Inside Auburn's unstoppable running game
January, 3, 2014
By Toby Petitpas | ESPN.com
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesTre Mason has been a workhorse in Gus Malzahn's run-heavy offense.
Auburn rushed for 545 yards in the SEC championship, the most ever in a game between two SEC teams and the most overall by an SEC team since Auburn had 565 against Southwestern Louisiana in 1985.
Bo Jackson led the way for that Auburn team with 290 yards and four touchdowns. In the SEC championship on Dec. 7, it was Tre Mason, who had 304 yards and four touchdowns.
The week before the SEC title game, Auburn rushed for 296 yards in the Iron Bowl, the most Alabama had allowed in an SEC game since Nick Saban’s first season (2007), when the Tide allowed 301 to an Arkansas team led by Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis.
Origins of the running game
Auburn’s success can be traced to its hiring of Gus Malzahn. Malzahn was Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2009-11. He left to become the head coach at Arkansas State in 2012, when he led the Red Wolves to a Sun Belt Conference championship.
As a coordinator and coach, Malzahn is known for his run-first offense, which has led its conference in rushing in three of the past four seasons.
With Malzahn as its head coach, Auburn has run on 71 percent of its plays, the highest percentage for any non-triple-option offense in the FBS. Entering the bowl games, the Tigers led the nation in rushing yards per game, rushing touchdowns and runs of 25 yards or more. They were one of five schools that had two players with at least 1,000 rushing yards each.
Heisman finalist Mason has been one of the main beneficiaries of Malzahn’s offense. His 283 carries were the fifth-most in FBS entering the bowls and 112 more than he had last season. As a result, he led the SEC in almost every major rushing category, and his seven 100-yard rushing games against SEC defenses are the most in a season for any player in the past 10.
Running quarterback is key
During the two seasons that Auburn has made the BCS National Championship, Malzahn has had the luxury of calling plays for a dynamic running quarterback. In 2010, it was Cam Newton. This season, it is Nick Marshall.
In both seasons, the Tigers ranked in the top five of the FBS in rushing yards per game, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns. In the two seasons between Newton and Marshall, Auburn had a combined 59 rushing yards by its quarterbacks and an 11-14 record.
Marshall has rushed for 1,023 yards, fifth-most by an FBS quarterback entering the bowl games. He has been outstanding making decisions in Auburn’s zone-read scheme. Zone reads have accounted for 46 percent of the Tigers’ carries.
On such plays, they average 7.3 yards per rush, including 9.0 when Marshall keeps the ball. Marshall’s 882 yards on zone reads ranks second among players from BCS automatic-qualifying (AQ) conferences entering the bowls behind Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey (1,278).
Running outside tackles
Auburn is one of three AQ teams to run outside the tackles on at least 50 percent of its carries. On such runs, the Tigers lead all AQ schools in rushing yards (2,887) and rank second in yards per carry (8.5) behind Wisconsin.
In fact, they had more rushing yards outside the tackles than 106 FBS teams had total rushing yards entering the bowl games.
The Tigers do an excellent job of sealing the edge. They average an AQ-high 6.3 yards before contact on runs outside the tackles and have 77 such runs in which first contact was not made until at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, 27 more than any other AQ school.
Can Florida State stop them?
Auburn will try to keep its ground game going against the nation’s leader in scoring defense, Florida State. The Seminoles have allowed five rushing touchdowns all season, tied with Iowa for the fewest in the FBS before bowls began.
Boston College is the only team to score more than 17 points against Florida State this season. Led by Heisman finalist Andre Williams, the Eagles rushed for 200 yards and scored 34 points.
Boston College had success running outside the tackles, gaining 160 yards on 26 carries.
The Seminoles struggled against such runs all season, allowing 107 more yards outside the tackles than inside, despite 84 fewer rushes. The three runs of 30 yards or more that they allowed this season were all outside the tackles.
After the SEC championship, Malzahn said, "Right now, we can run the football on anybody. So why change?” The question is whether or not Florida State can make Auburn change come Monday.