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November 24, 2010

Bryant-Denny may be Tide's biggest advantage vs. Auburn

TUSCALOOSA _ Even University of Alabama junior safety Mark Barron knows that nothing he's ever heard at Bryant-Denny Stadium will probably compare to what it'll be like Friday afternoon.

The stadium has been expanded to seat 101,821, undefeated Auburn is coming to the Capstone and there are more subplots for this No. 10 vs. No. 2 rivalry matchup than any author could hope to dream up for a novel. While the common belief is that the 2005 Florida game set the Crimson Tide standard in terms of decibels, Alabama appears poised to shatter its version of the sound barrier.

"I think this game is probably going to end up being the loudest game I've ever played in," Barron said.

"I think it's a big advantage," added junior center William Vlachos, and with good reason.

Anyone who's followed Alabama this season is well aware that the team has played at different levels on the road and at home, with both of its losses sustained as the visiting team.

"The crowd noise has been a factor, no doubt," Coach Nick Saban said. "It's harder to play offense when there's a lot of noise. It's harder to hear the snap count if you have to go on silent, sometimes guys get off the ball late. It certainly affected us when we played on the road a few times."

It has to be a huge concern for Auburn, especially considering the Tigers' schedule this season. They've only played three road games, squeezing out narrow victories at Mississippi State (17-14) and Kentucky (37-34), before outscoring SEC West cellar-dweller Ole Miss (51-31).

Quarterback and Heisman Trophy favorite Cam Newton found different ways of succeeding in those games. He passed for two touchdowns against the Bulldogs, ran for four on the Wildcats, and threw for two and caught one vs. the Rebels.

"He's a great athlete, there's no doubt about that," Saban said. "You have to do a great job of tackling. He's a big guy. He's got long arms. He's got a good stiff-arm. He's really good at changing direction and has deceptive speed. I think when they spread you out on the field and he scrambles or even when he's running one of his set running plays you have to do a good job of tackling; you have to a good job of leveraging and tackling. That's what great players do, they make themselves hard to tackle and he's certainly one of those guys."

Only here's something Newton hasn't done before, which is why so many experts consider this the true test for the junior-college transfer: Play in an overbearing environment.

After enrolling at Florida in January 2007, Newton saw playing time in five games that season, against Western Kentucky, Troy, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida Atlantic. Each was a blowout win at the Swamp. The following season he played in the season opener against Hawaii, rushing for 10 yards and a touchdown on five carries, and completed a pass for 14 yards.

Consequently, the biggest crowds he's faced on the road have all been this season. Kentucky, which isn't exactly known for loud fans in football, had the largest announced attendance of 70,776. Mississippi State attracted 54,806 cowbell-ringing fans and Ole Miss had 61,474.

Moreover, although it's primarily due to Alabama's defense, run-based spread attacks haven't fared well at Bryant-Denny. Both Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen were both pounded here this season, and while Florida and Utah posted impressive postseason wins at neutral sites in 2008 the Crimson Tide came back and punished former Heisman winner Tim Tebow in last year's SEC Championship Game.

"Cam is a little bit different," sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower said. "Tim Tebow was able to throw the ball pretty well and was always a downhill runner. You see Cam making plays that you wouldn't necessarily expect.

"He's got two guys on his back and he's stiff-arming one guy and the next thing you know he breaks out with a 42-yard run. That's when you just have to get in the film room and see the things he likes to do, like set you up for cutbacks, when he likes to use the stiff-arm, what gaps he likes to run through on certain powers and counters and what he likes to do. ... He's a really good player."

That's indisputable. Auburn is averaging 324.7 rushing yards against SEC opponents, with Newton ninth nationally and second among quarterbacks (117.9). He's the first player in SEC history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a single season, and has scored more touchdowns, 39, than more than half of the teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (62 of 119).

Overall, the Tigers rank third nationally in rushing (307.9), fifth in scoring (42.8) and sixth in total offense (505.2). With Newton's ability to tuck the ball and run the Tigers are also converting a league-best 53.3 percent of third downs (in comparison, Alabama is fourth at 44.8).
Chances are though at some point Alabama will have the lead and the crowd fully on its side. Auburn has trailed in seven of its 11 games and overcome double-digit deficits to beat Clemson, South Carolina and Georgia - but all three were at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

"Maturity is something we've been working on all year," said junior defensive end Marcell Dareus, as Alabama has been making fewer mistakes this past month. "We have to focus in on the play and the play you have right now. We've really been trying to work with our younger guys on that. We really have to buckle down and play assignment football. If everybody does their assignment, there is nothing they can do."

Step one, of course, is to contain Newton as best as possible, be aware of where the 6-foot-5, 250-pound quarterback is _ especially freshman linebacker C.J. Mosley _ and finish tackles.

Yet he's also not alone. While freshman Michael Dyer and senior Mario Fannin are the primary running backs, sophomore Onterio McCalebb is the fastest of the three and has been getting more opportunities of late. Auburn's receivers are known for their downfield blocks, so shedding them will be crucial, especially for cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and DeMarcus Milliner and DeQuan Menzie in the slot as Alabama figure to play a lot of nickel defense.

Getting Newton uncomfortable, forcing him to throw and create turnovers will be the aim, only that's obviously easier said than done. For example, against LSU, the defense most comparable to Alabama in talent, Newton completed 10 of 16 attempts (62.5 percent) for 86 yards and had a season-low 107.65 passer-efficiency rating. His longest completion was just 17 yards. However, Newton torched LSU on the ground with 28 carries for 217 yards.

Meanwhile, the other half of the equation is playing keep-away. With Auburn linemen Michael Goggans and Mike Blanc serving fighting suspensions during the first half, Alabama will have a chance to wear down starters like Nick Fairley and Nosa Eguae by attacking the edges. It may also prompt offensive coordinator Jim McElwain to try some no-huddle.

"We have an explosive offense I think to a certain extent," senior quarterback Greg McElroy said. "We do a really good job of mixing up tempos and just keeping defenses guessing. Last week we really tried to make them make their checks and calls at the line of scrimmage, which is difficult for defenses. We'll probably do all kinds of things this weekend."

Of course, that's a lot easier to do when you're the home team, especially when it may be the loudest crowd in the history of the 75-game series.

"There aren't too many games that are bigger than the Iron Bowl other than maybe the national championship," Hightower said. "Even people in this state would beg to differ that they would rather win the Iron Bowl than the national championship, so this game means a lot to us."


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