Monday, October 27, 2008

Deja Vu

First of all, I apologize again for being so late getting this week’s postgame column up. We left town the first thing Friday morning for a friend’s wedding in San Antonio, which was followed by an extra day in Austin on Sunday, and there hasn’t been a lot of free time available for blogging. I’d meant to write up the WVA game on the flight out, but thanks to the 250-pound broad in front of me leaning her seat back nearly into my lap, I literally couldn’t even open up my laptop. It’s now mid-morning on Monday, and I’m bashing this out in the San Antonio airport (free wi-fi=good) before we board to fly home.

So anyway.

I got a lot of calls and messages during the first half of the West Virginia game, and as you can imagine, they were pretty giddy. Auburn looked like Auburn again, stifling on defense and productive on offense. The much-anticipated return to standard sets and three-point stances up front was effective, and success from the offense bled into the defense, seemingly raising them out of their post-Vanderbilt funk.

While I enjoyed those two quarters as much as anybody else, I wasn’t able to get really excited at halftime. I’d seen this show before, and when yet another second-half collapse started rumbling across the screen, what I felt wasn’t so much disappointment as recognition: yep, that’s about what I expected.

For all the good done early in the game--and there was plenty: Kodi Burns playing like he's been expected to play for two years now, the running game working and even Tommy Trott catching about everything that came near him--the flaws on this team and in its coaching staff just can't be camouflaged for long. Pardon the broken record, but the receivers not only can't catch and can't get open, they've now also forgotten how to block. Blocking on the outside (along with a lot of bad tackling on Auburn's part) was why WVU was able to play the screen and sweeps so effectively, and a complete lack of same was why Auburn wasn't. Outside of Trott (and what does it say that he had his best game in forever two weeks after being relieved of Steve Ensminger's position "coaching"?), there wasn't a notable receiver the whole night.

Anybody who was surprised by the awful play-calling in the second half really hasn't been paying attention. Underperforming Ensminger managed to blow the best onside kick recovery I've ever seen by calling that idiotic reverse and losing about 300 yards, and Auburn was basically done on offense from then on. With the passing game inactive and the Mountaineers building a lead, all WVU had to do was stack the tackle box, and Ensminger proved long ago that he isn't capable of calling a game at this level when anything at all is on the line. Auburn's run and pass blocking was bad enough before the Tigers got behind; once AU's lead evaporated, the outcome was academic.

I take a back seat to no one in my contempt for Thenator Lou Holtz, but old Cheatin' Lou had it dead right when he observed that the AU defense was obviously thinking, "Oh no, here we go again" as the offense sputtered to a dead stop in the third quarter. When the Tiger defenders started trying to strip the ball from Noel Devine instead of wrapping up and tackling (usually giving up another 10 to 15 yards in the process), the game was effectively over. That doesn't excuse the complete collapse on defense in this or the two games that preceded it, but it does help to explain things.

There's very little left to say at this point. This season is officially a fiasco, and I personally see no reason to think Auburn is capable of winning any of its remaining conference games, and the likely final record is only going to make the current torrent of outrage in Auburndom even louder (pun certainly intended).

For whatever it's worth, I do think Tommy Tuberville has earned a mulligan and ought to get a chance to repair all the damage done this year, but I would instantly reverse that statement if he were to once again insist on retaining Hugh Nall, Steve Ensminger, or Greg Knox on staff after Thanksgiving weekend. They have failed, repeatedly, and they've got to go. Period. It's time to have some actual professionals in those slots instead of guys who are still collecting high-dollar checks purely because of their personal friendships with the head coach.

Friday, October 24, 2008

All Apologies

I apologize for not having anything up about the West Virginia game yet. I'm traveling, and the closest I've been to a computer and Internet account is the wife's iPhone and the wifi in an Irish pub. There will be more later, but for now, I'm sorry to say that nothing in the second half surprised me Thursday. More later, hang in there.

Monday, October 13, 2008


Well, I hate to say "I told you so," but...

Now everybody who said, "How could it get any worse than this?" after the Vandy game has their answer. What's worse than Tony Franklin calling plays? Steve Ensminger calling plays, of course.

Why anybody should have been surprised at Auburn's offensive ineptitude against Arkansas is entirely beyond me. We knew Ensminger was incompetent one game in back in 2003. Saturday's pathetic showing was just one more brick in that particular wall. Terrible game plan, terrible play calling, panic in key situations, check, check, check. There wasn't anything new about any of the above. Franklin was a bad fit for Auburn, but Ensminger was, is and ever will be a terrible football coach.

