The College Bowl Season is upon us, and Pylon University is bringing the breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams, along with the sport’s traditions and great moments. In this edition, it’s the Outback Bowl preview.
WHAT: Outback Bowl
WHEN: Thursday, January 1 – 12:00 p.m. EST (ESPN2)
WHERE: Raymond James Stadium – Tampa, FL
This postseason pairing features two prolific yet vastly different rushing attacks. Wisconsin lost its season opener to then-No. 14 LSU and endured an early October stumble at Northwestern that ended any discussion of a national title. But the Badgers plugged along, smashing conference opponents until the Big Ten Championship Game and their 59-0 humiliation by Ohio State. Led by Heisman runner-up (and, ever-so-briefly, the single-game rushing record holder) Melvin Gordon, the Wisconsin rushing attack looks to recover some dignity under the direction of Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, as head coach Gary Andersen has already departed for Oregon State.
Auburn began the season 5-0 but lost four of its final seven games, including the Iron Bowl to rival Alabama. Second-year head coach Gus Malzahn was unable to return the Tigers to the national title game, suffering losses to then-No. 3 Mississippi State, Texas A&M, then-No. 16 Georgia, and No. 1 Alabama. The SEC crossover game certainly didn’t help Auburn this season.
When Wisconsin Has the Football
The Badgers ‒ featuring the fourth-highest yards per game (314.0), the fourth-most total yards (4,082), and the second-best yards-per-carry mark (6.9) among FBS schools ‒ are going to run. Wisconsin put up 34.5 points per game on the strength of its ground attack; meanwhile, the Badgers ranked 118th (out of 128) in passing yards per game (150.8) and had just one receiver ‒ Alex Erickson ‒ break 30 catches and 355 receiving yards.
Quarterback Tanner McEvoy, a transfer from South Carolina, struggled mightily with accuracy (58% completion rate and six interceptions) and decision making. The junior lost his job after an atrocious performance in the Week 5 loss to Northwestern. Reports this week have him practicing with the first-team defense in preparation for this bowl game and possibly playing both ways. His replacement at QB, fellow junior Joel Stave, has been worse, completing 53.6% of his throws with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions ‒ including a truly horrific performance against Ohio State. Facing the Buckeyes, Stave completed just 17 of 43 passes (39.5%) with three INTs.
The Badgers offense is Gordon, who accrued 2,336 yards and 26 touchdowns – including his 408-yard record breaker against Nebraska in Week 10. The junior workhorse also had games of 200+ yards against Bowling Green State, Northwestern, Purdue, and Iowa and had a total of seven games with more than one rushing touchdown. Gordon also tallied three scores as a receiver, tying him for second on the team.
This 62-yard touchdown run in his blitzkrieg of Nebraska shows Gordon’s vision, balance, speed and agility:
As Mark Schofield wrote:
“The most impressive aspect of this carry from the running back is the body control he displays along the sideline. Safety Corey Cooper has the angle on Gordon, but the RB executes a tremendous hurdle and keeps both feet inbounds on the landing:”
Gordon is the total package as a runner and Auburn’s defense will have their hands full trying to contain the future NFL star.
Containing Gordon is the primary task for the 46th-ranked (149.5) rushing defense in FBS. Sophomore defensive back Johnathan Ford, a converted RB, leads the unit with 85 tackles (58 solo). Auburn rated 60th in scoring defense (26.1) and 88th in passing yards allowed per game. Linebacker Cassanova McKinzy racked up 82 tackles (54 solo) and two sacks, tying him for third on the team. Defensive tackle DaVonte Lambert led the Tigers with four sacks as Auburn had trouble pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
Junior cornerback Jonathan Jones led the Tigers with six interceptions, displaying good ball skills and winning one-on-one battles. In this play, Jones baits Alabama quarterback Blake Sims into a dangerous throw by positioning himself behind the receiver, but remains in range to make a break on the ball:
Jones reads the quarterback perfectly and steps in front of the intended receiver just as the ball arrives, displaying excellent hands and anticipation in the process.
When Auburn Has the Football
Mad scientist Malzhan orchestrated a prolific offensive attack, relying on the right arm and legs of Nick Marshall to average 35.8 points per game. Malzahn uses a wide array of formations and personnel packages to confuse opposing defenses. That diversity helped keep the Tigers from using the same formation more than 50% of the time in any game this season. Bunches, trips, H-backs, and split-ends are staples of Malzahn’s mix-and-match scheming as he seeks to engineer favorable matchups and overload defensive fronts.
Marshall connected on 60.1% of his throws for 2,315 yards, 18 touchdowns, and just seven interceptions, adding 780 yards on the ground and another 11 scores. The senior struggled to replicate his breakout performance last season and his poor outings in losses to Mississippi State (17-35, 2 INT) and Georgia (11-23, 1 INT) cost Auburn the chance to challenge for another national title.
Senior running back Cameron Artis-Payne leads the Tigers rushing attack, having accrued 1,482 yards on 277 carries with 11 touchdowns. He is joined in the backfield by freshman Roc Thomas, who tallied 214 yards on 43 carries with two scores.
Here is but a taste of the brilliant play design of Malzahn’s offense. Marshall ‒ the quarterback ‒ lines up outside as a wide receiver to the short side of the field. At the snap, Marshall swings backwards away from the line and toward the backfield, receiving the lateral from the running back. The offensive line slides their protection to the short side, creating a pocket for Marshall who sets his feet and uncorks the throw:
The receiver splits double coverage to make the catch at the one-yard line. The presnap alignment introduces confusion for the defense ‒ why is Marshall split wide? The activity after the snap creates even more uncertainty, as the play fake, motion and lateral all freeze the linebackers while the line moves to create the new pocket. In addition, the receiver gets a free release from the slot, splitting the deep safeties and making the grab.
Despite the thrashing they endured at the hands of Ohio State, the Badgers finished 13th in FBS in scoring defense, allowing just 20.0 points per game. Stout against the run, Wisconsin yielded the 17th-fewest ground yards per game (118.9). The Badgers also proved stingy against aerial offense, allowing the 5th-fewest passing yards per game (164.3).
Safety Michael Caputo led the team with 99 tackles (58 solo), while linebacker Marcus Trotter ranked second with 84 stops (49 solo) and notched four sacks. Outside linebackers Derek Landisch and Vince Biegel were adept at getting after the quarterback, recording 9.0 and 8.0 sacks respectively.
On this play, Landisch times his blitz through the A gap perfectly, splitting the center and the guard and forcing the quarterback to begin scrambling before he has finished his drop:
CBS rates Wisconsin offensive tackle Rob Havenstein, tight end Sam Arneson, and guards Dallas Lewallen and Kyle Costigan as prospects to watch, along with the man they blocked for: Gordon. Auburn figures to have Marshall and receiver Sammie Coates drawing the attention of professional scouts, along with defensive tackle Gabe Wright and center Reese Dismukes.
Wisconsin should be able to run Gordon all day long on the Tigers suspect run defense. Meanwhile, Marshall and Malzahn will be throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at the Badgers’ top-ranked defense. In the raging “SEC v. B1G” debate, this will end up an important data point: can a dominant B1G defense and running game beat a four-loss team from the SEC with a mediocre run defense?
The SEC wins again.
Auburn 42, Wisconsin 35
All video and images courtesy ESPN.com.
Follow David on Twitter @SoSH_davemc.