Uncommon ground

Auburn's defense hasn't seen an offense like Northwestern's all season. Or anything even close. Purple Reign looks at the pass-averse slate of teams that the Tigers have played – and the pass-averse conference in which they play – as well as what Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof has been saying about NU's O.

The SEC may own a recent monopoly on college football titles. But the nation's eminent conference in terms of championships won't win any creativity awards.

Not that it's been a problem. Again, between Florida and LSU, an SEC outfit has won the last three BCS national titles. And with Alabama favored by most to beat Texas in this season's championship bout, there is every reason to think that the SEC could make it four straight.

Therefore, this isn't an indictment on the SEC or its football prowess. What they do down there has been working just fine – and then some.

But for all its trophy-toting success, SEC teams still by-and-large play an old-fashioned brand of football. They do this antiquated thing where they have big guys in the backfield – what are they called, fullbacks? – who don't touch the ball much; they just run into people. And there are hulking offensive-line types that sometimes run around like receivers. Tight ends, or something like that.

Indeed, the osmosis of the spread offense across America has missed the South. The spread simply isn't as chic in SEC Country as it is elsewhere, like, say, in Evanston, where Northwestern sports one of nation's most pass-happy teams. So when the Wildcats square off against Auburn in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1, the Tigers won't have seen anything quite like what Northwestern will throw at them. (Throw, by the way, is used literally.)

"(NU's offense) spreads you out," said Tigers defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who coached against Northwestern while the defensive coordinator at Duke and Minnesota.

"It makes you defend the entire width of the field and that's a change from the last couple offenses that we've played. Certainly the last four games were not spread. So (the offense makes you) kind of flip gears a little bit and go back and defend something new and something that we haven't seen in a while."

Or, uh, the entire season.

This is incredible: Eight of Auburn's 12 opponents this season were ranked No. 77 or lower out of 120 FBS teams in passing yards per game. And three of Auburn's opponents – Ball State, Mississippi State and Kentucky – were in the bottom 10. (Not surprisingly, those same eight were 84th or lower in attempts.)

Contrast that to the Cats. Northwestern was No. 29 in the nation in passing yards per game, and NU quarterback Mike Kafka was No. 16 in the nation in pass attempts with 414. And that includes one game – against Penn State – that was cut short because of injury, and another game one week later – against Iowa – in which he split time with Dan Persa. What's more, some of the QBs in front of Kafka on the most-attempts list, like Sean Canfield of Oregon State and Colt McCoy of Texas, have played extra games via conference championships or bowls.

Oh, and Northwestern led the Big Ten in pass attempts and completions, and was second in yards. So Kafka's arm has been used as much as most any slinger in the nation this season.

Auburn simply hasn't seen anything like that. And Roof knows it.

"(The Wildcats) move guys all over the place – it doesn't matter what personnel grouping they're in," Roof said. "They get in very non-traditional formations out of certain groupings, so they present a lot of problems."

With about 37 pass attempts per game and nearly 3,200 yards, the Cats would have led the SEC in attempts by more than 50, and they would have been second in yards behind only Arkansas.*

* The Razorbacks, which did indeed play Auburn, passed a lot, but it was a different kind of passing. Unlike NU, Arkansas is all about throwing downfield, something NU really doesn't do. For instance, Arkansas had 12 different players this year average at least 11.9 yards per catch. NU had one such player. Moreover, Arkansas had five receivers average more yards per catch than Andrew Brewer, NU's top yards-per-catch guy at 16.2.

The Hogs' offense completed 57.6 percent of its passes – compared to NU's 65.1 – yet averaged 9.0 yards per attempt compared to Northwestern's 7.0. That's telling: A 7.5 percent difference, yet Arkansas still averaged a healthy two yards more per attempt. One more: As you'll see in this chart, Arkansas was No. 48 in the nation in pass attempts, but No. 10 in yards. So while they passed, it was passing of a different ilk – taking shots downfield to get big plays. NU's passing game is a chain-mover, not a home run device.

With NU's prolific passing offense in mind, look at Auburn's opponents' numbers on the season.

Opponent Pass att. Pass YDS YDS/G Nat'l att. rank Nat'l PYDS/G rank
La. Tech 320 2,257 203.5 96 93
Miss. State 266 1,732 144.3 113 114
West Virginia 328 2,377 198.1 90 85
Ball State 313 1,613 134.3 100 112
Tennessee 375 2,707 225.6 65 48
Arkansas 403 3,640 303.3 47 10
Kentucky 300 1,714 142.8 104 115
LSU 312 2,161 180.1 102 94
Ole Miss 347 2,673 222.8 80 53
Furman Lost by 32 Lost to Elon Not FBS Cupcake Totally N/A
Georgia 318 2,457 204.8 97 82
Alabama* 334 2,573 204 84 92
Northwestern 453 3,193 266.1 16 29

* Includes SEC title game.

Roof, apparently, knows the numbers.

"(The spread offense) is certainly different," he said during an interview taped by Auburn's Scout.com page. "To me it goes back to this: people talk about teams that tackle bad….Well, part of that is because they make you defend the entire width of the field and there are so many more isolated instances of one-on-one tackle. Ten years ago there might have been 20 people within seven yards of the ball."

Does this mean that Northwestern is definitely going to win? Of course not. Not only will Roof and the Auburn D have had weeks to study and plan and prepare, but as was said earlier, the SEC is an absolutely loaded conference. There is talent galore, even if the offenses are nary more inventive than those from yesteryear (or yesterdecade, for that matter).

Still, there is no doubt at all that Northwestern is different – a lot different – than anything Auburn has seen in game action this season.

Once Zeke Markshausen and Brewer and Drake Dunsmore and the rest of NU's pass catchers start scurrying about in every direction, it will be interesting if all of those tapes, and all those sessions against the practice squad, have prepared the Tigers.

Their defense will be spread out, and their heads just might be spinning.

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