New Orleans, La.--The Auburn Tigers have played some very good offensive teams this season, including the two playing for the national championship in Alabama and Clemson, but Monday night’s Sugar Bowl showdown could be the biggest challenge of the year for Defensive Coordinator Kevin Steele’s group.
Averaging 44.7 points, 319.8 yards passing and 237.5 yards rushing per game, the Sooners have stars at every level with quarterback Baker Mayfield, wide receiver Dede Westbrook, and running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine the names to watch for the Oklahoma offense.
With the ability to beat you with both the run and pass, this group presents a stiff challenge and Steele said because of that the Tigers have to be solid across the board.
“In the 12 games they played, they've only scored under 34 points twice,” Steele said. “And that yardage is coming in the throwing game and in the running game in every one of those games. It's not lopsided in one game and nonexistent in another. It's there. It shows up so we're going to have to be able to do both.”
There is no question the Sooners start with Mayfield and his ability to throw the football and keep plays alive in the pocket. Completing 71.2 percent of his passes for 3,669 yards and 38 touchdowns with only eight interceptions, Mayfield is the nation’s leader in pass efficiency because of his ability to hit you deep while also keeping Mixon involved in the short game.
Auburn linebacker Tre Williams noted that it starts with Mayfield and moves through the entire offense and that’s why the Sooners are as good as it gets.
“They’re a great challenge, because they put their running backs in space a lot, so that’s just something we have to focus in on,” Williams said. “Oklahoma has a really good offense. They have a lot of threats in the run game and the pass game, so yeah, I think they’re the best offense we’ve played.”
Getting a lot of attention for his off-the-field issues recently, Mixon can flat out play football and will be a load for the Tigers to deal with. Leading the team with 1,183 yards rushing, he also has 32 receptions for 449 yards and five touchdowns. Joining him in the backfield, the physical Perine has 974 yards and a team-high 11 touchdowns while averaging 108.2 yards per game.
Joe Mixon is Oklahoma's leading rusher for the 2016 season.
Auburn has seen its share of big play threats at wide receiver, but perhaps none is as good as Westbrook. Catching 74 passes for 1,465 yards and 16 touchdowns, Westbrook has 13 receptions of more than 40 yards this season. That’s a huge challenge for this Auburn defense to limit his explosive plays and make the Sooners drive the length of the field.
“Either we’re going to break or they’re going to break and I don’t think we’re going to break,” Auburn senior Josh Holsey said. “We take away the deep balls and don’t give up explosive plays that’s our game plan. We don’t let teams just throw the ball around on us like that. If they do, it’s 27 yards, but a catch tackle. Maybe our pass efficiency doesn’t like good, but we aren’t giving up an 80-yard bomb or 60-yard bomb for a touchdown.
“It’s what we practice. McGriff’s (Secondary Coach Wesley McGriff) first statement to us was we don’t give up deep balls. That’s kind of instilled in us now to take away deep balls. That’s our challenge now, we know that’s what they like to do. Once we limit that, they will have to find a way to beat us in another area.”
Helping out to make plays in the receiving game is 6-5, 250 tight end Mark Andrews. The redshirt sophomore has 28 catches for 421 yards and six touchdowns this year.
Up front the big man for the Sooners is left tackle Orlando Brown. At 6-8, 340, Brown is the son of former NFL standout Orlando Brown and the redshirt sophomore has become a standout for the Oklahoma offensive line.
He’s part of one of the biggest offensive lines the Tigers will see this season with sophomore Ben Powers (6-4, 315) at left guard, junior Erick Wren (6-2, 308) at center, sophomore Dru Samia (6-4, 305) at right guard and redshirt freshman Bobby Evans (6-4, 308) at right tackle.