While everyone in the country will tune in to watch the National Championship on January 10th to go star gazing in awe of Auburn quarterback Cam Newton and Oregon running back LaMichael James, the game itself will be decided by the defenses trying to stop the opposing teams All-American.
Both Auburn and Oregon come into the game with defenses that, while solid and underrated, have been greatly overshadowed by the offenses.
The strength for Auburn is their defensive line, led by All-American defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Auburn has allowed only 111.7 yards on the ground this season, while the Ducks come in with an average of 303.8 yards rushing per game. Fairley is a mammoth player inside and has played every bit as big as his 6’5, 298lbs frame. Fairley has 10.5 sacks this season and has shined brightest in big moments. If anyone remembers the marshmallow man from “Ghostbusters” that is what Fairley plays like, not to mention the physical resemblance. He nearly single-handedly kept Auburn in the game when they were down to Alabama earlier in the season. His stats may not have jumped off the page, but when the Crimson Tide were threatening to put the game away Fairley forced a fumbled and recovered it himself. Alabama never got momentum back and Auburn went on to the SEC Championship game.
While Auburn has one of the best run defenses in the nation, their pass defense ranks 105th, allowing 250.5 yards per game through the air. A group that has been battling injury and depth issues all season, Auburn’s secondary will have to play the game of their season in Glendale. If Fairley does what he is capable of in the middle and stuffs the Oregon running attack, Ducks Head Coach Chip Kelly will try to stretch the defense downfield with the passing game. Oregon will have the advantage against Auburn’s secondary with athletic wide receivers and a quarterback in Darron Thomas that has developed into an accurate and lethal pocket passer.
Oregon has only allowed 7 sacks this season, but they have not come across a player like Nick Fairley. If we learned anything from the Ducks game against Cal (outside of the fact that faking injuries is for shallow, cowardly teams), it’s that penetration into the Oregon backfield will disrupt the speedy Ducks and change the game.
The Ducks defense has been a vastly underrated group this season. While they do not have an outright star like Auburn has in Fairley, Oregon has one of the most athletic and aggressive defensive units in the country. The Ducks are 2nd in the nation in forced turnovers with 35. To put that in perspective, Oregon’s 20 interceptions this season exactly double the number of interceptions Auburn has on the year (10). They are an undersized group across the board, so they rely on aggressive play and sheer speed to compete. While the risk/reward style for Oregon has resulted in a huge number of extra possessions for the Ducks, it does leave them prone to allowing big plays. It is likely that the secondary will be left to fend for themselves in this game due to the fact that Oregon will need as many people at the line of scrimmage as possible to stop the Auburn running game.
The Ducks will need to put pressure on Cam Newton if they are going to be successful. If you watched the SEC title game you saw Newton was hardly touched in the game, allowing him to sit back and let plays develop. Key players for the Ducks will be defensive end Kenny Rowe and linebacker Casey Matthews. Rowe needs to put pressure on Newton, while Matthews is expected to shadow Auburn’s quarterback all night. That is a huge task for Matthews alone, so don’t be surprised if either 2 linebackers or maybe a safety joins him in controlling Newton.
With all that being said, the game will come down to turnovers and tackling. James and Newton are arguably the two most difficult players in the nation to bring down in the open field. James will beat you by making you miss and leaving you grasping the air while he’s 20 yards downfield, like the Roadrunner. Newton, on the other hand, is like the anvil from the same cartoon; he will run through you and flash his pearly-white smile while he does it. Penetrating the backfield and disrupting the rhythm of the opposing offenses in going to make the biggest difference in the game. The Ducks will need to find some big plays from their defensive backfield to win the game, and it’s paramount that when they have opportunities to get turnovers and make tackles that they do not let those slip through their fingers. If Nick Fairley controls this game Oregon is in trouble, especially if they cannot take advantage of the mismatches on the perimeter.
So take as many photos of Newton and James you want, but it will be the players out to hit them in the mouth that will be the deciding factor in the biggest game of the year.
There will be one more installment of this pregame series to get you set for kickoff, and there is still so much more to be said!
About the Author
Written by Rob Parness
My name is Robbie Parness and I am a student at the University of Oregon. I'm a California native that loves to play, watch and talk about all kinds of sports. I would love to become a sports writer someday or work in sports in any capacity.