The mood in the immediate aftermath of Auburn's season-opening win over Kansas State was an odd mix of euphoria and gloom. You can't walk out of a last-minute comeback over a good opponent without being "up" from the moment. Then after the adrenaline wears off, you start thinking about all the many unpleasant minutes before the comeback, and wondering what's going to happen next.
I don't know how good Auburn is going to be this year, but I was ferociously impressed with Kansas State. They're young, and they lost a little of their composure right at the end there, but that is a fundamentally well-schooled football team. Auburn's defenders could learn an awful lot about tackling from the Wildcats, and we're going to be hearing the name of quarterback Josh Freeman for many years to come. I'm not ashamed to say that I'm quite relieved Freeman's eligibility will be long-since exhausted by the time Auburn goes to Arrowhead Stadium for the follow-on game in 2014.
As I feared, the Auburn offense hasn't progressed much since the Cotton Bowl. As in most of 2006, the offensive line wasn't able to open holes for the running backs with eight or nine defenders in the tackle box, and the the receivers couldn't break out of man coverage fast enough to bail out a constantly under assault Brandon Cox. Cox, who once again had to man up and take a severe beating, didn't help himself any by often holding the ball too long and throwing two terrible interceptions.
It's well worth giving credit to Al Borges for changing his attack for the game-winning drive, and to Cox and his teammates for executing that drive so well, but c'mon, guys, why did you wait 56 minutes to change things up? It was painfully obvious by the second quarter that Auburn just wasn't getting anything going on offense. The game plan was as vanilla as Dairy Queen and as predictable as an old soap opera. As I've said many times in the past, when I can predict the next play, there's a problem.
What's worse, some of Borges' decisions just didn't make any sense. I love Carl Stewart. He's arguably the best pure fullback Auburn has had since Fred Beasley, but he's, er, a fullback. For all his many gifts, Stewart just doesn't have the speed to carry the ball on a toss sweep. Put him out there to kill a linebacker or cornerback and break loose a ball carrier, but don't ask him to turn the corner. That's a waste of your resources.
Defensively, the game was also a mixed bag. Kansas State only had one touchdown drive on the night, but they moved the ball far more consistently than the Tigers. Yes, Quentin Groves was able to put on his patented whiplash-inducing mojo on Freeman by the end of the game, but that was thanks in no small part to Kansas State's thin-ish offensive line just running out of gas (and to K-State's coaches not helping Freeman out with any blockers in the backfield). Freeman had all the time he needed for most of the first forty-five minutes, and Auburn did a pretty lousy job of picking up the short slants and receivers coming out of the backfield on Saturday. If the Wildcats had had anything resembling a running game, I think they'd be right behind Appalacian State in this week's upset hall of fame right now.
Clearly, Auburn has a lot of work to do, and it doesn't help things any that a tailback corps which was anticipated to be five-deep just six weeks ago is now down to two guys, and only one of them--Ben Tate--is apparently trusted enough by the coaches to actually carry the ball. Between Brad Lester's suspension, Tristan Davis' broken toe, would-be incoming freshman Enrique Davis' bad grades and Mario Fannin's inexperience, what should have a major team strength is now a very serious concern. On the brigher side, linebacker Tray Blackmon, who left the game after turning an ankle right before halftime, is expected back for South Florida. Hopefully Blackmon and his teammates will get some remedial work in basic tackling this week. Saturday night indicated that they can all use some review time.
Outside of that four-minute flurry, Auburn just wasn't impressive Saturday night, but let's be fair here: those four minutes still meant a lot. Kansas State coach Ron Prince nailed it after the game when he observed, ""Our kids, I'm really proud of them. They gave it everything they got but Auburn demonstrated why they're a great team because they got a fourth quarter pass rush and they put together a championship drive in the fourth quarter. Those are things we aspire to."
With all due respect to Coach Prince--and I think he's due an awful lot right now--Auburn is not a great team, but Auburn does know how to win, even if it means winning ugly, and that's worth a lot. Whether it's enough as we roll into this thresher of a season, I don't know, but we're going to find out in a real big hurry.