January 3, 2011

Defenses could hold key to BCS title game

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- "Hold the rope."

That's what Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof has been preaching all season.

Time and again during Auburn's run to the BCS title game, Roof has had to remind his players to grip tight ... don't give up ... never surrender, no matter how dire the circumstance. And Auburn has been in some tight spots this season.

Ducks thrive on forcing turnovers
Oregon's defense has a lot in common with Auburn's, mainly that both are overshadowed by dynamic offenses.

While Auburn has Cameron Newton, Oregon has running back LaMichael James, a Heisman runner-up. But the Ducks' defense has an unabashed star in linebacker Casey Matthews, who is surrounded by several underrated forces.

"No one really jumped out at me," Arizona State defensive line coach Grady Stretz said of the Ducks' defenders. "I just noticed a lot of speed in their secondary. Their linebackers also ran well.

"I don't know if they are physical up front. But within their scheme, with all of their zone pressures, man pressures and movement they do, they are athletic and have guys who can make plays. They do a good job getting in the backfield and getting you in tough situations."

Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti runs an aggressive scheme and takes chances, knowing the Ducks' offense is a quick-strike unit that can score in bunches. The defense also has thrived on generating turnovers.

Oregon has 35 takeaways and is plus-13 in turnover margin, which ranks No. 7 in the nation. The unit also has excelled at stopping run, ranking first in the Pac-10.

"The team that gets the most stops, or holds people to 'threes' [field goals], gets turnovers, those are the keys," Aliotti said. "Turnovers, stops, trade 'threes' for 'sevens' as much as you can -- that's really the secret.

"I know there's a lot of 'Cam Right,' 'Cam Left,' 'Cam Throw' [in Auburn's offense]. I guess it adds to the challenge, for lack of a better word, to try to go stop this juggernaut."
"We have talked about not letting go of the rope a lot," Roof said. "This league [the SEC] is so physical. There are no weeks off. Each week is a physical war."

The Tigers remain standing. Yes, the ballyhooed offense led by Heisman-winning quarterback Cameron Newton hogs the headlines. But Auburn's defense has done its part by being resilient in the face of adversity, and it just may be the overlooked defenses of both teams that end up deciding who wins the national championship.

"We really have hung our hats on being resilient," Roof said. "We have given up a couple plays at times. But when you play the kind of schedule we do, that happens. They have been really good about not dwelling on that, staying together, staying positive and moving forward. That says a lot about our kids and their character and belief in each other."

That character and belief was pushed to the limit at times this season, as the Tigers have had to battle back from four double-digit deficits:

24-0 to Alabama.
20-7 to South Carolina.
21-7 to Georgia.
17-0 to Clemson.

In all four of those games, the defense made key halftime adjustments to help Auburn rally.

"They don't get enough credit," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said of the Tigers' defense. "Their stats may not show it, and they aren't this or that. But when it's time to stop someone, they do. They are good, not great, on defense.

"We scored 31 on them. Arkansas scored some points on them [43]. They got down vs. Alabama, but when it came time to stop them, they did. And it starts with [defensive tackle Nick] Fairley. You better be aware of him and get four hands on him. He's tough."

Fairley won the Lombardi Trophy this season for his sheer disruptive force. But he is the lone true star on a mostly star-less Tigers defense that didn't have any other defenders earn first- or second-team All-SEC honors from Rivals.com.

"Auburn is a good defensive team, but not a great defensive team," Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said.

For Auburn, the sum has been greater than the parts. Still, players such as linebackers Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens, end Antoine Carter, safety Zac Etheridge and cornerbacks Neiko Thorpe and Demond Washington have had their moments for a unit that keeps offenses off-balance with a mixed blend of styles.

"I wouldn't categorize them as a blitzing team," Sanders said. "They like to keep things in front of them and rally to the play. They're not overly aggressive but they're not afraid to blitz. They pick their spots. You planned on getting zone or man-free coverage, and you adjusted to the blitz."

Roof, a former Duke head coach, had just finished his first season as defensive coordinator at Minnesota in 2008 when he got a call from Gene Chizik, who recently had been hired at Auburn. Roof had no existing relationship with Chizik, but that didn't stop him from jumping at the opportunity to work at Auburn.

By the numbers
Rush defense 111.7 ypg2nd11th
Pass defense 250.5 ypg11th105th
Total defense 362.2 ypg9th53rd
Scoring defense24.5 ppg8th54th
Rush defense117.6 ypg1st15th
Pass defense214.0 ypg5th58th
Total defense331.6 ypg3rd26th
Scoring defense18.4 ppg2nd14th
"This place is filled with great tradition," Roof said. "And I wanted to be a part of that."

While Auburn's defensive stats aren't eye-popping, they must be put into context to be appreciated. Auburn didn't face the three of the four worst offenses in the SEC -- Tennessee, Florida and Vanderbilt.

"There are a lot of things that go into statistics," Roof said. "The statistic that matters most is wins and losses for our football team. We know we have a responsibility to do what we have to do to help the football team win. That's the bottom line. I don't really worry about it.

"I believe what I see on tape and coach kids, and I love what I do and I love doing it at Auburn."

Circumstances in some games have dictated how Roof has had to call his defense. When Auburn has owned big leads, Roof didn't want to give up a big play, so he stayed with less-aggressive defenses.

"When you have had a year like we have, you have to move on to the next one quickly," Roof said. "You have to correct what went wrong and move forward. You can't sit back and enjoy the wins like some people can."

Roof and Auburn will revel for a lifetime if they can win the national championship.


T Nick Fairley, 6-5/298, Jr.
: He's the ultimate disruptive force in the middle of the defense. Fairley, a former JC standout, has 10.5 sacks, 21 tackles for loss, an interception and 21 quarterback hurries.

LB Josh Bynes, 6-2/235, Sr.
: He fills holes because of his physical nature while also flashing speed to the edge. He has a knack for forcing turnovers.

S Zac Etheridge, 6-0/213, Sr.
: He has rebounded from what could have been a career-ending neck injury last season. He's second on the team, behind Bynes, in tackles, and he's also a team leader because of the adversity he has overcome.

E Antoine Carter, 6-4/256, Sr.
: He provides speed off the edge and has 10 tackles for loss, 17 quarterback hurries and 4.5 sacks. Carter forever will be remembered by Tigers fans for swiping the ball from Alabama RB Mark Ingram in the Iron Bowl.

LB Craig Stevens, 6-3/229, Sr.
: He's a speedy, versatile linebacker who can play inside or out. Stevens is equally adept at defending the pass as the run.


LB Casey Matthews, 6-2/235, Sr.
: He has a great motor and has the athletic ability to run sideline to sideline. He leads the Ducks with 73 tackles and is the unquestioned leader of the unit. His brother, Clay, is a standout linebacker with Green Bay Packers after starring at USC.

E Kenny Rowe, 6-3/230, Sr.
: A lithe pass rusher off the edge who also holds up well against the run. He has a team-leading six sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. Offenses must know where he's lined up.

FS John Boyett, 5-10/190, Soph.
: He packs a big punch while helping direct traffic in the secondary. He's tied for the team lead with five interceptions and also has nine pass breakups.

LB Spencer Paysinger, 6-3/234, Sr.
: He ranks second on the Ducks with 68 tackles. He's a physical player who excels at stopping the run.

CB Cliff Harris, 5-11/170, Soph.
: He's a big-time playmaker who has 30 tackles, five interceptions and a team-high 15 pass breakups. He also has returned four punts for touchdowns.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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