Auburn, Ala.--The running game on both sides of the ball will be big for the Auburn Tigers (7-3 overall, 3-4 SEC) when they take the field Friday at 1:30 p.m. against #2 Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium. In the end, Auburn’s ability to run the football and run it well may be the difference between winning and losing.
In seven wins this season Auburn is averaging 246.5 yards per game on the ground with 16 touchdowns while in the four losses the number drops to 172 yards per game and only four scores.
Those numbers make it obvious that the more success Auburn has on the ground the faster the offense moves and the more success it has. That is going to be a key on Friday as the Tigers try to be physical and run the football against one of the nation’s top defenses.
“They have a great defensive line with NFL players,” Auburn running backs coach Curtis Luper said. “They have a great secondary with NFL players. They’ve got really good linebackers. I think the front end and the back end really makes them what they are. That makes it easier for (linebacker Rolando) McClain as well.
"Up front they can be dominant," Luper said. "They put you in bad situations. They’ve got some ball hawks in the back. I think (Javier) Arenas is the best player on their team.”
To say the challenge is a tough one for Auburn is an understatement. Led up front by big man Terrence Cody as well as the more productive Marcel Dareus, Alabama is giving up just 70.4 rushing yards per game this season. In 11 games opponents have just four rushing touchdowns against the Crimson Tide.
Marcel Dareus has been the playmaker for the Alabama defensive line in 2009 with eight and a half tackles for losses and six and a half sacks.
Looking at the numbers even closer you see a defense that has been dominant against its opponents. The last 100-yard rusher allowed by Alabama was back on Oct. 13 2007, a string of 31 games. Only four teams in the past 24 games have cracked the 100-yard mark with Kentucky and Mississippi State accomplishing the feat this season.
The good news for Auburn is that the Tigers had a week off to recuperate and heal before playing the final regular season game in the Iron Bowl. Luper said that while it was tough, it could pay off for Auburn in the long run.
“Playing 11 straight weeks, it took a toll on our football team but we fought through it,” Luper said. “I think we’ll be better because of it.”
One of the players who likely benefited the most is freshman running back Onterio McCalebb. Held out much of the season after injuring his ankle in week four, the speedster returned to action against Georgia but hurt the ankle again during the game.
“It was great to have him back for about a quarter, but he got his ankle rolled up again,” Luper said. “He fought through it and was able to provide some spark for us offensively. We need that speed. He’s a big-time change of pace guy for us. He can make some things wrong, right. He was only getting better. We’ll need him Friday.”
When McCalebb was missing this season a big part of Auburn’s offense was missing with him, the quickness and speed element in the offense. Against LSU the Tigers found some of that by moving Mario Fannin into the role. He responded with 151 rushing yards on just 18 carries in three games, but was back at receiver against Georgia with the return of McCalebb.
Because of the uncertainty of how long and how well McCalebb can play, Luper said Fannin could be a guy who is used again out of the backfield and because of what he brings to the table. It looks like for Auburn any and all weapons in the running game will be useful.
“Mario will be all over the place for us,” Luper said. “He’s smart and that helps. In this offense you need to be smart and intelligent and he is. He can play Ben’s spot and Onterio’s spot and receiver. He can play Eric Smith’s spot. They could all be out there together on Friday.”
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