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January 5, 2011
Today, we begin our five-part position breakdown of Monday's BCS national championship game.
Part 1 is a look at Auburn's rush offense. Part 2 will be Oregon's rush offense, while Part 3 will be on Auburn's passing attack, Part 4 on Oregon's passing attack and Part 5 on the Tigers' and Ducks' special teams.
AUBURN RUSH OFFENSE VS. OREGON RUSH DEFENSE
The Tigers have been lethal on the ground, ranking sixth nationally in rushing (that's one spot below Oregon) at 287.2 yards per game, with 41 TDs. Heisman-winning QB Cameron Newton makes the Tigers' version of the spread-option go.
Newton is a 250-pounder who can run over defenders, and he also is faster than you'd think for a guy that big. He's not necessarily going to outrun defensive backs, but they don't have an easy time running him down, either. The website cfbstats.com shows that Newton has had 47 runs of at least 10 yards and 14 runs of at least 20 yards. He averages 108.4 yards per game (15th nationally) and has 20 rushing touchdowns.
He has had six games of at least 150 yards, and his two poorest performances came against the two worst teams on the Tigers' schedule: He ran for a combined 13 yards on just nine carries against Louisiana-Monroe and Chattanooga. Alabama also kept him in check on the ground (39 yards), but he gouged LSU for 217 and Arkansas for 188. Newton has rushed for at least two touchdowns in seven games.
True freshman TB Michael Dyer has been overshadowed, but he had a big first season in his own right, rushing for 950 yards and five touchdowns. He has had three 100-yard games, but he scored just twice in the final six games of the regular season.
Sophomore Onterrio McCalebb is a speedy, shifty back who can get to the outside and turn upfield quickly. He has rushed for 763 yards and nine scores, and though he never reached the 100-yard plateau, he reached the 50-yard mark in 10 games and averages 8.6 yards per carry.
There's also Mario Fannin, the third-string tailback who has run for 395 yards and five TDs; he generally has seen only mop-up duty this season.
Those guys run behind an experienced line, one with four senior starters. Each of the four seniors -- LT Lee Ziemba, LG Mike Berry, C Ryan Pugh and RG Byron Isom -- received some sort of all-conference acclaim. The left side is the strongest side for the Tigers. Ziemba (6 feet 8/319 pounds) is a redwood, while the interior guys are maulers in the running game. Despite their size, these guys can get downfield and clean up any stray linebackers lurking about.
Oregon gives up just 117.6 rushing yards per game and hasn't allowed more than 136 since surrendering 177 to Stanford (the Cardinal average 211.0), a game the Ducks won by 21 on Oct. 2. The Ducks have allowed seven rushing TDs in their past seven games. In that stretch, on average, Ducks opponents ran for about 40 fewer yards per game than normal. If that also happens to Auburn, the Tigers still will run for 247 yards.
Oregon is extremely light up front, relying on quickness rather than bulk to slow down opposing runners. The starting defensive tackles, seniors Brandon Bair and Zac Clark, go 272 pounds and 270 pounds, respectively. Bair was a high school tight end who moves well.
The starting linebackers are in the 235-pound range and are active. MLB Casey Matthews can make plays sideline to sideline, and WLB Spencer Paysinger -- a high school wide receiver -- has good speed and instincts. Matthews leads the Ducks with 73 tackles, and Paysinger is second with 68.
Oregon's defensive backs are active in run support. CB Talmadge Jackson III and FS John Boyett are tied for third on the team with 67 tackles, and SS Eddie Pleasant -- who was a linebacker last season -- has 63. Expect to see Pleasant deployed near the line of scrimmage in an effort to slow Newton. The Ducks love to blitz, but that often is counter-productive against Newton, who can break one tackle and suddenly be 10 yards downfield. A sign of Oregon's defensive aggressiveness is that the Ducks average 5.0 tackles for loss per game on rushing attempts.
Oregon has a lot of depth in the back seven, and coaches won't be afraid to use it. Reserve LB Michael Clay is a bit undersized but can fly, and Bryson Littlejohn is a solid backup middle 'backer. Oregon has six linebackers with at least 30 tackles and six defensive backs with at least 24.
The edge: It goes to Auburn. Newton is a one-man wrecking crew, and Oregon hasn't seen anything close to him this season. A key for the Ducks is keeping Auburn around 200 rushing yards. Alabama did a great job shutting down Auburn's rushing attack (just 108 yards), but Auburn still managed 28 points. Thing is, Oregon is vastly more explosive than Alabama, and Ducks coaches will like their chances if they can somewhat stymie Auburn's running game. But can they?
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.