NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – A year in the making, Auburn’s return to prominence under first-year head coach Gus Malzahn is grounded in its running game. The Tigers know the key to success depends on grinding out yardage – and they do it better than any other team.
Auburn leads the nation with 335.7 yards rushing per game, and the Tigers are ninth in scoring (40.2 ppg) and 10th in total offense (505.3 ypg). And while running back Tre Mason may get the SportsCenter highlight, his success -- and the Tigers’ chances for knocking off top-ranked Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game -- depends on the O-line.
“Our guys have really bought into what we're doing,” said Rhett Lashlee, Auburn’s first-year offensive coordinator. “Reese [Dismukes] and these guys up front have done a really good job. J. B. Grimes has done a fantastic job with our offensive line, just covering up at least the down guys and giving Nick and Tre and Corey and Cam and those guys at least a chance to get started.”Those four -- quarterback Nick Marshall and running backs Tre Mason, Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne -- have accounted for 45 of the Tigers’ 46 rushing touchdowns this season.
“We kind of just stick to what we do, and that's run the football,” said Dismukes, a junior center who has missed only two games since starting his first game as a freshman. “We stick to our guns, and like Coach Grimes said every week, ‘We're going to put the saddles on your back and ride you out to the end of the game.’ We've just done that and stuck to it, and why stop it when it's working?”
Mason is the bell cow for the Auburn backfield. He leads the team with 283 carries for 1,638 yards and 22 touchdowns and nationally ranks ninth in yards rushing and fourth in TDs. Down the stretch, during the Tigers’ four victories in November, Mason averaged 27 carries and 141 yards and scored nine rushing touchdowns, including a season-high four against Arkansas on Nov. 2.
“I don't know, I can't explain it,” Lashlee conceded to the season’s success, “ … just our guys have bought in. We get momentum in games a lot of times, and it goes our way.”
A lot has gone Auburn’s way this season. At 12-1, the Tigers’ turnaround tied the NCAA record for the biggest single-season improvement (8.5 games, Hawaii, 1999 to 2000) and is the biggest turnaround in SEC history (plus-7 conference wins).
The Tigers have been held to less than 200 yards rushing once (Sept. 14 at Mississippi State) and eclipsed 400 yards four times, including a season-best 545 against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game, when Mason tallied 304 yards and four TDs.
“That's something we take pride in,” Marshall said, “running the football, it's just something we do. Like Coach Lashlee and Coach Malzahn tell us, ‘We're going to run the football at them until they stop us.’ We're going to go out there and keep doing what we've been doing this whole year and just hope we come out with this win.”
Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, also in his first season, is well aware of the Tigers’ modus operandi. “They've been really stubborn about it; they're going to run the football. Everybody knows they're going to run the football, and you've got to be able to stop them.
“They're going to get ball carriers out in space,” Pruitt added. “You've got to be able to get lined up. These guys go extremely fast. You can watch Coach Malzahn over the years, wherever he's been, goes really fast, seems like he gets teams discombobulated a little bit.
“You've got to eliminate the explosive plays in the pass game, and you've got to create some turnovers. They're going to make some plays. Once they get down to the red area you've got to make them earn it, try to hold them to field goals.”
The Seminoles’ defense is no slouch, either. FSU ranks fourth nationally in total defense (268.5 ypg) and is No. 1 in scoring (10.7 ppg). Against the run, Florida State ranks 13th, yielding 116.5 ypg.
Understanding that a) Auburn is going to run the football and b) Florida State must stop the run, the offensive or defensive unit that gives first most likely will shoulder the game’s outcome.
“Throughout this week we've been emphasizing gap responsibilities, just doing our job,” Florida State linebacker Christian Jones said. “They're just good at doing what they do. They're going to run the ball, and we've just got to stop it. Old-school type mentality. We've just got to put on our big boy pants and execute what our coaches put in for us.”