Gus Malzahns Previews the SEC Championship Game

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Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn press conference
Previewing the SEC championship game vs. Georgia

Opening statement… “We had a big win Saturday — won the SEC West. We enjoyed it Saturday, got to Sunday and we put it behind us. Now we are looking forward to Georgia and playing the SEC championship game. You’re talking about one of the more talented teams in the country in Georgia. You’re talking about two of the more talented running backs in the country on the same team. Defensively, a whole lot of talent, a whole lot of speed. On special teams, they do a very good job. They hurt us in the return game. We are going to have to do a lot better job in the way we cover kicks. That’s really one of the things that stood out to me in the last game. Overall, I’m real proud of our team, like I said after the game, to get us to this point. We’re looking forward to going to Atlanta and playing one of the more talented teams in the country.”

Balancing how they played a few weeks ago with new material… “There are teams out there that have played each other earlier in the year, and then they play each other in the championship game. I think what makes this unique is that we played them three weeks ago. From a coach’s standpoint, when you play the same opponent, you look at the last game. There’s no doubt about that. You look at what you could’ve done better, you try to predict what they’re going to do and they try to predict what you’re going to do. We know each other pretty well from the standpoint of playing each other so recently.”

Kerryon Johnson injury update… “I think it’s going to be a day-to-day deal. He was better yesterday than he was the day before, so we’ll see where that goes.”

Is Johnson’s injury linked to his shoulder surgery freshman year… “I don’t know if that’s the case. Everyone saw the play. He landed on it awkwardly.”

Will Johnson play Saturday if he doesn’t practice this week… “He’s not just a veteran guy, he’s one of the better players in college football right now. He’s a great competitor, like I said before. This is a big game and he’ll do whatever he can.”

On his emotion when Alabama had 12 players on the field… “That was a big moment in the game. They had four guys not set in motion, and that was a unique moment for me. There was a lot on the line, so yes, I wasn’t happy.”

Difficulty of facing a defense like Auburn’s that gets pressure with only four pass rushers… “Any time you can get pressure on a quarterback, and only rush him four, it changes everything. That’s usually a sign of a very good defense.”

On the defensive line… “They are a good group. We knew we had a chance of being really good up front this year, but what they’ve done is they’ve gotten better each week. They’re playing with that edge, that confidence and they’re going to have to continue to do that. The reality is, we played very well the first time we played these guys, but they’re still one of the better rushing teams in all of college football. They’re very impressive in what they do, and I’m sure they’re going to have some new wrinkles.”

Is this one of his best defensive lines at Auburn… “Right now, I would have to say yes. They are playing at a high level and at times they are dominating. They are playing in opponents’ backfields. They are putting pressure on the quarterback, too. If you can control the line of scrimmage and put pressure on the quarterback, then that is as good as it gets. We are going to have to do that again this week. They are very, very talented.”

On Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe being able to play both inside and outside… “Those guys are very flexible and they are both very athletic. It gives us flexibility. If we can put a little more speed inside on passing downs, that really helps.”

On Tre’ Williams’ performance last Saturday… “I am so proud of Tre’, and he is one of our captains. He has been battling an injury for six or seven weeks. It has been tough for him. There were questions early last week if he was even going to play. Not only did he play, but he played at a high level. He was also able to finish the game and that gives him confidence going forward.”

Judging a quarterback by his big-game performances… “The bigger the game, you learn about everything, no matter the quarterback or what position. He has a comfort right now. There were some guys that were rushing the passer last week — they were dynamic. He was relaxed, though, and got rid of the football. He is playing a lot more comfortable than he was earlier in the year.”

On playing at a neutral site… “It is the championship game and it is going to be loud. We are going to have a good crowd as well as Georgia, so I am not worried about that.”

Is the program at its best point in terms of success and stability… “I know we talked about it earlier in the year, about where our program is at. I felt like coming into this year that we finally had some quality depth through recruiting. We had a lot of the pieces of the puzzle. We are in a really good spot. The future is very bright. We have the ability to sustain it. Now we have to do it, but we are a lot more stable right now than any other time that I have been at Auburn.”

On Tray Matthews… “He is a leader. When he talks, they all listen. He has an edge about him that rubs off on other teammates. He is playing at a high level and playing with a chip on his shoulder.”

On getting the ball to Ryan Davis on the perimeter… “I think to be a good offense, you have to be good between the tackles, on the perimeter and you have to be able to throw the ball down the field. I just think that Chip (Lindsey) has this offense where they have the ability to do both. When we play really good, we are successful in all three areas and he has built it that way. We have to continue to be good in all three areas, and the challenge is playing great defenses again. This is a great defense and three out of the last four games we have played, we have played Top 5 defenses. I don’t know any other offenses that have had to do that.”

How can special teams perform better… “We have to cover and tackle. It really is that simple. We have to be desperate to cover, you have to get off blocks and we have to tackle and gang tackle. Their returner is a very talented young man, and he is scary. That is really as simple as it gets.”

On moving forward from the Iron Bowl win… “You look back at (the 2013 Iron Bowl) and I was real concerned about being able to get over that, because it was so crazy at the end and how everything went. I was very concerned about whether we could have that high of an emotion and be able to play. This team is a lot more stable, and you are definitely concerned, but I feel great about it. We got in here Sunday and the team meeting flipped the page. That was over with. We will think about how fun that was after the season. They have the goal. They put it up there the first day of fall camp, and we want to win the SEC Championship. They were not shy about it, and were not trying to hide it from outside people. They put themselves out there, and now it is right in front of them. We have a mature team. They will not be distracted, I will tell you that. We are playing a big-time team, and we have had to play them twice and everything that goes with it. We have to play our best football. That is what we have been talking about. Very few teams can do that towards the end, and we have to play better than we did on Saturday. That is what’s on their mind and that’s their challenge.”

