Monday, October 15, 2007

Pulled Pork

Arkansas '07 was arguably Will Muschamp's finest moment to date as Auburn's defensive coordinator, and certainly ranks among his best two games (shutting out Florida in the first half was pretty darn impressive in its own right). Holding both Darren McFadden and Felix Jones under 50 yards, and Arkansas under 70 net rushing yards for the game on the road is a little like going into Japan and cornering the market on rice. It just isn't done--but Muschamp and his troops did it.

One thing we know for sure: Auburn has a dominant, championship-quality defensive line. Once again, the Tigers front four absolutely demolished a quality opponent up front, and they did it without the defense's superstar and leader, Quentin Groves. It's way past time to acknowledge Groves' teammates up front: Josh Thompson, Pat Sims, Sen'derrick Marks and Antonio Coleman are just killing people out there. They might be the best defensive front Auburn has fielded since the legendary 1988 defense, and their ability to blow up the middle of the line has cleared the path for the defensive backfield to wreak havoc on quarterbacks and running backs--that is, when the D-line doesn't smash those guys down first. I doubt anybody was happy with giving up the late touchdown drive, but after 58 minutes of gut-busting football, both defenses had to be running on fumes.

Offensively, Tommy Tuberville said afterwards that Auburn intentionally stuck to a minimal, conservative gameplan, counting on the defense to control Arkansas and the game. That worked out in the end, but it drove fans (and I would hazard a guess Al Borges as well) mildly nuts as the game went on. Arkansas DC Reggie Herring, a veteran of Pat Dye's Auburn staffs, noted after last year's debacle that Auburn's offense had become predictable.* Herring, who also did a nice job of defending against AU this year, probably thought the same thing Saturday night; I doubt the Tigers ran as many as 15 different plays the entire ball game, but again, it was good enough.

Auburn's trio of running backs, Mario Fannin, Brad Lester, and whoa-Nellie Ben Tate, vastly out-rushed Arkansas (bet you thought you wouldn't read that this year), and the offense took what it could get in the passing game. It helped a lot that AU spent most of its time on the Razorbacks' side of the field, especially in the second half. Then again, this was the second SEC road game when the Tigers fumbled away an opportunity to put the game away, the punting game went south, hurting field position (which the defense, to its credit, was able to overcome) and the two uncharacteristic missed kicks from Wes Byrum didn't help any. Some more fireworks in the offense might have saved a lot of heartburn up until the point when Byrum knocked in the game-winner, but again: what Auburn actually did was enough.

Receiver Robert Dunn drives me completely crazy. The guy won't just catch the ball and run up the field on punt returns. He's dropped more touchdown passes than, er, the Auburn secondary. But damn if he doesn't come up with at least one amazing clutch play a week. Against Vanderbilt he broke at least six tackles to gain extra yardage after a catch, and against Arkansas he reeled in Brandon Cox's biggest and most crucial pass of the night, netting thirty yards and putting the Tigers well within Byrum's range. So credit where it's due: great catch, great run. Now let's work on doing that more often, eh?

Speaking of Cox, this was just another ho-hum evening for a guy to get the stuffing beaten out of himself and still lead his team to another big win on the road. Cox is making a lot of people who were mocking him during the early-season slump look pretty foolish these days. It's high time for folks out there to notice that he's the winningest active quarterback in the SEC, and he's now passed for over a thousand yards in 2007 with five to seven games still to go. Major kudos are also due to center Jason Bosley, who was carried off the field with a knee injury last week but still played every snap against Arkansas.

I would be remiss if I didn't wish Arkansas head coach and male cheerleader Houston Nutt a less-than-fond farewell. Nutt was never a good fit in the SEC; among many other faults, he'd obviously rather be in the Big-12 where he could play Texas every year. Even if he weren't an egotistical clown with delusions of grandeur and an enlarged whining gland (he is all of the above, and more), Nutt is an undisciplined goon who inspires and very likely encourages undisciplined goonishness from his players. Arkansas is the only college team I've ever heard of where the coaches are known to taunt opposing players from the sidelines, and as we saw Saturday, under Nutt the Razorbacks have a well-deserved reputation for cheap shots, late hits, and all-around dirty football. After ten years of smoke and mirrors, Nutt's career is finally on the chopping block, and it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Buh-bye, Houston. You won't be missed.

* UPDATE: I've been credibly assured that Reggie Herring did not publicly accuse Auburn of being predictable on offense in 2006. That said, I'll bet you he thought it... and probably still does.


sactownjoey said...

Please. It's time to end the Brandon Cox lovefest. He can take a hit and he's a good teammate and leader but this team wins in spite of his QB play, not because of it. His limitations far outweigh his capabilities and Auburn will be a better team when he graduates.

The "winningest active quarterback in the SEC" is just such because the Muschamp D has carried him for a season and a half. He's immobile (even when healthy), maddeningly inconsistent, has a below average arm and cannot throw the ball more than 20 yards down field. Even his "accurate" throws in the UF game required significant adjustments by the receivers and made yards-after-catch impossible.

Linus said...

If I were an Auburn fan, it would drive me insane to watch this defense play, see the wonder that is their push upfield and know that they have to play perfect to win. Come on, your best chance to score is when the other team drops back to pass. I dunno, it'd drive me crazy.