Final score, 3-2. Well, haven't seen that in a while. Like, er, ever.
Let's start with the defense. It'd be well-nigh criminal not to.
With the understanding that Mississippi State is not a good offensive team--even when compared to Auburn--the level of defensive domination parceled out by the Tigers Saturday night is still staggering. Not only was State held to 116 total yards, the Other Bulldogs did not convert on a single third down (in 14 tries) or fourth down (three tries, one of them from less than a yard away). MSU had a grand total of five earned first downs in the entire game, and despite ESPN moron Bob Davie's repeated quoting of Sly Croom's desire to "break Auburn's will" with the running game, only one of those five came on the ground. 2008 marks the third time in four games that Croom's team hasn't scored an offensive point on Auburn. Barring a dumb mistake on the part of an AU offensive lineman (more on that later), State wouldn't have scored at all.
Tray Blackmon was a ravening beast against State's (pretty darn good) running backs. His snuffing out of MSU's close-to-last gasp on a short fourth-and-one was a textbook combination of timing, ferocity and strength. Jerraud Powers continues to bring All-American-caliber play at cornerback, and Auburn may well have found the answer at the other corner in Walter McFadden. Both did stellar work against State's tall wideouts, and along with another suffocating performance from the defensive line, they stomped on any semblance of a passing threat. McFadden's Powers-esque interception late in the fourth quarter most likely salvaged the win.
It was as dominant a team performance against SEC competition as I've seen in quite a while. There can't be much question now as to whether Paul Rhodes was a good hire at defensive coordinator. He's got this team playing sound, smart, disciplined fundamental football--something that would have won this game for Auburn a year ago, despite all the offense's miscues.
Speaking of which...
Now clearly, when one field goal accounts for all your points, you did not have a great or even good day on offense. Still, looking at the other numbers (admittedly, the ones that don't count), Auburn's offense was actually... okay. The Tigers netted 315 yards of offense against a very good defensive team, including running for 161 and passing for 154--they were even balanced. The average per completion was a perfectly good 11 yards (even if the rushing average was a just-getting-by 3.6 yards). Chris Todd's completion percentage was a pedestrian 54%, but he didn't throw an interception, he made some nice reads at the line, and after a two-year-plus hiatus, Auburn is finally throwing the ball down the field, and with some success.
So what was the problem? Besides the awful 0-fer on third down conversions in the first half, it came down to mistakes. Penalties and fumbles. In one of the worst performances by an Auburn team that I've seen in many years, the Tigers were hit for twelve penalties netting just under a hundred yards, and most of those were courtesy of the offensive line. I can't even count the number of drives that either started at first-and-fifteen or ended with third-and-twenty because of holding calls or false starts. Undisciplined, stupid mental errors. Some of them could have been prevented by using this archaic thing known as a "huddle" when communication was obviously a problem, but the really damaging mistakes, including the fumbles and giving up a stupid safety by holding, were thanks to plain old not playing fundamental football.
Oh, and if you think I'm letting Tony Franklin off the hook here, I'm not. Franklin is calling plays for players he doesn't have, and that's a recipe for disaster. Some of his situational play calling, particularly conceding drives with a run up the middle on third and long, were nigh-on inexplicable. While things are seemingly improving for a few individuals (most notably Montez Billings), receivers are not consistently getting open, and there are still too many dropped balls. When you don't have great talent at wideout, what you do have had damn well better be well-coached. Right now Auburn has neither of the above. Even worse, and more particularly to Franklin's discredit, hate to say "I told you so," but I told you so. Going into the shotgun from inside the five in the SEC is as crazy as a soup sandwich, and this time it cost Auburn enough points to put the game away.
Note to Franklin: it doesn't matter whether or not "the system," i.e. no-huddle and shotgun, worked at short-and-goal against Sun Belt teams. In the SEC, it doesn't work. It's not going to work. It's stupid to keep trying something that doesn't work. So stop doing it. You've got a bunch of big, tough hosses on this team who know how to punch the ball in from short range. Let them.
I'd be churlish if I didn't give Mississippi State's fine defense a world of credit here. The Other Bulldogs have been solid up front for a couple of years now (everybody forgets that they had LSU shut out for most of the first half in 2007, only to collapse under the weight of about a thousand interceptions), and they played a whale of a game Saturday with absolutely no help from their offensive teammates. Linebacker Dominic Douglas and tackle Jessie Bowman in particular were terrifyingly effective, and what can you say about punter Blake McAdams other than, "Wow."
Finally, regarding the uproar in Auburndom that's been going on since about the second quarter of the State game: A fanbase that's genetically inclined to pessimism is rumbling towards a pitchforks-and-torches revolt over the offense's ongoing struggles. Somebody has bought firetonyfranklin.com already (although there's no page there yet). On the one hand, getting upset is entirely understandable (and appropriate) over an offense that can't seem to get out of its own way after being talked up all off-season as the greatest thing since single-barrel bourbon. On the other hand...
Get a grip, folks. Is this a good offense? Nope. Does it--and Franklin--have serious problems? Yep. Do those two things warrant this level of panic after three games? That's an entirely different question.
Call me a "sunshine pumper" if you must, but I'm inclined to think not. There are tools enough to do well, if they're ever employed correctly. Either way, it's going to take some time to sort out.
Unfortunately, Auburn will play a defensive team very likely better than State's come Saturday. I'm not sold on LSU having a dynastic, greatest-defense-in-the-country thing going--any team that gave up 50 to Arkansas and 43 to Kentucky and what the hell, 24 to Auburn last year could not legitimately be called "great"--but I'm certainly satisfied that they'll be very damn good. Auburn will have to show more improvement than anybody has any business expecting to get many (any?) points against the Bengals.
So, here we are, three games in and dominant on one side, sputtering on the other. One suggestion aimed Auburn-way: Coaches often need coaching themselves. It'd be a good thing for the head coach to carve out a little private time with his offensive assistants for conversations regarding the fundamentals. Not just of football, but also of life--and employment--in the SEC.