Is this game the playoff you have been pointing toward… “I’m not going to tell our strategies, but we are worried about this game. I’m not going to tell you what I am telling the team other than this is our championship week and this is our championship game. We will worry about that afterwards.”

Daniel Carlson kicking in a dome setting… “Usually inside there are no elements, and Daniel has a great leg so that will definitely help.”

Did Carlson miss on one kickoff against Alabama… “He did. He hasn’t miss-hit very many in his career, but that was one of them.”

The help of having big game experience… “The experience of how you got to this point, it helps you, I think, from the standpoint of you know a lot about how your team is going to react in certain situations. It is going to be a dog fight Saturday, there is no doubt. There is going to be adversity and we have to overcome it. I like where we are at and how we have gotten here. A lot of times, it is how you get to where you are at that can help you move forward, and we have experienced just a little bit of everything this year if you really look at it. Hopefully that will help on Saturday.”

If Johnson does not play, who is the best back in pass protection… “I will just say this: I have confidence in all of my running backs in pass protection. Some of them have had a lot of opportunities in games and some of them have had limited opportunities, but just from the scrimmages and practices, we have a lot of confidence in all of our running backs in protection.” 

On Deshaun Davis… “He is playing his best football right now. I have said it before, he is kind of a coach on the field. He can dissect things, and he thinks like an offensive coordinator. He can think ahead at what is coming. He has a unique ability. When we are practicing offense against defense, he knows a lot of what is going on.”

On having Deshaun Davis and Tre’ Williams both on the field… “You are talking about two veterans. Of course we are confident in the other guys that we rotate, too, but those are two veteran players that are very hard-nosed.”

Does the game plan start again with stopping Georgia’s running backs… “They are one of the top rushing teams in college football, if not the best. It does. When you do that, you worry about the passing game and everything that goes with it, and the quarterback has more experience than he did when he played us. You have to stop the run. Their running backs are phenomenal, and I think everyone knows that.

On Georgia’s last two games… “They drilled the two teams they played. They came out and put them away. They played good football. You’re talking about one of the best teams in the country, and they have showed that through the whole season. They are talented and well-coached. They are one of the top teams in the country.”

Did the LSU loss change him as a coach… “I don’t know if it changed me. Any time you go through adversity you have to look at everything. I don’t know if it changed me, but to a point we just drew the line — this is what we have to do. If we are going to reach our goal, this is what we have to do. It is a tribute to our players and coaching staff that they just rolled up their sleeves, and they did it and they got it done. When you have your back against the wall and you have to win every week, on the road in our league and at home against two No. 1 teams, that is a lot of pressure, but our team did that. I am really proud of those guys getting us to where we are after that LSU game, because it was ‘the sky is falling’ type deal. A lot of guys were shooting arrows at us, and this group really just came together and got us to this point. So I am really proud that we are here.”

Some top teams play well but run out of gas late in the season… “I think, from the standpoint we’ve got a mature bunch, a hungry bunch, I don’t think that will happen. We’ve finally gotten to this point. Sunday when we went out to practice, it was great energy. They’re excited. It’s finally here. So there’s something to be said for that. But, no, we won’t have any kind of emotional letdown in this type of game.”

Has he been able to look at what they have accomplished… “No, you’ve got to wait until after the year, and then you think back. You’ve got to go week-to-week, and you’ve got to figure out a way to get a little bit better each week. Now, I need to say this, too; LSU is probably one of the better teams in the country. I know they were going through some stuff at that time, but they’re really good, so that kind of put things in a little bit better perspective, too, when you look at the whole thing.”

On expectations for Jarrett Stidham… “If you remember in fall camp, I was saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to give this guy time.’ We knew he was talented in the spring, but we’ve got to give him time because, in fairness to him, he had played three or four games in his whole life in college football, and he was about to enter this league with the best defenses. And then we had to play Clemson at Clemson and they’ve got one of the best defenses. So we just had to give him time to get the experience and get used to his teammates and get used to his coordinator, and his coordinator get used to him. So it just took a little time for him to start getting more comfortable. Chip (Lindsey) was learning about him, too, and learning his strengths trying to put him in good situations and build around his strengths. So I think it’s really as simple as that. He’s a very, very talented young man. Now that he is running the football some, it’s really opened up other things. He’s playing at a high level at the quarterback position, which you’ve got to do. If you have a chance to win a championship in our league, your quarterback has to play at a high level, and he’s done that so far, and he’ll need to do it again Saturday.”

Does Stidham’s passing ability help exploit matchups… “Here’s what he gives us the ability to do: he can make every throw. So when you can make every throw, from a coach’s standpoint, it opens up the playbook, and it gives you more flexibility that if they’re cheating in one area, that you can take advantage of it. He’s got an arm. He can go hash to hash, sideline to sideline. That helps.”

On Ryan Davis… “Ryan is playing with a lot of confidence right now, and Ryan has been a talented young man for a while, but he’s to a point now he wants the ball, and he’s desperate to get open. I know Jarrett has a comfort with him. He did a great job Saturday. He’s played well really all year.”

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