AUBURN, Ala. — Leave it to Mark Richt to set things straight.
Georgia’s head coach has no idea why so many people believe stopping Auburn’s running game will be a simple task. After all, these armchair “experts” point out, the Tigers have shown their stripes so often this season, the Bulldogs should easily be able to find with a solution to stymie the top-ranked rushing attack in the SEC. At this point, Auburn has given away enough of its tendencies it should be a walk in the park for Georgia’s defense, these “pundits” continue.
It’s a line of thinking that mystifies Richt.
“When you say you know their tendency, you're saying that might be bad for the offense if they have too many tendencies and people can predict (them),” Richt said. “But the problem is, if they have a tendency that you can predict, they're probably really good at it. So now it's a matter of if you can really out-execute them at what they do the best.”
And therein lies the problem for opposing defenses: no team has hit on the right combination to gum up the Tigers’ ground game this year.
One could say Mississippi State came the closest, holding Auburn to just 120 rushing yards in the SEC opener for both teams on Sept. 14. (More on that game later.) One week later, LSU permitted just 213 yards to Auburn, the lone loss of the season for Gus Malzahn’s squad up to this point. Since then, no opponent has been able to corral the Tigers, as they have averaged 378.5 rushing yards in their last six outings.
As has been oft-repeated statistic in recent days, Auburn took that reliance on the run to an absurd extent the past two weeks, running the ball 99 times against just 16 pass attempts. Not that the unbalanced play calling has hurt the Tigers — not by a long shot — as they won those games (over Arkansas and Tennessee, respectively) by a combined score of 90-40. Of course, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to the Razorbacks or Volunteers, two of the worst rushing defenses in the SEC. In the Tigers, they were getting a known commodity: a team that will run at every opportunity.
When they proved they couldn’t stop it, Malzahn kept going to the well.
Call it the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to play calling.
“If you're able to be successful, you keep doing it,” Malzahn said. “Football is not a complicated game. A lot of people make it complicated, but you do what you're good at. Right now, we're good at running the football.”
Ah, but that’s not good enough for some.
In a society that strives for balance, many refuse to believe this one-dimensional style can continue to produce positive results for the Tigers. And that may be true. But what many seem to have forgotten is that Auburn can pass the ball, if need be.
Recall the Mississippi State game referenced earlier? The one occasion the Tigers’ ground game was stopped in its track doubled as the contest that saw Auburn’s aerial attack get untracked, as Nick Marshall threw for 339 yards and two touchdowns.
Oh, and it can't be forgotten that game included the first signature moment of the the junior signal-caller's career: the go-ahead, 88-yard scoring drive, which saw Marshall go 6-for-8 for 66 yards and connect with tight end C.J. Uzomah on an 11-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds remaining to give the Tigers a 24-20 victory.
Or how about another game this season that saw Auburn pass effectively — the one that lifted Auburn to a road victory over Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M? Marshall outdueled the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, throwing for 236 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Meanwhile, Manziel had a pair of pickoffs to go with his 454 yards and four scoring tosses.
And this team can’t pass?
On yet another front, Richt was perplexed at the prevailing notion of outsiders. The only reason the Tigers aren’t throwing it is because they haven’t had to recently, plain and simple.
“I think they'll go into this game like a lot of the other games — they'll have a plan to do both,” Richt said, “and if the team just cannot slow them down running the ball and they keep moving them chains and scoring points, I don't think they're necessarily going to throw it too much if they don't have to.”
So that's that. To the surprise of no one, Richt and Malzahn are in one accord in regard to the Tigers' offense. Auburn will pass only if Georgia can force its hand.
Malzahn — as he has been so often this season — was right.
It's not that complicated.