Northwestern's biggest challenge Friday against Auburn might take place before the ball is snapped.
Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is known for his innovative approach and extensive playbook, but he sets everything up by running a ton of pre-snap motion to throw off the opposing defense. For defenders, a misstep before the snap can lead to disastrous results after it.
"It's like window dressing," Northwestern senior safety Brendan Smith said. "They're saying, 'Hey, we're going to try and confuse you. Watch this!' Like if they're magicians, 'Here's the magic. Watch me over here! Watch me over there! Boom!' They try to motion around, but they're going to run the same play."
Smith and his fellow defenders have spent the past few weeks studying Auburn's pre-snap motion so they can recognize it in the Outback Bowl and not get sucked in. They've seen Auburn shuffle a ton of personnel before the snap, only to run a simple inside zone play to running back Ben Tate.
The solution to contain Auburn? Just do your job.
"They take advantage of the mental mistakes on defense," Smith said. "As long as we play one team, Auburn, we have a great chance of winning."
Northwestern will rely heavily on Smith and fellow safety Brad Phillips, another senior, to direct others on Auburn's pre-snap motion.
"Sometimes, we could say, 'Play it! Play it! Play it!'" Smith said. "Other times, we'll have to check and get us into something else. That's all dependent on the pre-call. But a lot of the looks will get us into our base [defense]."
Like Auburn, Northwestern runs a no-huddle spread offense that should help the NU defenders prepare for the Tigers' up-tempo pace. Though the Wildcats usually don't run as much pre-snap motion as Auburn, they can execute plays like rapid fire, keeping the defense on its heels.
With three weeks to practice against their own offense and examine Auburn's, the Wildcats defenders feel ready.
"The biggest thing is studying their tendencies," defensive end Corey Wootton said of Auburn. "Certain formations, certain sets they're in, it's pretty predictable what they're doing."