AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s offense is more complicated than it looks.
Corey Grant will vouch for that much. What many people don’t understand, the junior running back said, is that while certain plays may appear identical when viewed in real-time, there are intricate, slight alterations each time the ball is snapped.
“A lot of fans think we’re running the same plays,” said Grant, the Tigers’ third-leading rusher this season with 585 yards. “ It looks the same sometimes, but it’s really not.”
Whatever Auburn is doing, one thing is clear: opponents have had no idea how to stop it. The Tigers are tops in the SEC in rushing yards per game, averaging 318.2. Missouri, Auburn’s opponent in Saturday’s SEC Championship game, is in second place, totaling 236.9 rushing yards per contest. And Auburn’s confidence couldn’t be higher; in its past eight outings, the Tigers have rushed for at least 233 yards. Three times in that span, Auburn has topped the 400-yard mark; on two other occasions, they tallied 300 or more.
Auburn fell just short of 300 yards against Alabama on Saturday, finishing with 296. Not that it bothered the Tigers, as players believed it was their most impressive performance to date. The Crimson Tide entered last Saturday giving up just 91 rushing yards per game, after all.
Jay Prosch summed up the thoughts of everyone involved in the Tigers’ recent running successes, from the offensive linemen to the ballcarriers.
“Without all those guys, obviously my blocks would mean nothing,” the senior fullback said. “Without me, their blocks and (runs) would mean nothing. We all count on each other and we make it work together. It really brings you closer together when you've got a group of guys and you're all doing something special.”
Tre Mason’s season is already one for Auburn’s record books. The junior has 18 rushing touchdowns this year (two behind Cam Newton’s single-season record for a Tiger) and 1,317 rushing yards (seventh-most in one season by an Auburn player). So when asked whether Mason was “underrated,” Prosch was a bit flummoxed. Because he pays no attention to press clippings, he couldn't answer the question.
Simply put, Prosch said, Mason is “an outstanding” player.
“I don't think that I would trade him for anybody,” he said. “We have outstanding backs.”
To run effectively Saturday, Gus Malzahn knows his team will have to find a way to keep Missouri’s defense off-balance. From what he’s seen on film, Auburn’s coach noted Missouri will trot out an “aggressive” unit.
“They can run, they play together, they play extremely hard — that’s the thing that stands out to me,” Malzahn said. “They make you earn it. When you watch them on film, there are very few cheap plays. They make you have drives put together.”
On the flip side, Gary Pinkel and his staff are trying to come up with a game plan to slow down Auburn’s rushing attack.
“They're a great running football team with a great quarterback and a great scheme that causes every defense nightmares,” Missouri’s coach said. “ It's going to be about discipline. It's going to be physical. But it's going to be assignment football also. Hopefully we can get our scheme down and give our best efforts.”
Why, exactly, has Auburn’s ground game been so difficult to defend?
Plain as it may sound, Prosch said it’s due in part to the Tigers’ running backs refusing to stop until they hear the sound of the whistle.
“Coach Malzahn is always pushing us throughout the season while we're watching film and he'll be like, 'Don't fall that way or don't do this,’” Prosch said. “He's like, 'You could have gotten another yard.' That stuff matters, and I think it's shown that that matters.”
That likely won’t bother Pinkel as much as one ominous comment from Grant, though.
Yes, Auburn has had some standout showings this season. But if people think the Tigers are at the pinnacle of their abilities, think again.
That perfect game is still out there, somewhere.
“We have a lot of improvement to do,” Grant said. “I think it (will be) scary the day when we do have that ‘best game.’”