Auburn’s run-game numbers are staggering.
The SEC West champion Tigers, 11-1 and ranked third in the BCS, have rushed for fewer than 200 yards just once all season and haven’t been held below 233 yards rushing in any game since a Sept. 21 loss at LSU.
Of course, even in defeat, Auburn had 213 yards rushing.
Obviously then, the biggest challenge for the SEC East champion Missouri Tigers on Saturday will be containing quarterback Nick Marshall and Auburn’s up-tempo read-option attack.
“Challenge accepted,” Missouri junior defensive tackle Lucas Vincent said.
Auburn leads the SEC and ranks fifth in the nation in rushing at 318.2 yards per game, including 296 yards against Alabama’s defense last week in a thrilling Iron Bowl victory. Auburn averages about 80 more rushing yards per game than the next best SEC team, which is Missouri at 236.9.
But Missouri’s defense ranks second in the Southeastern Conference and 14th in the nation against the run, allowing 119.1 yards per game heading into Saturday’s 3 p.m. SEC championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
“It’s going to be about discipline,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “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.”
Auburn’s ground game presents myriad challenges.
It starts with the personnel.
Up front, Auburn’s offensive line was hailed as the best in the nation by Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. The Crimson Tide was giving up fewer than 92 yards per game on the ground before getting beat by Auburn.
“Their front line is very physical,” Vincent said. “We were watching the Bama game, and we were constantly seeing Bama’s front four getting mauled over on the ground. That’s not something you see every day. There’s some big boys up there.”
Of course, Auburn’s skill players aren’t bad either.
Running back Tre Mason, who is the workhorse with a team-high 237 carries, has rushed for 1,317 yards and 18 touchdowns.
“We’re really good at what we do offensively,” Auburn fullback Jay Prosch said. “… Whoever we play, we’re going to find a way to move the ball no matter what their strengths are.”
Auburn has two other backs who’ve rushed for at least 500 yards — junior Corey Grant, who has totaled 585 yards with five touchdowns and a 9.8-yard average, and junior Cameron Artis-Payne, who has 573 yards and five touchdowns.
Then there’s Marshall, a transfer from Garden City (Kan.) Community College, who has racked up 922 yards and 10 touchdowns in 140 carries from under center.
“Their quarterback is a tremendous runner,” Missouri defensive-line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “They’re a lot like our team. They’ve got a bunch of great tailbacks. They’ve got, I will say, the best fullback (Prosch) we’ve played against this year — a very dominant blocker, a tough, hard-nosed guy. Their offensive line is athletic and physical, so they’ve got a lot of great ingredients for running the ball.”
Auburn doesn’t throw many formations and offensive sets at opposing defenses, but there are a lot of wrinkles in terms of different plays off the same look, motion before the snap and different blocking schemes.
“They run plays that we’ve seen other teams run,” Kuligowski said. “They just run them better. That’s why they’re in the championship game.”
Auburn also runs those plays with incredible tempo.
“It’s a challenge in a few days to get the game plan down, then to get it so you can execute it — not be thinking on the field, just reacting,” Pinkel said.
Of course, part of the challenge for Missouri is not being distracted by the motion or biting on the misdirection.
“The challenge is keeping our gaps and not being greedy with trying to be Superman out there,” Vincent said. “You’ve got to do your job for our defense to work.”
It’s easier said than done, but the Tigers, 11-1 and ranked fifth in the BCS, will try to keep things simple — read their keys, trust their eyes and stick to their assignments.
Alabama wasn’t able to set the edge with its defensive ends, which is critical to funneling Auburn’s rushers into the teeth of the defense. Missouri hopes its physical and athletic defensive ends have more success.
Led by team MVP Michael Sam, a senior who leads the SEC with 10 1/2 sacks and 18 tackles for losses, along with fellow defensive ends Kony Ealy, Markus Golden and Shane Ray, Missouri ranks fifth in the country with 96 tackles for losses.
Still, it’s going to take 11 players concentrating to stop Auburn.
“You try not to get too complicated, because if you don’t know what you’re doing then you’ll have no chance to stop them,” Kuligowski said. “We try to make sure the guys have the game plan down, everybody feels comfortable and they can execute fast.”