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January 6, 2011
Breakdown: Oregon rush 'O' vs. Auburn rush 'D'
Today, we continue our five-part position breakdown of Monday's BCS national championship game with a look at Oregon's rush offense.
Part 1 was a look at Auburn's rush offense. Part 3 will be on Auburn's passing attack, Part 4 on Oregon's passing attack and Part 5 on the Tigers' and Ducks' special teams.
OREGON RUSH OFFENSE VS. AUBURN RUSH DEFENSE
Sophomore TB LaMichael James leads the nation at 152.9 yards per game; he also has 21 rushing TDs. He reached 100 yards in nine of the 11 games he played this season and had at least 91 in the two others. He also had multiple touchdowns in eight games.
James has excellent speed and is lethal in space, but he also has the toughness to run between the tackles. Because Oregon spreads out opposing defenses, James often finds himself with just one man to beat after breaking through the line. The website cfbstats.com tracks big plays, and James is tied for first in the nation with 11 runs of 30-plus yards and leads the nation with eight runs of 40-plus yards; he also has five runs of 50-plus yards, which is second nationally.
James has 281 yards, almost four times as many carries as any other Oregon player. QB Darron Thomas is next with 85. Thomas is the No. 3 rusher, with 492 yards and five TDs. He ran for a season-high 117 yards against Stanford. But he had just three games with more than eight attempts.
The No. 2 rusher is backup TB Kenjon Barner, who's another burner. He has rushed for 519 yards and six TDs despite missing all or parts of three games with a concussion. He had two 100-yard games, including a four-TD performance in the opener against New Mexico when James was suspended. He has gotten more work since returning from his concussion, averaging 12 carries a game in the final four regular-season contests.
WR Josh Huff is a speedy freshman who has been used occasionally on sweep plays. He had 103 yards on three carries against Arizona. The sweep can be especially useful against aggressive, attacking defenses.
The Ducks' line is physical and experienced but not overly huge. While there are two 300-pounders, LT Bo Thran weighs 281 and LG Carson York is 285. There are four upperclassmen, including three seniors, who start. As with Auburn's linemen, the Ducks' linemen are nimble enough to make a block at the line, then move downfield to mow down opposing defensive backs. C Jordan Holmes is considered the Ducks' best lineman.
Oregon scored at least three rushing TDs in nine games and had at least five in four contests. The Ducks were held to fewer than 234 yards just twice, by Arizona State and California. Those happened to be the only games the Ducks didn't win by at least 17 points. Both the Sun Devils and Golden Bears rely heavily on their linebackers to make plays.
Oregon had at least 40 rushing attempts in every game but two; those also were the only games in which they did not run at least 70 plays, finishing with 67 snaps against Washington State and 69 against Arizona State. The Ducks had at least 50 rushing attempts in seven games and had 49 in another. They also had at least 80 snaps in seven games.
For all the talk about its shaky defense, Auburn ranks second in the SEC and 11th nationally against the run, allowing just 111.7 yards per game. But the Tigers also allowed 16 rushing TDs, which is just sixth in the league.
Ole Miss, which is third in the SEC in rushing, was the only opponent to rush for more than 200 yards on the Tigers; the Rebels got a huge game from speedy freshman Jeff Scott (134 yards on just nine carries) and finished with 218 yards and three TDs, the highest total allowed by Auburn this season. Only two other teams rushed for more than 150 yards: Clemson with 187 and South Carolina with 156 in the SEC title game. Five opponents didn't reach the 100-yard mark, and only two teams attempted more than 35 rushes, which partly was a by-product of trying to play catch-up against the Tigers.
DT Nick Fairley is the Tigers' top defender. He is a disruptive force in the middle of the line, heading into the title game with 55 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks and 21 quarterback hurries. He was the nation's best interior lineman this season, and his ability to command double-teams often frees up other players to remain unblocked. How Oregon handles him on up-the-middle runs will be interesting to watch.
LB Josh Bynes is the Tigers' leading tackler, with 71. Bynes is active and can run, but as with most Auburn defenders other than Fairley, there really is nothing that special about his talents. Indeed, Auburn's defense is a classic example of the sum being greater than the parts.
Auburn's secondary is good in run support; the defensive backs aren't afraid to come up and hit you. S Zac Etheridge, especially, is one to watch in that regard in the title game.
The edge: Oregon. The Tigers have not seen any running back as fast as James this season, and he can hurt opposing defenses in a variety of ways. Barner has become a force late in the season, and Thomas' running ability also is a big plus. Oregon is not going to hit its per-game rushing average, but the Ducks still will be highly productive on the ground. One aspect that will be intriguing is how much Oregon throws the ball early; if the Ducks are successful in the air in the first quarter, that bodes ill for Auburn trying to handle James and Co. on the ground as the game progresses.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.