NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Auburn has spent the past month studying Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston's 349 passes, 38 touchdowns, 13 wins and 10 interceptions, squinting at film to find any sign of weakness in the Heisman Trophy winner.
Here is what defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson found: "There is none."
Auburn's coaches and players have praised Winston's rocket arm and unflappable poise. If No. 1 FSU beats No. 2 Auburn in tonight's BCS title game at the Rose Bowl, Winston would become the 14th player to win a Heisman and national title in the same season.
To stop him, the Tigers said they need to pressure the redshirt freshman without blitzing and trick the 20-year-old into stumbling on the biggest stage of his life.
"He's still a freshman," Tigers linebacker Cassanova McKinzy said. "He's going to make freshman mistakes."
The key to forcing those mistakes will likely rest with Auburn's defensive line.
The Tigers' defense allows 423 yards per game — by far the most of any team in the previous 15 BCS title games — but has a disruptive front four. Their linemen have combined for 26 of the team's 28 sacks and face an FSU team that ranks 10th among 14 teams in the ACC with 29 sacks allowed.
"You never want a Jameis Winston to sit back and make decisions," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said.
"The last thing you want to do is let him get going."
But the Tigers might not want to blitz him, either.
According to ESPN, Winston completed 71 percent of his passes for 20 touchdowns and three interceptions when blitzed. Johnson said unleashing too many defenders at Winston leaves players such as running back Devonta Freeman open to turn screen passes into big gains.
Instead, Auburn will likely charge its linemen with attacking Winston while moving its other seven defenders around in different schemes and disguised coverages to trick Winston into mistakes.
"I think the bottom line is you've got to keep them off balance," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "And that's a huge challenge."
The Tigers had mixed success with that task in two of their marquee wins.
Alabama senior AJ McCarron's performance in the Iron Bowl was one of his season's most productive (277 yards, three touchdowns) but least accurate (58.6 percent).
Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel torched the Tigers' secondary for 454 yards and four touchdowns, but Auburn intercepted him twice, sacked him three times and limited him to 2.7 yards per carry — third lowest of his career.
But Winston's skills are different. He's not as fast or as dangerous in the open field as Manziel, and he's more elusive than the pro-style McCarron.
"With those two put together, I think that's like what Jameis Winston is," Tigers defensive back Robenson Therezie said.
Winston's brief history also suggests he's comfortable in big games. The redshirt freshman completed 71 percent of his passes during prime-time matchups — 5 percent better than during the day. He threw for at least 325 yards every time he faced a ranked opponent.
"No matter how many times you knock him down, he's going to get up smiling," McKinzy said. "I think he's the type of quarterback you have to talk and hit to try to get off his game."
McKinzy said that's what he tried to do when he faced Winston during the quarterback's senior year at Hueytown (Ala.) High. McKinzy's team even switched from a four-man front to a three-man front to try to confuse Winston.
It didn't work. Winston led Hueytown to a 53-6 win.
Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @MattHomeTeam.