One of the old saws you hear from pro baseball afficianados goes something like this: "In any baseball game you watch, you'll almost always see at least one thing you've never seen before." Whether that's accurate or not, I'll leave to others (when I watch MLB, I usually see a bunch of spoiled millionaires bent on boring me to death), but I'm very sure I'd never seen a game like last night's Auburn-South Carolina tilt, and I'm reasonably sure you hadn't, either.
When the Tigers stuffed Carolina three-and-out and methodically marched down the field for an opening touchdown, I made the bad-luck mistake of calling my dad and declaring, "We're gonna kill these guys."
Oops. Not quite.
Not very long after that, USC discovered offense again, and the wild ride was on. Right up until Syvelle Newton started hitting Kenny McKinley for one completion after another, just about everybody had forgotten one of the main reasons why Steve Spurrier has been known as "the evil genius" since 1990: the guy knows how to spot a weakness and exploit it. In Auburn's case, Visor Boy found a couple of underclassmen who'd been pressed into service in the secondary, and he proceeded to pick on them for most of the ball game.
Give all the credit where it's due: Newton ran Spurrier's plays to perfection, and it damn near worked.
I'd frankly expected Carolina to up and quit once Auburn had a decent lead (and I still halfway suspect that would have happened anyway had Marquis Gunn not re-fumbled the ball back late in the second quarter), but the Gamecocks left their quit shoes at home Thursday night. I don't know how good they really are, but if they play like that for the rest of the year, they're going to finish a lot better than I would have thought 24 hours ago.
As for Auburn, if I were to have any complaints about the offense, I would limit them to wishing Al Borges hadn't gone conservative on the Tigers' sole posession of the fourth quarter (although I doubt that was entirely Borges' idea). Three-and-out there was close to fatal. Other than that, I can't gripe. AU scored on four of its six posessions, and was able to convert on the long third down coversions in the passing game that (a) they haven't been able to make lately, and (b) you've got to be able to make in big games. Kenny Irons ate up a defense that was primed to stop him, and Brandon Cox had as solid a game at quarterback as you could ask for.
Defensively… well, that's another story. How the same team that smothered LSU two weeks earlier could give up that kind of yardage to a journeyman quarterback with two true freshmen protecting him is beyond me. Rushing three guys and dropping into coverage was either a token of respect to Spurrier's passing-game prowess or an arrogant assumption that the aforementioned freshmen could be run over, but either way, it didn't work very well. Until and unless the secondary gets healthier (and even if it comes up to full strength), Auburn's pass rush has got to get better, and in a big hurry.
That said, it'd be unfair to suggest Auburn didn't do anything right on defense. When Carolina got in close in the first half, DC Will Muschamp correctly guessed that Spurrier was going to call up his favorite play, the corner fade. Muschamp had Will Herring in perfect position to break it up, on one of the many plays that shut down the Gamecocks' offensive star, Sidney Rice. You also have to give credit to Patrick Lee and Eric Brock for stepping up to deny Rice and Carolina a tying score at the buzzer. Brock in particular looks more and more like a special player every week.
The other matter that everybody will be talking about today, of course, is Auburn's grinding offensive domination of the third quarter. As you may recally, I was not happy when Tommy Tuberville called a fake punt against Washington State five weeks ago, but in the case of last night's surprise onside kick, I've got nothing but applause. It was a pitch-perfect call that wound up winning the game for Auburn.
I'd have much rather had the blowout (duh), but I wouldn't even think of denying that it was a hell of a ball game. Shame on me for counting Spurrier out after a slow start; he had obviously been doing his homework on this one for a long time. It shouldn't have been a surprise to me or anybody else. After all, Auburn had knocked off his number-one-ranked teams at Florida not once, but twice. It's not much of a wonder that he'd pull out all the stops to try and get even.
I suspect Thursday was the last time Auburn will line up against a Steve Spurrier team. The next time the Gamecocks roll back onto Auburn's schedule, I think Visor Boy will be on a golf course, and even after last night, I have a hard time seeing USC making it to Atlanta anytime soon. I can't say I'll be sorry if I'm right about that, but I'll gladly give the old Cock his due: he's still a hell of a coach. Fortunately for Auburn, he's not the only guy around who's worthy of that description these days.