ATLANTA -- Outside the Auburn locker room, the former All-Pro tight end Alge Crumpler tried to explain to some of us who have not played the game on a high level what Auburn had just done to Missouri. Crump got in his three-point stance as if he were a defensive lineman. He gave a wave of his left hand as if an Auburn back had just gone in motion. Crump slid sideways a couple of feet toward the direction of the motion.
“It’s what you are taught when you are this big,” said Crumpler holding his hand out waist high. “You can’t just tell kids in a week to forget all they learned.”
Missouri’s defensive line was sold motion and got handed counter plays. The old bait and switch, which was appropriate because it was all done on 100 yards of fake grass. The motion on some plays made Mizzou players slide over one gap, or freeze, which created just enough space for a back to dart through.
“Mizzou just seemed one gap away the whole game,” Crumpler said.
It was sick to watch if you were in gold and black, pure gold to watch if you were in orange and blue. Auburn had 677 yards of total offense, or just about one yard for every mile back to Columbia, Mo. A long ride home for the Tigers’ fans, but still probably not enough time to figure out what hit them.
Here is what hit them.
The buying of ‘motion’ and getting sold ‘counter,’ or the play away from motion ruined Mizzou. It made the Missouri defense either move or freeze. But that wasn’t all there was to the Auburn offense. There were double H-back sets, double play-action before the pass, pulling guards, and what Falcons’ analyst Dave Archer calls “the sugar huddle,” a snappy short huddle, and quick break of that ‘”sugar” huddle and then a snap.
The Malzahn gadgets include screen passes, jet sweeps, reverses, and the old Statue of Liberty. Auburn ran the ball 74 times and there were a variety of run plays and speedsters. The other backs, Corey Grant, Ricardo Louis, and Cameron Artis-Payne, had 10 carries for 144 yards, a staggering 14.4 yards per carry, mostly on the jet sweep. Quarterback Nick Marshall had 101 yards rushing, particularly on plays where motion moved a linebacker away from the left side of the Auburn offense and Marshall would dart into space and run and run and run.
It is all done with a choreography and chemistry that a Broadway director would be proud of. Here is an example:
Auburn had first down at its 21-yard line with 7:13 to play in the second period. It led 21-20.
There was motion to the left toward Marshall by the wide receiver Louis. The Missouri line did not slide, but you know their eyes were on Louis to get the ball on the jet sweep and go around the left end. The linebackers held their space thinking the same thing.
Louis did not get the ball.
On the snap, the Auburn guards, Alex Kozan and Chad Slade, pulled out to the right opposite the motion. The H-back Jay Prosch, who was lined up behind the right tackle, fired ahead. Wide receiver Brandon Fulse, lined up wide right, came flying inside and blocked not one, but two linebackers, who ran into each other.
Mason took the handoff, waited for one guard to seal the inside, the other guard to kick outside, and went 52 yards to the Missouri 27. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound Mason ran right by a charging safety.
Two plays later, Mason went 17 yards up the middle. Prosch blocked linebacker Andrew Wilson in the hole, then slid off and cut the legs from strong safety Braylon Webb. It was a remarkable piece of work by a blocker.
It is not easy to decipher the Malzahn offense. One tip is to watch Mason. If he lines up even with Marshall it is an end run. One step back to the right or left, it is an inside handoff. Auburn ran inside on Missouri. All day.
If an Auburn graduate assistant coach on the sideline giving signals flaps his arms up and down like a bird, Marshall is keeping the ball and darting outside. Sometimes Malzahn just knows when the end is crashing inside and Marshall can get loose.
I was told by a scout that center Reese Dismukes (6-3, 297) is the only legit pro prospect on the line. It still shouldn’t lessen respect for left tackle Greg Robinson (6-5, 320), left guard Alex Kozan (6-4, 297), right guard Chad Slade (6-5, 313), and right tackle Avery Young (6-6, 304).
There are a couple of things to keep in mind as you handicap the national championship game. Mizzou linebacker Andrew Wilson was completely overmatched. He made bad reads or got washed out of plays or got beat on the edge on at least eight plays in the SEC title game.
Here is the other thing to consider. Missouri was a sitting duck on defense. It was shooting apples in a barrel by Malzahn. A few stunts, a few gimmicks. If the Tigers were lined up in a 3-4, Malzahn ran outside most of the time. If they were in a 4-3 with ends coming up field, Mason went inside. You have to change the picture on Malzahn, or he will beat you with a second-team offense.
So? Florida State has much better linebackers than Wilson. The Seminoles also have four standouts on the defensive line, not just two like Missouri with Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, who slumped toward the end of the season. What’s more, Florida State will not stand still for Malzahn. Remember that. The picture will change. The Noles can give you a 4-3 or 3-4.
Here is where Florida State’s defense is going to get hurt. Cornerback Lamarcus Joyner is a marauder on the blitz, but you do NOT run blitz Auburn and give up the edge. If Auburn gets into third-and-long, Joyner will attack, but the Tigers don’t get into many third-and-longs. That takes away a weapon.
What Florida State will be able to do—and what Alabama could not do—is play man-to-man. Joyner will get Sammie Coates, who is 6-foot-2. Bama did not dare play man-to-man outside a lot because this was the one season Nick Saban did not trust his corners.
Jeremy Pruitt, the FSU defensive coordinator, a former Alabama assistant coach, will trust his corners Joyner and P.J. Williams to play tight, to play off, to mix it up with the Auburn wideouts. The Seminoles had better stack their linebackers in gaps, or they will get chewed up like the Missouri backers who were easily cut off because they were too deep. Here is something else. Florida State’s defense is faster than Alabama’s defense.
Pruitt has a month to scheme for the Malzahn offense. His goal is clear: make Marshall throw the ball into tight spots.
Six years ago Pruitt was a high school coach. Eight years ago, Malzahn was a high school coach. Players matter, but this is going to be one heckuva chess match to see.