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The Wait is Over: Auburn battles Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl tonight

Josh Holsey (15) at a recent Auburn practice in New Orleans (Photo: Auburn Athletics/Wade Rackley)

It has been 37 days since Auburn last played a football game. That wait will come to an end tonight as the Tigers face Oklahoma in the 2017 Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. How They Got There: Auburn ended the season with an 8-4 record and ranked #14 in the final College Football playoff poll. The season had a roller coaster feel to it. With early losses to Clemson and Texas A&M, Head Coach Gus Malzahn made the decision to hand offensive play-calling duties over to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. The result was a six-game winning stretch that began with a thriller over LSU. Auburn began to show signs of wear in November 5th’s game against Vanderbilt, the last game of the streak. It had been announced pregame that quarterback Sean White was injured, and would not start. The Tigers struggled in the first half but ultimately pulled away as White fought through the pain to lead Auburn to a 23-16 win. Adversity continued to pile on, as running back Kamryn Pettway left the game late with a leg injury. With the addition of running back Kerryon Johnson not being 100% healthy, Auburn ran out of gas on the road at Georgia on November 12. Auburn held a 7-0 lead over the Bulldogs heading into halftime, however, White tossed an interception that was returned 34 yards for a touchdown. Georgia Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship nailed two field goals in the second half, which would be enough to pull out the 13-7 win, ending Auburn’s winning streak. Auburn picked up their 8th win the following week over Alabama A&M, before falling to Alabama in Tuscaloosa, 30-12 to end the regular season. What to Expect: The great thing about bowl season is the wait. While getting out of a normal routine is not the most ideal for student-athletes, the break allows for those who are injured to heal, which should benefit Auburn. Pettway and Johnson have practiced and should earn plenty of playing time on Monday night, but the most important news surrounding injury is Sean White. Beginning the week of the Vanderbilt game, White nearly went a month without throwing a pass in practice due to a shoulder injury. He continued to play, however, it was apparent that he was not 100%. He has practiced and will get the start against Oklahoma. That news is great for Auburn, considering the offense plays top-level when he is on the field. Having all three key players healthy will raise a red flag for Oklahoma’s defense, as the Sooners allow an average of 439 yards per game, which is only ten yards less than what Auburn averages per game. The key on defense is covering the pass. Auburn’s defense allows 223 yards passing per game, while Oklahoma tosses for 318 yards per game. Quarterback Baker Mayfield’s favorite target is fellow Heisman Trophy candidate, Dede Westbrook. Mayfield has connected with Westbrook 74 times for 1,465 yards and 16 touchdowns. The second leading receiver is running back Joe Mixon, who has 32 receptions. Auburn has been successful this season at stopping the run, so if the defense can contain Westbrook, and limit Mayfield’s passing, Auburn should earn the win. Scouting Oklahoma: The Big XII champion, Oklahoma’s offense is led by two Heisman trophy candidates in quarterback Baker Mayfield and receiver Dede Westbrook. Mayfield has thrown for 3,669 yards and 38 touchdowns on 235 completions. 74 of those completions have gone to Westbrook, as well as 16 of those touchdown passes. Running back Joe Mixon has over 1,100 yards on the ground, Samaje Perine is currently in the shadow of 1,000. While those offensive numbers are impressive, we must remember that Oklahoma plays in the Big XII conference, a conference known for putting up astronomical offensive numbers, and no way to stop them. Entering the game scoring an average of 44 points per contest, the Sooners averaged only 23.5 points in their two losses (Houston & Ohio State). In the season-opening loss to Houston, the Sooners were forced to pass as the Cougar defense only allowed 70 yards on the ground, en route to producing 393 yards to Houston’s 410. The loss to Ohio State had a similar storyline. Both teams were nearly even when it came to total yards (OU- 403, OSU- 433). However, Ohio State allowed Oklahoma to be more balanced, limiting them to only 226 passing yards while creating two turnovers. Oklahoma went on a 9-game winning streak following the loss to Ohio State and earned the Big XII championship. There were memorable offensive performances, but there were also plenty of dreadful times on defense. The Sooners defense allowed the opposition to score 30 points or more five times in 2016, with the most memorable game being against Texas Tech on October 22. Anytime that a quarterback contributes 532 yards passing and seven touchdowns to his team’s 854 total yards and 66 points scored in a game, it is nearly impossible to top. Keyword being “nearly”. That was Mayfield’s final stat line after the win over his former school, but it is easy to overshadow that feat when your defense also allows 854 total yards to your opponent. That number is enough to make anyone cringe, but it gets worse. Mayfield’s numbers do not hold a candle to what Red Raider quarterback Patrick Mahomes was able to accomplish. Mahomes completed 52 of his 88 pass attempts for a NCAA record-tying 734 yards… in a losing effort. Despite the absurd amount of yards posted, Oklahoma escaped Lubbock, Texas with a 66-59 win. The Sooners also allowed 30+ points to Houston (33), Ohio State (45), TCU (46), and Texas (40). With a healthy Auburn offense, the possibilities are endless when it comes to finding ways to score, and to post impressive offensive numbers. Auburn battles Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl Monday night at 7:30 P.M. inside New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

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