Not quite a month ago, the Crimson Tide completely stuffed the run game of LSU, a team boasting Bama’s same run-first DNA. Final tally: 31 carries for the Tigers… just 43 yards.
But holding LSU to a 1.3 yards-per-carry average isn’t the same as halting Auburn’s ground game. LSU lines up and pounds the football right at you. Gus Malzahn and Auburn are much more creative, bringing ball-carriers and blockers from any and all directions.
By now you’ve probably heard the stat that a Nick Saban team (either at LSU or Alabama) has never beaten an Auburn squad that finished with nine wins. That’s a flukish type of stat. A more telling examination would require only a quick look at past Saban-versus-Malzahn matchups to see how Nick’s Tide has fared against Gus’ Tigers.
It was Malzahn’s first year as offensive coordinator on the Plains. The Tigers would finish the season 8-5. Their rushing attack was the fourth best in the SEC averaging 212.0 yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry. Alabama boasted the league’s best run defense in ’09. The Tide allowed just 79.3 yards per game and a miniscule 2.8 yards per carry as they captured their first national crown under Saban.
Iron Bowl result: Bama won the game 26-21 as Saban’s unit held Auburn to 151 yards (61 yards below it’s average) and a 4.72 yards per carry.
Year Two for Malzahn, but this time he had the incredible Cam Newton behind center. The Tiger offense led the SEC in rushing with 284.7 yards per game and a whopping 6.1 yards-per-carry average. Bama’s rush defense took a backseat to Auburn’s in 2010. Second in the SEC, Saban’s crew allowed 110.1 yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry.
Iron Bowl result: Auburn raced back from a 24-0 first-half deficit to win the game (28-27) and propel itself toward the 2010 BCS championship. However, AU rushed 41 times for just 108 yards on the day. That was a full 176 yards below the Tigers’ average output on the ground. Auburn’s per-carry number dropped from an average of 6.1 all the way to 2.6 in the Iron Bowl. With its run game stuffed, the difference in the game became Newton’s passing ability. Supercam was 13-of-20 for 216 yards (10.8 per pass attempt), three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Minus Newton, Auburn’s ground game fell back to fourth best in the league — 182.3 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry. Malzahn would leave at year’s end to become the head coach at Arkansas State. Alabama was back on top of the conference’s run defense chart in ’11. Bama allowed only 72.1 yards per game — a ridiculously low number — and just 2.4 yards per rush.
Iron Bowl result: Starting to spot the trend here? Alabama blasted the Tigers 42-14 on its way to capture yet another BCS crown. On the day, Malzahn’s offense gained just 78 yards on the ground on 35 carries. That was 104 yards below the Tigers’ season average and their per-carry number was just 2.2 (compared to a 4.4 season average).
Back on the Plains, Malzahn has quickly reignited AU’s ground game thanks in large part to the mobility of quarterback Nick Marshall. Auburn enters this year’s Iron Bowl averaging 320.2 yards per game with a 6.4 yards-per-carry average. And, yes, those are better rushing numbers than the 2010 team. Alabama is the SEC’s best run defense once more, yielding 91.2 yards per contest and 3.0 yards per tote.
Iron Bowl forecast: Saban has gone against a Malzahn-coached Auburn offense three times. Each time the Tigers gained well below their season-long rushing average. Look at the numbers — 61 yards below, 176 yards below, and 104 yards below. Even the Tigers’ national title-winning 2010 team saw its per-carry average fall to 2.2 versus Team Saban, three-and-a-half yards per carry less than normal.
In the three Malzahn/Saban head-to-head Iron Bowl matchups, Auburn is 1-2. The Tigers’ victory in 2010 came not as a result of their powerful ground game, but as a result of the efficient, big-play passing of Newton.
If Saturday’s game holds true to form, Alabama’s rush defense will once again be able to slow — if not shut down — Auburn running game. If that happens, the weight will fall on Marshall and his Tiger receivers to beat the Crimson Tide through the air. At times, Saban’s secondary has had lapses (most obviously against Texas A&M and LSU).
But can Marshall do what Johnny Manziel and Zach Mettenberger did? This is no knock on Marshall, but to date he’s looked more like Newton on his rushing attempts than on his passing attempts. If the Tide stymies the Tiger rushing attack once more, Marshall’s arm will become more important than his legs.