Sunday, September 07, 2008

Southern Comfort

In the Master Of The Obvious segment, a lot went right for Auburn Saturday. Chris Todd racked up more passing yards in the first quarter than all three AU quarterbacks could manage the week before, and he did it against a better team. Todd eventually went 21 of 31 for a solid 248 yards against a squad that held its last opponent to under 150 yards through the air. With the day's emphasis on kickstarting the passing game, the running backs were something of an afterthought, but as long as they held on to the football, Messieurs Lester, Tate and Davis were still moving the chains quite well. The Tiger defense completely locked down a USM ground attack that broke 400 yards a week before, and had a shutout in its grasp before turnovers let the Golden Eagles back in the game.

Those turnovers--four of them, all ugly--left at least 14 Auburn points on the field, and make that 21 when you add in the meaningless-to-the-play penalty that called back what would have been Robert Dunn's second punt return for a touchdown in as many games. Three discarded touchdowns are expensive mistakes, no matter who you're playing.

USM and their new coach, Larry Fedora, deserve a ton of credit for hanging in there. There isn't any quit in the Golden Eagles, and Fedora showed a mountain of confidence in his team when he went for it on two long fourth downs--and his guys made both of them. The Tiger defense treated quarterback Austin Davis the way Rocky Balboa treats a side of beef for most of the game, but Davis kept popping back up and eventually had a very solid second half.

Defensively, holding a team that scored 55 points the week before to thirteen, and shutting that team down completely for the better part of three quarters was excellent, but with the exception of Jerraud Powers, who put on an absolute clinic Saturday from start to finish, the "D" didn't follow through. Whether due to the stifling heat, fatigue, loss of focus in what looked like a blowout, or plan old getting outplayed, Auburn's pass defense collapsed midway through the second half. The Tigers brought USM's rightly-vaunted running back Damion Fletcher to a near-complete stop, but the Eagles' Shawn Nelson and star-in-waiting Deandre Brown shredded the non-Powers portion of the secondary in the fourth quarter.

Southern Miss converted only one third down the entire game--but then again, they did convert on three of four fourth downs, and two of those were for double-digit yardage. That's an answer to the question, "What's worse than giving up a third and long?", and it's flatly unacceptable.

Here's what I liked the best about Saturday: the Auburn offense not only answered an impressive 90-yard USM scoring drive in the fourth quarter, they did so in a sudden, blinding downpour. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that brief rain was so heavy that I could barely read numbers on jerseys for most of that possession. I've seen an awful lot of teams that would have quickly gone three and out, followed by a bad punt, in that kind of weather.

Here's what I liked least about Saturday (besides the turnovers, but I liked this a lot less because it was intentional):

The ball is less than a yard from the goal line. Why in the name of Bo would you get in the shotgun and intentionally snap it five yards farther away? As the late Jonnie Cochran (okay, the South Park version of Jonnie Cochran) would have said, "This does not make sense." It's the one thing I hate the most about "the spread." Gave me flashbacks to what Missouri did against Oklahoma in last year's Big 12 Championship, and not in a good way.

Auburn got away with it against Southern Miss (Tate scored on the next play--barely), but they wouldn't have against LSU or Georgia, and probably wouldn't have against Mississippi State, Ole Miss or Alabama. Franklin swore up and down during the offseason that his offense does have a traditional "I" set for short yardage situations; I humbly suggest that he start using said formation in said situations, and soon.

So, two games in, and we've got significant improvement, but this is still not a team that's ready to play against the best in the SEC. Kodi Burns hardly played Saturday, and besides a nice touchdown run (again from the shotgun near the goal line, and again, barely), he didn't play well compared to Todd. Todd himself did a nice job of managing the offense, but he also floated too many passes and was not effective with the long ball. This was not helped by a receiving corps that still can't get separation down the field, much less by a running back position that managed a fumble from each of the top three players on the depth chart. Pass protection is still a problem, and I suspect it was made worse by the injury-forced move of Jason Bosley from center to tackle.

I don't mean to be overly-negative here; a team that can overcome four turnovers and still beat a good opponent by two touchdowns is obviously doing a lot of big things right... but also obviously is still doing to many little things wrong. The offense did look a lot better, and against a better opponent. It's going to have to get better still, and that includes eliminating the dumb mistakes, if the Tigers plan to live up to their billing this season. And some better pass coverage would help, too.

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