Funny thing. When Wes Byrum's extra point kick rattled off the upright in the first half, I had the same thought as when LSU missed a PAT in 2004: "Ah, that won't matter much."
Well, here we go again. Another second half when the offense can't buy a first down, the defense stays on the field too long, and a game that ought to have been put away goes the other way instead. No surprises, which might be the most damning comment I could make today.
Before I go any further, give Vanderbilt the credit. This team is fundamentally solid, they didn't have the traditional "Vandy breakdown" when they got behind or when the game was on the line, and they are very well coached. They certainly deserved the win, which is more than I can say for their opponent Saturday night.
The offense's performance in the first quarter was enough to have long-suffering Auburn fans doing Tim Allen impressions: line up under center, put the line in a three-point stance, blow the defense off the line and run downhill. Might not have been what anybody expected to see this year, but hey, it worked great, even if the lack of a fullback killed the first drive within inches of the goal line. Worked so well that the defense even gave Chris Todd time to find open receivers down the field, and that led to two pretty easy scores.
Fast-forward ahead to the second half, when Vandy, having been given a new spark from a new quarterback (hey, guys, not to be too critical, but let's just quit knocking out the other guys' starter for the rest of this year, okay? I'm tired of seeing backups come in and play lights out), gets back in the game, and eventually takes a one-point lead.
One point. No big deal, right? Lots of time on the clock. No reason to panic.
Well, not unless you're Tony Franklin, or whomever is making the decisions for Auburn's offense. If you're that guy, you drop back in the shotgun and let the opposing defense do to you what every other opposing defense has done to you in the second half this year: tee off on the quarterback and shut down your one running play. Once you've established that, all the rest is just commentary.
It's hard to overstate just how awful Auburn's offense was in that second half. The line couldn't block anybody. The receivers couldn't break the press. With no Robert Dunn in the game, there wasn't a credible threat at wideout, and Vandy figured that out by halftime. The running backs and quarterbacks were entirely ineffectual--but to be fair to them, no QB on the planet is effective when they can't sell their own souls to get a block.
It's hard to see how this offense can be described as anything other than a fiasco. Franklin is nightmarishly bad as a situational play caller. Hugh Nall is apparently incapable of coaching linemen how to pass protect from a two-point stance. Greg Knox has yet to teach a receiver how to run a route properly (check the NFL scouting reports on Obomanu and Aromashodu if you doubt me), and one look at Auburn's tight ends will demonstrate that Steve Ensminger is the very definition of negative coaching.
This season is another unfortunate demonstration of one of Tommy Tuberville's two worst traits, namely excessive loyalty to assistants who are also his buddies (the other is complacency). Tuberville used his near-martyrdom in the wake of the 2003 fiasco to retain Nall and Ensminger, even after the dysfunctional duo had reduced a roster full of NFL talent into an offense barely better than the one we see today. During the two times since when Tuberville has had to go and hire an actual offensive coordinator, rule number one for any prospective coach has been that all the current position staff must remain on the payroll. This was a terrible, selfish, destructive position, and one that's directly related to Auburn's woes today.
Five years later, Nall, after demonstrating spectacular offensive incompetence during his one pathetic season at OC, still thinks he got a raw deal, and has managed to sabotage both of his successors via bad coaching and meddling behind the scenes. I don't want to hear any more accolades about how Nall is an "elite line coach" when his guys just got pushed around by Vanderbilt. He's managed to take a stellar group of linemen and make them look like a 2-A scout team. I won't even bother critiquing Ensminger any further, since it's an open question as to what the hell he does all day anyway.
The problem here is that this offense (or more accurately, lack of an offense) is neither fish nor fowl. It doesn't know what it is. Is it a running team, like the one we briefly saw in the first quarter? Franklin doesn't think so. Is it a passing team? Well, no, not based on performance. Is it a "spread" team? Certainly not, regardless of the formations. It's doing very little well, and most things quite badly.
The point is that the oil-and-water mix of a "spread" coach with this group of position coaches (the notable exception being the inestimable Eddie Gran) is a complete failure, on a par with Tuberville's split-the-baby decision to put "Nallsminger" in charge of the offense after Bobby Petrino's departure. It serves no one involved well, most certainly including Auburn University.
I believe Tuberville when he says he needed to change Auburn's offensive philosophy, but apparently Tubs didn't believe himself enough to do what he really needed to, which is hire a proven OC and let him bring in the right assistants to get the job done properly. Whether Franklin as an individual was the right hire or not (he certainly doesn't look like it at this point), trying to shoehorn a spread attack into the straight-out-of-1980 abilities of Nall and Company was a terrible mistake.
What gets done about it now, I have no idea. If nothing else, it ought to be interesting (if not terribly informative) to see what happens when the exceptionally resistible force of Auburn's offense meets the thoroughly movable object of Arkansas' defense this Saturday. I wouldn't be hugely surprised (well, okay, I would) if the Tigers manage to put a more respectable point total up against the Pigs, but that won't really tell us anything, and worse, it could well lead to a likely-incorrect assumption that the ship has been righted and everything is both hunky and dory on the Plains.
That, like many of the decisions made in Auburn over the last couple of years, is likely to be an incorrect assumption. Wish I could be more optimistic here, but the train wreck is liable to continue until further notice.