Defenses for Auburn and Oregon in the shadow of high-powered offenses

Andy Bitter, McClatchy Newspapers

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — From the moment the BCS announced Auburn and Oregon would play for the national championship, all the talk has been about the offenses, and rightfully so.

Auburn’s Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy. Oregon’s LaMichael James led the nation in rushing. Both teams’ offensive masterminds, Gus Malzahn and Chip Kelly, orchestrate eye-catching, up-tempo schemes that have a propensity for scoring points.

But the mostly forgotten defenses hope to have their say before all is said and done next Monday.

“At the end of the day, we just settle it in between the white lines,” Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes said. “That’s all that matters.”

While all the focus is on who will score more points, it could be a case in which one team’s defense — or both — rises to the occasion.

“You never know,” Kelly said. “You get into this, and the game gets analyzed so much — it’s going to be a shootout, it’s going to be a defensive struggle, it’s going to be this — you never know. Sometimes it turns into a game for the ages and exactly what people said. Other times the final score’s 17-14 and no one saw it coming.”

Auburn’s defense has long been criticized as not national championship caliber, which statistics seem to back up. The Tigers rank 55th nationally in total defense (362.2 ypg) and 54th in scoring (24.5 ppg).

In the BCS era, the team that’s claimed the crystal trophy has never allowed more than 320.9 yards per game (Ohio State in 2002) or given up more than 19.9 points per game (LSU in 2007).

Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof doesn’t care what the numbers say.

“I could spin statistics to make things look one way. Somebody else could spin them to look another way,” Roof said. “This is a bottom-line business. The bottom line is that we have to do what we have to do to win football games. Up to this point, we’ve done that.”

The Tigers, despite their defensive deficiencies, have shown progress. After being torched by Alabama in the first half, they allowed only 62 yards and three points in the second half of a 28-27 win. In the SEC championship game, Auburn gave up three points in the second half of a 56-17 win against South Carolina.

“We’ve had a lot of games in the first half that are all over the place, because offenses this year, we’ll game plan against (and) they kind of got away from the tendencies they love to run,” Bynes said. “When we figure out what they’re doing in the first half, the second half we go out there and just be dominant.”

Oregon’s defense, meanwhile, hasn’t gotten nearly its due. Coordinated by Nick Aliotti, a Broyles Award candidate for assistant coach of the year, the Ducks rank 25th nationally in total defense (332.6 ypg) and 12th in scoring (18.4 ppg).

Oregon had five players make the all-Pac-10 teams, led by a pair of first-teamers, linebacker Casey Matthews and cornerback Talmadge Jackson.

They’re not passive. Malzahn said the Ducks blitz as much as any team Auburn has faced this year, trying to confuse offenses by coming from different angles. They’re ballhawks too, having forced 35 turnovers (20 interceptions, 15 fumbles recovered), second most in the nation.

“They don’t sit back,” Malzahn said. “They come after you.”

Auburn coaches caution not to draw too many conclusions based on size. Yes, the Tigers’ offensive line outweighs Oregon’s undersized defensive front by nearly 40 to 50 pounds a man.

There’s a tradeoff, though.

“A guy who’s 270, quick, strong, explosive and plays hard, in a lot of ways, is better than a guy that’s 300 and can’t play as hard as long, or doesn’t have the quickness or lateral movement, that sort of thing,” Auburn offensive line coach Jeff Grimes said.

“In no way whatsoever do I see that as a sort of deficiency in their defense.”

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