AUBURN | Nick Marshall ran the ball often in junior college, but needed some time to gain familiarity with the read option at Auburn.
Still, the learning curve appears to behind him.
The junior quarterback has rushed for 372 yards and four touchdowns during the past three games. His ability to make shrewd, split-second decisions in the run game has helped Auburn emerge as one of the NCAA's top rushing attacks.
Tailback Tre Mason is a serial concern for defenses, but Auburn now has two effective rushers touching the ball during most run plays. Mason said Marshall's deft execution of the read-option attack, which took a step forward during the loss to LSU, has helped transform the Tigers' offense.
"It's not too much reading the (defensive) end anymore," Mason said. "It's just if he feels comfortable, if he feels that he can get outside, he'll fake (the handoff). That camaraderie between us two is very strong."
Auburn's run game is defying stereotypes.
Coach Gus Malzahn's system, which includes some spread principles, often is lumped in with pass-first spread attacks like the ones in use at Washington State, Fresno State and SMU. Yet the Tigers, with their two-pronged rushing attack, spend most of their Saturdays attacking the 'B' and 'C' gaps with option runs and designed powers.
Passing is optional for Auburn.
That's just fine with center Reese Dismukes, who believes his goal to be anchor of the nation's best offensive line is on the verge of being accomplished. To affirm that claim, though, Auburn must find a way to overpower Alabama.
That task won't be easy. The Crimson Tide comes into the Iron Bowl with the Southeastern Conference's top run defense.
"I don't think we've really looked at it like that," Dismukes said. "We just look at them on film and see what they've got and see what we've got and try to do the best we can."
Malzahn is quick to acknowledge Marshall's improvement, which has accentuated similar gains by the offensive line and Mason, and believes it's mostly a function of increased repetition. The quarterback didn't arrive on campus until the last week of June and had only token familiarity with the offense once fall camp opened a month later.
"We've never had a quarterback in our system not go through spring and what he's done is really amazing," Malzahn said. "He was learning the offense on the go on Saturdays -- and we were learning a lot about him. But he is a tough customer. He's mentally tough, he's physically tough and he's a great competitor."
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Alabama has won consecutive national championships during the past two seasons while Auburn slipped from its top-ranked perch. Does that mean the Tigers will be less equipped to deal with the pressure Saturday? "We feel like we're ready," tailback Tre Mason said. "We worked hard for this. We feel like we've earned everything we have now, so we're just ready to step on a stage like this and execute what we have to do."
Mason was asked a series of questions about the 2012 season Tuesday, but said he doesn't mind reflecting on a disappointing season. "I don't really get tired of it because that's what kept us motivated," he said. "I like hearing about it; keeps us reminded about what happened last season. It's going to keep us fired up."
Dismukes' brother, Jonah, was a kicker at Alabama in the 1990s. That fact has the Tigers' center aiming for a win this weekend. "That'd be awesome," Dismukes said. "I'd like to call him up and laugh in his face."
Dee Ford grew up in rural St. Clair County, but said he had difficulty understanding Georgia native Nick Marshall initially. "He's very calm and very country," Ford said. "I remember my first time talking with him -- he had to repeat a few sentences because he was so country."
Malzahn said he believes a raucous environment inside Jordan-Hare Stadium this weekend can make a difference. "Our fans have been unbelievable. They have helped us win games," he said. "Obviously against Georgia, it was a big factor and I know our fans will be ready for this one."
Ford said he is fine after twisting a knee during the Georgia game, which he believes was a function of being held so often by the Bulldogs' offensive linemen. "I never expect them to call holding or anything like that. That's how you have to come into the game," he said while a question about Alabama's offense. "As athletic as we are, they haven't played an athletic group like us this year. We're definitely going to test them."
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