AUBURN, Ala. — It was only a quick look back.
But the moment Jermaine Whitehead bit on the play-action fake last Saturday, he knew he was in trouble. It was spot-on foreshadowing.
Seconds later, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron hit sophomore receiver Amari Cooper 40 yards downfield, lofting the ball just over the top of cornerback Jonathon Mincy.
From there, Whitehead just did the best he could to recover.
“When I took off, I took a wrong angle, so I had to launch myself at him and he’s one of the fastest guys who runs those types of routes in college football,” Whitehead said. “He kind of scooted up a little bit and took off. When I dove, I fell on my back and hurt my back a little bit. I should have made the play.”
Since he didn’t, Cooper coasted into the end zone on a 99-yard scoring strike, marking the longest touchdown pass in the Crimson Tide’s storied history.
That score gave Alabama a 28-21 lead with 10:28 to play, but lightning almost struck twice. Late in the third quarter, the Crimson Tide was once again in the shadow of its own end zone. But once more, McCarron and Cooper gave the offense some breathing room, hooking up on 54-yard pass that looked eerily similar to the one it scored on two possessions later. When the game ended, McCarron had thrown for 277 yards and three touchdowns (against no interceptions) while completing 17 of his 29 attempts.
Opponents putting up big numbers through the air is nothing new for Auburn’s defense, though; in five of their 12 games this season, the Tigers have allowed more than 272 passing yards.
Missouri, Auburn’s counterpart in Saturday’s SEC Championship game, is capable of doing the same thing — that is, if it chooses to. Missouri owns the second-best rushing offense in the SEC at 236.9 yards per game. But Missouri has three games this season where it tallied 295 passing or more.
Paced by a steady senior quarterback in James Franklin and a plethora of tall pass-catchers, Missouri poses a formidable challenge for any defense.
Consider Ellis Johnson worried.
With five different receivers listed at 6-foot-3 or taller on their two-deep depth chart, Johnson knows there are no easy answers for his defensive backs. No member of Auburn’s starting secondary stands taller than Ryan Smith at 6-foot-2, after all.
Asked what they could to even things up, Johnson joked that maybe his players could “put on elevator heels or something.”
“What are you going to do?” said Johnson, answering the question with a rhetorical query of his own. “They’re not going to grow two inches before Saturday.”
He quickly turned serious, though, when describing what he saw on film.
“When they go to five receivers or they've got four wide receivers out there, they're all dangerous,” Johnson said. “When you say, ‘Well, who's the go-to guy?’ There's not one. They spread it around and they've got confidence in all of them. And it just makes it extremely difficult to defend the field and hold up in the box. A lot of people try to put five wide receivers or four wide receivers out there (and) there's a couple of them you know you can sort of make sure somebody's near them. They're going to throw it to somebody else. That's not the case with Missouri.”
Perhaps Auburn’s best chance to avoid putting its defensive backs in any jump-ball situations is making sure it never leaves the Franklin’s hand in the first place.
That’s why Nosa Eguae said he and the rest of Auburn’s defensive linemen are taking it upon themselves to make Missouri’s towering receivers a non-factor.
“That was our big deal last week — affecting the quarterback,” Eguae said. “ (It’s) on us every week. (Defensive line) Coach (Rodney) Garner puts it on us and says, ‘We want to win games, and it's going to come down to us up front. It's the same thing this week.”