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December 4, 2013

Strength vs. Strength

 While a head coach at Shiloh High School in Arkansas, Gus Malzahn wrote a book about his offensive philosophy.

"The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy" outlines the basics of Malzahn's style of offense. With Missouri set to play Malzahn's Auburn team on Saturday, that book seems to be a good resource as the Tigers' defensive staff prepares.

According to the majority of Missouri's defensive staff, however, they don't own a copy of that book. They say it would be too generic to provide much insight -- "He's not going to give everything away," said cornerback coach Cornell Ford.

One coach says otherwise. That's defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, who said someone unnamed on the staff does own a copy of that book. .

"I don't own a copy, but, yeah, it's in our possession," Kuligowski said.

Like the other defensive coaches, Kuligowski hedged his bets on any insight that could be gleaned from that book. He said he's sure Malzahn would only "give half the story" because, at that stage in his coaching career, his goals were much loftier.

So, while it won't be a major resource by any stretch of the imagination for Missouri to prepare, the staff is looking at every avenue possible to create a defensive gameplan for Saturday.

"I'm sure we will, yes," Kuligowski said on Monday. "Didn't look at it yet."

Film study will be the biggest factor in preparing for Auburn's attack, which is a unique blend of a spread offense with triple-option philosophies. As of Monday, many of Missouri's defensive players had yet to break down the film in earnest, but what they had seen reminded them of a former opponent.

"I think it's a lot similar to Ole Miss' offense," Missouri linebacker Kentrell Brothers said. "Ole Miss utilized their fullback a lot, and they also have a lot of quarterback-designed runs. So watching them on film, they're more similar to Ole Miss, but obviously they rush for a lot more yards."

That would be an understatement. Auburn rushes for 318 yards per game, 130 more than Ole Miss. They'll represent the most prolific rushing team Missouri has faced since 2009. In that season, Nevada finished the year by averaging 344 rushing yards.

Auburn's offense is led by quarterback Nick Marshall. Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said Marshall could play any skill position on the field.

"He's that good," Steckel said.

Marshall has rushed for 922 yards and ten touchdowns on 140 carries. While he's only thrown 11 touchdown passes to five interceptions, Marshall has completed just under 60 percent of his passes and averages 8.1 yards-per-attempt. He's also gotten better as the season continued -- over his last six games, Marshall has thrown seven touchdown passes to one interception.

But what makes Marshall especially lethal is his prescience with Auburn's option offense. His reads have set up a big year on the ground for running back Tre Mason, who has 1,317 yards and 18 touchdowns as the feature back.

In addition to Mason, running backs Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne have combined for 1,158 yards and averaged 7.8 yards a carry.

"They have a great offensive scheme and are very good at it," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "And then when you have talented tailbacks, which they do, some great players there, great quarterback, they present a lot of problems."

Besides the talent-aspect of Malzahn's offense, Pinkel and Missouri players said a big reason why Auburn is so effective on the ground is because of their pre-snap motioning.

"They get your eyes off your keys, motion one way and then run the other way or they'll motion one way, fake a handoff the other way and then throw it right down the middle," Brothers said. "If anything's going to be difficult, that's what's going to be difficult. We have to focus on our keys and what we know, not letting them dictate what we do."

That gets back to the crux of Missouri's problem. It's not so much that Auburn's offense is complicated -- "They're just good," says Kuligowski.

"They run plays we've seen other teams run," Kuligowsk said. "They just run them better. That's why they're in the championship game."

It all comes down to fundamentals for Missouri's defense, to "assignment football" according to Gary Pinkel. It comes down to being physical, to being "relentless and attacking," says defensive end Shane Ray.

It's strength versus strength on Saturday. Missouri's run defense has been stout all year, but it hasn't seen an attack like Auburn. The defense will prepare any way it can -- whether it's by film or book or tea leaves.

They're looking forward to the challenge.

"I love it when teams run the ball," Brothers said. "It's a good day for linebackers, because all we get to do is make tackles. It's something that we're all looking forward to."

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