AUBURN, Ala. (AP) – Alabama’s Blake Sims is a passer who can run and Auburn’s Nick Marshall is a runner who can pass.
The two playmaking quarterbacks enter Saturday night’s Iron Bowl with the ability to cause headaches for opposing defenses using both their arms and their feet. How they go about doing that is quite different.
Sims, a senior making his first Iron Bowl start, is mostly tasked with getting the ball to players like receiver Amari Cooper and tailback T.J. Yeldon. The former running back also ran for two third-and-long conversions on a decisive touchdown drive against No. 4 Mississippi State, a threat the Crimson Tide hasn’t had in recent quarterbacks.
“The quarterback doesn’t carry it a whole lot, but when he does he’s a threat to go the whole way,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “He’s big and fast. He can get the ball outside, whereas that was a play you didn’t really worry about (in the past).
“You packed the box and made sure you stopped the running back.”
The Tide has even at times employed the zone read plays that have been so effective for Marshall and the Tigers the past two years.
Both are quick, shifty players who can outrun many pursuing linebackers or make them miss.
Marshall has attempted 73 fewer passes than Sims, but run twice as much. He hasn’t been effective running the past two games, and Auburn’s offense has sputtered at times as a result.
“He’s an athlete,” Tide safety Nick Perry said. “He’s probably going to be the most elusive guy we’ve faced all season. He makes a lot of great plays. You just have to contain him and don’t allow him to beat us. Allow other people to beat us.”
Marshall made the second-biggest play of last year’s Iron Bowl, even though it was vastly overshadowed by the game-ending runback of a missed field goal.
He appeared poised to run but pulled up shy of the line of scrimmage, switched the ball from his left hand to his right and threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates to tie the game with 32 seconds left.
The win helped propel the Tigers into the national championship game, the same destination Sims is hoping to arrive at with three more wins. Last season gave Marshall a spot among Auburn’s top quarterbacks, though how high remains to be seen.
“He was a big part of leading us there,” Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said. “It would have been extremely hard not having him to get there, I’ll tell you that. He has been very good for us these last two years. As far as the legacy, statistically, he’s one of the best to ever come through here. But we’ve still got games left.
“That question’s probably better answered at the end of the season.”
Marshall got to that point only after getting kicked off the Georgia team where he had been moved to defensive back, then playing for a junior college. Sims’ journey to this point was less circuitous but it took even longer.
The fifth-year senior played running back in 2011 and then spent two seasons backing up AJ McCarron before getting his shot. Even then, he had to beat out Florida State transfer Jake Coker.
“At the beginning of the season, I guess you can say I dreamed about playing in this game,” Sims said. A Georgia native like Marshall, he didn’t arrive on campus knowing all that much about the Iron Bowl.
Sims does now. “I’ve seen a lot of players come through that have been very legendary from the game,” he said.
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