Auburn defenders bracing for Tagovailoa and ’Bama offense
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Deshaun Davis can’t believe some of what he’s seeing out of this Tua Tagovailoa-led Alabama offense.
The Auburn linebacker and defensive leader’s film sessions, which started shortly after last Saturday night’s game, illustrate both the challenge of facing Tagovailoa and the top-ranked Crimson Tide’s stylistic transformation.
Auburn’s defense is facing anything but the typical ’Bama offense in Saturday’s Iron Bowl at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“It’s extremely different,” Davis said. “When you watch film and it’s third-and-1 and they’re throwing digs — I never thought I’d be able to see that. That’s just who they are.”
The Tigers (7-4, 3-4 Southeastern Conference) have a different primary defensive mission than most recent Iron Bowls. There’s no stop-the-run-and-you-stop-Bama mentality.
It’s more about trying to find some way to contain Tagovailoa and his dangerous targets led by wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III and tight end Irv Smith Jr. And then figure out a way to deal with the runners, too.
Auburn beat Jalen Hurts & Co. last season by holding the Tide to 103 passing yards. Jarrett Stidham outplayed Hurts, who did run for 82 yards.
Alabama hasn’t lost since, with Tagovailoa coming off the bench to lead a national title game comeback against Georgia.
Tagovailoa is a Heisman Trophy contender with a school-record 31 touchdown passes against just two interceptions. He has thrown for 2,865 yards and is the nation’s top-rated passer.
“You can tell they feel like they can call anything and Tagovailoa can make it right and most of the time he does it,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
It will be the first Iron Bowl start for Tagovailoa, a left-hander from Hawaii. He has gained some notion of the game’s significance during his time in Tuscaloosa.
“When you grow up in Alabama, I’ve heard, you’re either an Auburn fan or an Alabama fan,” he said. “It’s going to be packed this game, I know that. but it’s not like we haven’t had an opportunity to go into this game and try to perform.”
Tagovailoa has come back to Earth some after a torrid start to the season that had him widely regarded as the Heisman front-runner .
He passed for just 164 yards against Mississippi State and threw an interception on his second straight Saturday after going his first nine games without one.
Now, he has the Iron Bowl and the SEC championship game against No. 5 Georgia to try to improve his Heisman candidacy.
All that film study by Davis showed him a guy who’s accurate, knows the game and is “a fierce competitor.” Tagovailoa forces defenses to disguise coverages and try to keep him guessing as much as possible.
“You can tell he reads defenses pretty well,” the Auburn linebacker said. “If you show him what you’re going to do, it’s going to be a long night, I can tell you that.
“You can tell sometimes that he has the freedom at the line of scrimmage to check plays and get the offense in a good look, according to what the defense is showing.”
And Auburn defenders know that the key to helping pull off an upset is to slow down Tagovailoa and his collection of receivers.
Alabama still has a formidable running game led by Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs. But they’ve been more complimentary players to Tagovailoa’s passing than the central offensive figures.
“They have a really good passing offense,” Auburn defensive tackle Dontavius Russell said. “In the past, there were times where you knew if you stopped the run, you would be successful. But I think they’re a little more balanced, and it just presents that much more of a challenge.”
Even Tagovailoa’s Auburn counterpart, Stidham, has been impressed on and off the field. The two met at the Elite 11 camp in California over the summer.
“I got to be around him a little bit,” Stidham said. “I got to know him. Great dude. Obviously a great football player. He’s being doing really well. It doesn’t surprise me.”