NEWPORT BEACH, Calif . — The words spoken about Auburn’s offense are reverential.
Perhaps even a little fearful.
“They’re able to execute so fast,” Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith said. “A lot of teams try to hurry up and then mess themselves up in the process. But Auburn, they stick with it and they rarely make a mistake.”
Auburn’s defense? It isn’t a stretch to say the Tigers have gotten to the BCS National Championship Game in spite of their defense rather than because of it.
The Tigers allow — surrender would be more appropriate — 5.96 yards per play. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound so bad, but it’s the worst of any of the 144 teams ever to reach a BCS bowl and 95th nationally this season.
Auburn allows 423.5 yards per game, 87th nationally and worse — far worse — than any team that has ever won a BCS championship. The Tigers are last in the Southeastern Conference allowing 7.4 passing yards per attempt.
“We have not been, by all standards, a really good defense this year,” said Ellis Johnson, Auburn’s veteran defensive coordinator.
It would help if Auburn were going to play Monday night against an offense that isn’t quite so potent.
Sorry, Tiger. Florida State averages a staggering 53.0 points and 529.4 yards, eclipsing even Auburn’s impressive offensive numbers (40.2 points, 505.3 yards).
“Every week, it’s breakaway plays and missed assignments,” Johnson said matter-of-factly. “As the season wore on, we never cleaned up some of that stuff. We’ve made a big emphasis of it in preparation for this game. Frankly, if it continues, we’re going to have a hard time winning the national championship.”
That isn’t to say Auburn is without hope in this game because of its defense. Far from it.
Defensive end Dee Ford and cornerback Chris Davis were All-SEC selections. The Tigers allow 24.0 points per game, good enough to rank a respectable 38th nationally. They’re second in the SEC in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score 70.8 percent of the time (23 touchdowns, 11 field goals).
And Auburn has been opportunistic, too, coming up with big turnovers and key stops at crucial times en route to their 12-1 record.
“On the flip side, we’re pretty good on third down and in the red zone,” Johnson said. “So you find the positives.”
“The numbers are a big point, but we’ve made stops when we needed to make stops, and that’s what got us to where we are now,” Davis said.
Still, Davis didn’t get standing ovations in class the week after the Iron Bowl for his cornerbacking. It was for his already legendary 109-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown to beat Alabama and help propel Auburn to its second BCS final in four years.
Auburn’s 2010 champions were of course led most famously by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton. But they also had an All-America beast in Nick Fairley anchoring the middle of the defensive line.
To have any measure of success against this year’s Heisman winner, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, and the high-flying Seminoles, Johnson said it’s a must for his defensive front to get pressure without having to rely too much on the blitz.
“It’s very important,” Johnson said. “Unless turnovers or the kicking game gets crazy in this game, our ability defensively to help our team win this game will boil down to how much we can affect Jameis in the pocket. Hopefully it’ll be with the front four because, if we blitz too often, they’re too good on the perimeter.”
Perhaps this is an area where Ford and his teammates — defensive tackles Nosa Eguae and Gabe Wright and end Ladarius Owens — are capable enough of slowing Winston and the FSU offense.
“When you’re affecting their decisions, it’s not just sacks but hurries and quarterback hits,” Ford said.
Having a short memory probably will help, too. Auburn won its 2010 title in a 22-19 decision over Oregon, but it’s doubtful either team will be able to score that seldom and win this championship.
“He’s going to make some great plays,” Ford said of Winston, “but we have to make some great plays also.”
And lots of them.