?” Roof said with a wry smile. “Certainly you’re not talking about me.”
It bears repeating this week: for as good as Greg McElroy, Julio Jones and company have been at throwing the ball this year, the Crimson Tide remains at its core a team that likes to establish the run.
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Want proof? Two of the Tide’s three worst rushing performances this year were against South Carolina and LSU, both losses.
“You can tell that that’s been preached to this football team, the importance of physicality,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “This is going to be one of those heavyweight slugfests.”
Injuries and a reshuffled offensive line have taken some of the luster off Alabama’s ground game, which is averaging 184.9 yards per game, a figure down 40 yards from last year but one that is still good enough for fourth in the SEC.
Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram missed the first two games following arthroscopic knee surgery; co-starter Trent Richardson has missed the last two with a knee problem.
Their numbers have suffered as result. Ingram has 780 yards and 10 touchdowns; Richardson 634 yards and five scores.
But Auburn is aware of the duo’s talent.
“They’re explosive,” Roof said. “They complement each other very well. When you want to line up and run the ball in this league, you’ve got to have some depth. They’re both very physical in the way they run the football, and we’ve got a lot of respect for them.”
Said linebacker Craig Stevens: “They’re probably the best pair we’ve faced.”
Despite a porous rush defense that ranked 10th in the SEC last year, Auburn stopped Ingram and Richardson in the Iron Bowl. Alabama finished with 73 rushing yards on 35 attempts in a narrow 26-21 win in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“I just remember as a defense all of us we’re flying around to the ball,” Stevens said. “That’s what it all comes down to slowing those guys down. You’ve got to get a lot of hats to the ball to bring those guys down.”
Ingram, who ran for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns on his way to becoming the school’s first Heisman winner, was limited by a hip bruise and finished with a season-low 30 yards on 16 carries.
The Tide didn’t run for fewer than 134 yards in any other game during its national championship season.
“They were very, very physical, and they tackled well,” Roof said of his defense. “Any time do that, you have a chance to do good things against the run game.”
The Tigers have shored up their rush defense this year, locking down the middle with tackles Nick Fairley (47 tackles, 18 TFLs) and Zach Clayton (22 tackles, 7 TFLs), in addition to linebacker Josh Bynes (team-best 58 tackles).
Auburn ranks second in the SEC and 11th nationally, allowing 111.5 yards per game, 45 fewer than last season.
Only three teams have averaged four yards a carry against the Tigers this year: Clemson (4.0), Arkansas (4.9) and Ole Miss (7.0).
But Auburn won’t be full strength on its defensive line. Seniors Michael Goggans and Mike Blanc will have to sit out the first half after being ejected late in the Georgia game for throwing punches during scuffles.
It will force freshmen Jeffrey Whitaker, Kenneth Carter and Corey Lemonier into more prominent roles off the bench, putting the run defense even more in the spotlight.
“We have to stop the run to at least keep the game in good hands,” Bynes said. “I think if we do that we’ll control the ball game.”