Nothing new: Ensminger's compatriot Hugh Nall turned in yet another clunker up front, as there was no pass protection, and no blocking in the running game worthy of the term. Receivers dropped easy catches, and the quarterbacks overthrew open receivers. From the five yard line with the game on the line and facing the SEC's worst rushing defense, AU had no solution other than three incompletions from the shotgun. It was a pathetic sight.

I will allow a compliment: Tommy Trott made one great reception. He appears to be one of those guys who can't catch anything that hits him in the hands, but make him go acrobatic and he can somehow reel them in. Go figure.

I frankly think I would have been more embarrassed if Auburn had managed to hang on and win Saturday night. The Tigers would have had no business whatsoever winning that game. Not only was the offense execrable, their awfulness finally bled over to the defense. Arkansas came in to the game last in the SEC in giving up quarterback sacks, but AU's once-proud defensive front never so much as threatened to put Casey Dick in the dirt.

Yes, a lot of guys are out hurt. Certainly it's a big deal that Jerraud Powers didn't play at all. But there's still no excuse for giving up over 400 yards to that team. None. Whether it was due to the injuries, or the week of turmoil, or just plain coaching and playing badly, Auburn was not prepared to play on either side of the ball Saturday, and when that happens, you usually lose.

It's worth at least noting that AU had its best day of the season in the kicking game, and that was all that made the Tigers competitive. Tristan Davis single-handedly pushed Auburn into the lead and kept them there with that 97-yard return, and later forcing a fumble on the second half kickoff. Auburn's kickoffs were much better, finally getting one into the end zone, and kick coverage appears to have improved since early in the season. It wasn't enough, but it was something.

There's not much I can add here to the overall impression that Auburn is playing terrible football. I'd like to think that a week and a half off would make a difference, but the shadow of the Nallsminger combined with Saturday's defensive breakdown makes me suspect otherwise.

Auburn has been running a nice video on the Jordan-Hare big screen going into the fourth quarter this season. It's a riff on the Auburn Creed, with players and coaches and former stars saying "I Believe..." This week, looking at a 25-yards-a-quarter offensive output next to one of the conference's worst teams pushing 400 as that last quarter started, I turned to an old buddy sitting next to me and murmured, "I believe we're going 5-7 this year."

Sorry to say, I believed that even more a half-hour later.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

Based on my inbox, apparently a few people want to know what I think about the abrupt end of the Tony Franklin Era at Auburn. I don't think I have a whole lot to add at this point (as usual, Jerry has done an admirable job of covering the bases), but here goes.

To state the absolutely obvious, this is a fiasco. Nobody comes out of it looking good. Fairly or not, Franklin looks like a failure. Auburn's other offensive assistants look like boobs who weren't able to put their own egos aside and work for the "new guy." Tommy Tuberville clearly buffooned the whole thing, from hiring Franklin without allowing him to bring in even one spread-experienced assistant (Josh Moon wrote a good column on that topic), to managing his coaches during the off-season, to handling a situation that never should have reached Wednesday's denouement on the front steps of the Auburn Athletic Complex. The one and only good thing I can say about Tuberville in this entire situation is that he did step up and take the blame for his bad decisions. That's more than he did five years ago, and perhaps it's a start.

Of course, by Wednesday morning he didn't have any good options left. Franklin clearly decided by Tuesday's practice that he was going to do things his way, and if Hugh Nall, Steve Ensminger and Greg Knox weren't going to be on board--and I think we can all agree that they were not--he'd shove them aside and do all the coaching himself. This put Tuberville in an untenable situation, and while he never should have let things deteriorate to that point, I suspect he made the only decision he could have when facing a (possibly unspoken) ultimatum from Franklin: "Them or me."

It had to be "him." You can make do without one coach at mid-season. Unfortunately, you can't replace three or four of them, no matter how badly they're performing, or how much damage they've done to the program by being pigheaded idiots.

That's now, of course. It's not, say, the first week in December. At that point, if Tuberville is serious about Auburn continuing as a "spread" team, he's going to have to cut out a lot of dead weight that he's been carrying along for the last five years. That is, if the decision is left up to him at all.

I do not have high or even moderate hopes for the Auburn offense in the remaining six games. Auburn is fortunate to be playing three not-great defensive teams over the next few games, but I wonder if even that will make any difference. As a quarterback coach and play caller, Steve Ensminger makes Tony Franklin look like Bill Walsh. I have less than zero faith in either Ensminger or Hugh Nall when it comes to game-planning or gameday coaching. That ship sailed long ago, in Grant Field.

So, there you go. Still glad you asked?

Monday, October 06, 2008

All Aboard!

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.