Led by quarterback Chris Todd, running backs Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb, and wide receivers Darvin Adams, Terrell Zachery and Mario Fannin, Auburn enters the New Year's Day game scoring 32.9 points per game and averaging 432.3 yards of total offense. Tate leads the charge on the ground with 1,254 yards and eight touchdowns in 2009, but Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said he's far from the only weapon for the Tigers.
"They are very impressive the way they run the ball," Hankwitz said. "Tate has like 1,300 yards and McCalebb another 600 and then Fannin, they've run for a bunch of yards. That kinds of gets lost with all the motions and formations and shifts they give you, but they are a potent running team.
"Then you look at Adams and Zachery, look at their average per catch and 15 touchdowns. It scares you because they are such a good running team and will all the formations they've got a chance to hit you with the big one. We've seen elements of this offense, but not all of it at one time. It has been a nightmare trying to study and prepare for it."
In his first season as Auburn's offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn has implemented his hurry up/no huddle plan and the results have been staggering as the Tigers went from one of the nation's worst offenses to one of the best in one year. Hankwitz said when you study Auburn's offense it's pretty apparent why the offense works the way it does.
"You would hate to have to prepare for them in one week," Hankwitz said. "They force you to be a little more basic than you might be in other games because of all the motions and formations. And then you have their tempo. They can go fast on you. It's by design and they do a nice job of it. Then they have the audible, the glance that gets you up there quick. They try to get you off balance. We're fortunate our offense does that so at least we're used to playing against tempo in practice. It doesn't mean we've seen all the stuff they do, but it helps having the extra time."
Allowing 344.2 yards and 23.3 points per game this season on defense, Northwestern has had its share of troubles as the Wildcats allowed more than 30 points four times including 72 combined points in losses to Syracuse and Minnesota early. Despite allowing 31 the last time out in a win over Wisconsin, Hankwitz said his defense is coming together after playing a lot of different faces in 2009.
Much like Auburn has fought through injuries, the same is true of Northwestern. The Wildcats have started 22 different players on defense this season with seven different guys in the secondary playing a major role. Hankwitz noted that's allowed his defense a chance to develop over the course of the season.
"We were playing with a lot of young guys at times and we didn't develop as fast as we wanted to," Hankwitz said. "We got to that point in the season where we started getting guys back and getting some continuity. We were 5-4 and had to play three tough games in a row, yet we were able to win all three. That has given us some confidence."
Of the 34 touchdown drives allowed by Northwestern this season, 14 have come on plays of more than 20 yards. Conversely Auburn has scored 19 times on plays of over 20 yards this season. Those numbers and Auburn's ability to run the ball will likely be the key in Friday's game. The big plays are something that Hankwitz said his team will have to eliminate in order to get the win.
"We have to try not to give up home runs, big long plays," Hankwitz said. "In the Alabama game they had two big ones early and it gave them a lot of momentum. That wasn't the only game they did it to because of all that motion. They get you to move your eyes to the wrong spot and they've got a chance to hurt you and crease you. They've got so many gimmicks with the reverses and reverse passes and double passes. You try to practice it, but you don't know exactly what you're going to see."