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Missouri will have hands full with Auburn's offensive scheme

Tuesday, December 3, 2013 | 9:20 p.m. CST; updated 4:48 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn reacts to a call during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Alabama in Auburn, Ala. on Saturday.

COLUMBIA – Auburn opened up the scoring against Alabama with just over five minutes to play in the first quarter with a 45-yard touchdown run from quarterback Nick Marshall, and the touchdown didn't require blocking the best linebacker in the country. 

Before snapping the ball, Marshall motioned to wide receiver Ricardo Louis, who came running through the backfield just as the ball was snapped. Louis acted as if he took a handoff, but Marshall had taken the snap and put the ball in the gut of running back Tre Mason, who has over 1,300 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns this season. 

That's when Alabama All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley bit hard. He started taking an angle on Mason, eager to make a tackle in the backfield. But Marshall had already pulled the ball away from Mason and was sprinting toward the end zone. Mosley had taken himself out of the play.

Just how Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn drew it up.

***
Missouri may have effectively utilized a faster pace on offense in 2013, but its opponent in the Southeastern Conference Championship wrote the book, literally, on what it means to be an up-tempo offense. 

Malzahn is the author of "The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy." It was published in 2003, while Malzahn was still the head coach at Springdale High School, one of the most decorated high school football programs in Arkansas.

In his book, Malzahn outlines the core philosophies that have shaped his offensive mind. He wanted his offenses to be the aggressor at all times. He wanted to pick up the pace, and he wanted to physically and mentally wear down the opponent's defense. 

These were not suggestions from Malzahn. These were the basic principles of his offensive philosophy. That's why when he finally got a chance to be an offensive coordinator at the the college level, he left after just one season.

At Arkansas, Houston Nutt wanted to run the football more, but Malzahn was intent on spreading the field and sticking to his scheme. He moved on to Tulsa and eventually became the offensive coordinator at Auburn, where his scheme helped Auburn win the 2010 BCS Championship. All of this happened with offensive philosophies that were dominating the Arkansas high school ranks.

"Our core base offense is really the same one I had all the way back in high school," Malzahn said in a teleconference this week. "We take our players and we kind of build around the strengths of our quarterbacks each year. That's why we're just a little bit different each year."

In 2010, that Auburn quarterback was Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Cam Newton. Newton was not only a prolific passer, but he could make plays with his feet. Now in his first year as head coach at Auburn, Malzahn has found a similar athlete to run his offense in Marshall.

"You have a quarterback that's a Brad Smith-type athlete right there," Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said, referring to the former Missouri quarterback who has the second most rushing yards for a quarterback in NCAA history.

Marshall made Alabama pay again and again on Saturday. He rushed for 99 yards on his own and contributed to Auburn's team total of 296 rushing yards on the day. Part of that was due to Marshall's speed, but Malzahn's scheme deserves credit. 

"He (Malzahn) has done a phenomenal job obviously," Pinkel said. "Obviously he's very good at the X's and O's, techniques, fundamentals. Scheme-wise they do a great job."

***

The offense is unique to anything Missouri has seen this season. While Missouri just finished bottling up Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, Auburn presents an entirely new challenge. 

Manziel is a slippery runner and a skilled passer. The simple solution to slowing him down was to tackle well, which Missouri did for most of Saturday night. Auburn won't present the same passing threat. Instead, it has three talented running backs, a play-making quarterback, and a coach who loves to use a fast-paced attack with a lot of motion to confuse the defense. 

"One thing you see them do throughout the year is if they get a good play on you, they're going to run the same play on you as fast as they can," Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Henson said.

Auburn will move players around before the ball is snapped. Marshall will fake handoffs, and the offensive line will get to the second level of the defense and wear down the linebackers.

"They run forms of the triple option with the same principles as the wishbone in a lot of respects," Pinkel said.

The solution for Missouri's defense is simple in theory but tougher in practice, just like it was against Texas A&M and Manziel. 

"The key to that is basically you have each guy has to know his assignment at any given time," Missouri linebacker Donovan Bonner said. "We have a gap defense, so if one guy gets out of his gap, that could be bad for our defense. So we're just focusing on knowing our assignments, basic stuff, fundamentals. You have to stay with the quarterback."

That's easier said than done, but the Tigers did limit the Aggies to 21 points on Saturday. Meanwhile, no offense has been able to score more than 28 points on Missouri this year. 

***

Malzahn knew his offense didn't have much time. There was less than a minute remaining on the clock, and Alabama was up by seven points. The clock was running, so Auburn went into hurry-up mode. 

Marshall faked a hand off and began to run left. Alabama seemed to have him bottled up when Marshall jumped in the air and flipped an ugly pass to wide receiver Sammie Coates. The ball floated through the air as the crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium held its breath. 

It fell into Coates' hands and no Alabama player was near him. He ran the rest of the way for a 39-yard touchdown. Marshall isn't the most dangerous passer in the world (he had only 11 completions and 97 passing yards against Alabama), but he's just good enough to make Malzahn's offense work. 

Only with an athlete like Marshall does the offense Malzahn outlined in his book become a powerhouse. No coach has ever admitted to trying to use the book to figure Malzahn's offense out, and he doesn't worry about it either. 

"We kind of thought about that before we wrote it," Malzahn said. "There was nothing that could incriminate anything we used. That was the blueprint we used back in 1997."

The blueprint is still working in 2013. And it's the biggest thing standing between Missouri and the SEC Championship.

Supervising editor is Nina Pantic.


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