Commentary

Ducks' defense facing dilemma

Originally Published: January 6, 2011
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti admits he hasn't slept well while trying to devise a plan to slow down Auburn quarterback Cam Newton in Monday night's Tostitos BCS National Championship Game.

"I've been sleeping like a baby," Aliotti said. "I wake up every two hours and cry."

Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner, caused a lot of restless nights for defensive coordinators this season. He led the country in pass efficiency with a 188.2 rating, led the SEC in rushing with 108.4 yards per game and became only the third player in Football Bowl Subdivision history to score 20 touchdowns rushing and passing in the same season.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesCam Newton has passed every test so far this season.

If the No. 2 Ducks are going to end the SEC's four-year streak of winning BCS national championships, Aliotti's defense is going to have to figure out a way to at least slow down Newton and No. 1 Auburn's high-octane offense.

"Let's face it -- they're good," Aliotti said. "We know they're good. We're going to do the best the Duckies can do to slow this juggernaut down. We're going to do what we do and hopefully do it faster and better than we ever have before. Hopefully, we make a couple of stops and our offense shows up, which it usually does."

Aliotti insists the Ducks will continue to play defense like they did while winning their first 12 games this season. Oregon is ranked No. 25 nationally in total defense, allowing 331.5 yards per game, and its defense is predicated on pressuring the quarterback. The Ducks are ranked in the top 20 nationally in sacks (2.6 per game) and tackles for loss (7.5 per game).

"We're definitely going to bring pressure," Ducks linebacker Casey Matthews said. "If you bring three or four rushers, he can sit back and pick you off. If no one is open, he can take off. If you bring pressure, you can flush him out of the pocket. You've got to get pressure on him and force him to make bad decisions."

Defensive coordinators who previously faced Newton this season aren't sure that's the best mode of attack for Oregon.

"I still think you've got to make the guy beat you with his arm," Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "You've got to make the guy play quarterback."

Grantham's defense contained Newton for most of the first quarter when the Bulldogs played at Auburn on Nov. 13. After forcing Newton into a couple of mistakes, Georgia took a 21-7 lead into the second quarter. But the Tigers tied the score at 21 at the half and then scored touchdowns on each of their first four possessions of the second half in a 49-31 victory.

"You've got make the guy throw it because more bad things can happen," Grantham said. "I don't even know if you rush the guy because they're so screen-oriented on first down."

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCam Newton led the SEC in rushing with 108.4 yards per game.

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart's unit also had success against Newton in the early parts of the Nov. 26 Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide defense started the game with three consecutive three-and-outs, and they took a 21-0 lead. Once again, Newton rallied the Tigers in the second half, for a thrilling 28-27 victory.

Smart said some SEC teams tried to rush only three players and defend Newton with a spy, whose sole responsibility was finding the fleet-footed quarterback on the field.

"We felt like the teams that tried to spy him and rush him were dead," Smart said. "Regardless of how good your spy is, you're not going to be able to stop him. It ends up being one-on-one, and he's going to win."

Smart said Alabama's defensive plan against Auburn was to rush four defenders and play man-to-man coverage in the secondary. The Tide's pass-rushers were instructed to not run past Newton and always keep him in front of them. Alabama's defensive backs were supposed to keep receivers in front of them so their backs weren't turned to Newton.

"The [pass-rushers] stood there and mirrored him and dared him to throw," Smart said. "If he sees your [defensive backs'] backs turned to him, he takes off running. It's tough. You've got to pick your poison."

By the end of the game, Alabama was rushing five defenders to try to clog Newton's running lanes more than anything else.

"You've got to get him before he gets going," Smart said. "If he gets going north to south and his shoulders are square, it's adios. If he's running sideline to sideline, it's easier."

Grantham and Smart said Newton is especially dangerous in short-yardage situations because he's so big. At 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, Newton looks more like a defensive end. In fact, he's taller than all but one of the Ducks' defensive starters and heavier than all but three.

"He always seems to keep going," Oregon defensive end Kenny Rowe said. "It's hard to tackle him."

Against Georgia, the Tigers had eight third-down plays of 3 yards or less. Newton ran the ball seven times and converted every one, including a 31-yard touchdown on third-and-2 on the opening possession of the game.

Grantham said Auburn ran the same play nearly every time and still converted. The Tigers ran a zone-read play, in which Newton either handed the ball to a receiver in motion or kept it. The Bulldogs' only stop on third-and-short came when Newton was sacked for a 9-yard loss on a pass play.

"That's all they run," Grantham said. "They're playing to get 9 yards because they know they're getting the 10th yard. It's not something you don't know is coming. It's a combination of the offensive line and his size. They're going to get 3 or 4 yards every time."

Newton had similar success against the Crimson Tide on short-yardage plays.

"It's impossible," Smart said. "He falls forward and it's over. We all know what's coming. We had every guy in the box and still couldn't stop him."

Grantham said Oregon has to limit Newton's ability to run in open space. Newton became only the second Auburn player to run for more than 170 yards in five games in a season, joining 1985 Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson. Newton had 14 runs of 20 yards or longer.

"He's not worried about getting hit because he thinks he can make the first guy miss and he can," Grantham said. "You're in man-to-man coverage and everything is distorted. He's running in open space."

The Ducks faced a mobile quarterback in last season's Rose Bowl, and Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor passed for 266 yards and ran for 72 yards in the Buckeyes' 26-17 victory.

[+] EnlargeCameron Newton
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCam Newton has been very tough to stop in short-yardage situations.

Aliotti said the Tigers utilize more designed runs for Newton, which gives them an extra blocker.

"We know he is a very tough runner, and he is not like most quarterbacks," Matthews said. "He will lower his shoulder and try to get those extra yards. We've got to wrap him up as a team, can't let him slip and get those extra yards."

Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn isn't sure how the Ducks will try to defend Newton. Malzahn said the Tigers have seen just about everything this season.

"We've seen just about every kind of plan you can have -- they've come after him and they've stayed back," Malzahn said. "Cam has a unique ability to make things happen when things break down."

Aliotti knows what his defense has to do if the Ducks are going to win a national championship.

"We have to stop Cam Newton," Aliotti said.

No team has accomplished the feat yet.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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