It'd be a safe bet that the most commonly-voiced phrase in Auburn Saturday night was "baby steps." I heard it all over the stands and I've seen it written numerous times since the New Mexico State game, and why not? After a two-game rolling debacle, the Tigers were clearly starting over, and they were doing so with a bunch of babies. No less than four true freshmen started on offense against NMSU, and that's not even counting the kickers, much less all those redshirt freshmen and sophomores elsewhere in the two-deep.
And hey, they won. By a mile.
Nobody should try to take too much away from this game. New Mexico State is not good. In the first half, Auburn's secondary play was terrible, and AU didn't manage a true first down for the entire first quarter. That understood, a win is a win, and anybody who's seen the first four games of this season has to admit that the Tigers made some real progress on Saturday night. I frankly didn't believe that Auburn could score 55 points against air; that's at least one conviction I'm happy to be shed of.
I'll be the first to admit that I can't figure out what the Auburn staff is trying to do offensively. I liked what Kody Burns did against Mississippi State, but I don't understand why you call six straight running plays for a pair of three-and-outs to start the game. Did those plays help to set up Burns' long touchdown throw to Rod Smith on the third possession? Sure, probably. But they also failed to move the chains, and contributed to keeping the defense on the field for most of the first half (ironically, the one-play touchdown drive probably hurt the defense as much as it helped, thanks to putting them right back out after a miniscule break). By halftime, an AU defense that had been chasing around Hal Mumme's receivers all night was winded, and it showed. When NMSU turned their own one-play touchdown drive to take a 20-14 lead, it looked for all the world like another upset was teed up and ready to go.
And then, of course, Brandon Cox stepped in and turned the game around. How's that for a sentence you didn't think you'd read again?
For an instant, it looked like more of the depressing same. Cox bobbled his first snap, the defense recovered, and the next time you blinked, Auburn was down by another touchdown. But after that, Cox played for the most part like the "old Brandon," or more appropriately, like he'd been expected to play this season. He made good checks, hit the right throws, got rid of the ball when he was in trouble, and just generally had a very nice game, one that would have been even better if Robert Dunn could catch footballs that hit him in the hands. It wasn't a perfect effort; there were still too many passes going to receivers in multiple coverage, but let's face it: Auburn's receivers are always in heavy coverage this year.
The running game got better as the game went on, no doubt partly due to playing a not-great defensive team, but also thanks to all those kids on the offensive front getting more comfortable carrying the load. It's taking a while, but developing a mix between Tate's power and Mario Fannin's speed seems to be coming along. That and getting more of a vertical passing game (see again the Burns touchdown and what should have been another one from Cox to Dunn) should help get all those defenders out of the tackle box as the season goes on. Most important of all, Auburn didn't turn the ball over again after Cox's fumble. If they can keep that up, things are almost automatically going to get better. Again, baby steps.
While I can understand difficulties due to personnel, I do not understand what's going on with Auburn's offense in terms of game planning and play calling.
Thus far the offense hasn't even been vanilla, it's more like unflavored yogurt. It's not just ineffectual a lot of the time, it's also predictable and even boring to watch. There's no misdirection, no deception, not even a hint of unpredictability. If I see Ben Tate run off tackle for a yard on first down again I think I'm going to scream (okay, I confess: it already makes me scream). It reminds me of the worst days of the Nallsminger disaster, and the sheer un-Borges-ness of Auburn's tactics makes me wonder just who is making the important decisions this year. If the answer is "Borges," then Al needs to get his mojo back. If the answer is "somebody else," that somebody needs to go tend to his knitting, because what he's doing so far ain't working, and it ain't going to work. Don't quote me numbers from Saturday, either; like I said at the outset, NMSU is not only not good, they're worse than 11 of 12 teams on the schedule.
Defensively, Auburn is so beat up and thin right now it's hard to make a judgment. The pass rush and coverage was just awful in the first half, as previously noted. NMSU exploited Auburn's inexperience at (healthy) linebacker in particular, getting all kinds of completions in the short and medium field. Things got markedly better after halftime. The Aggies were stifled for the rest of the game, and better yet, the defense finally starting forcing turnovers again. Jon Wilhite's second interception was a better catch than just about any of AU's receivers have managed this year. Baby steps, baby steps, even for a senior.
I'm not ready to make any predictions or grand statements on the state of the team today, not after one win, even an impressive win, over a weak sister. There's still too far to go, and too many issues still remaining, but hey, winning is better. Regardless of the opponent, Auburn needed a win, and needed a "good" win even more. The very best thing that came out of Saturday was a clear feeling of confidence on the field. It started flowing after Cox's touchdown to take the lead for good, and by the fourth quarter, for the first time in weeks, you could see an Auburn team that not only knew what it was doing, it knew again how to win.
Confidence is a funny thing in football. Auburn was not a confident team in 2004 until Jason Campbell connected with Courtney Taylor in the waning seconds against LSU. After that moment, the Tigers walked into every contest confident of their abilities, and scarcely had anything like a close game for the remainder of the season. Conversely, when the early confidence Stan White and Auburn earned by coming back against Tennessee and Florida State in 1990 was shattered on one awful night in Gainesville, it took over two years for White and his team to recover.
I don't want to suggest that Auburn is walking into a similar situation this week, but let's be honest here: beating Florida this Saturday would classify as not just unlikely, but really, really exceptionally unlikely. The next game will be a test not just of how well (or badly) this team can play football, but also how well (or badly) they can manage their emotions in the aftermath, no matter the outcome.
It's a tall order. Baby steps against NMSU were welcome, but these babies still have a very long way to go.