One of Pat Dye's favorite coaching observations is that it's not possible to get a team fired up for every single game in a long season. You just can't make that many kids focus intensely on all their opponents, and if you try, you run the risk of burning them out before the year is over. So you're going to have to accept the reality of not being one hundred percent sharp for every game, and do your best to insure that you're still good enough to beat the teams you aren't pawing at the ground to play.
If you were to combine the DNA of the dozen most successful coaches of all time, add in a dash of George S. Patton and a smidgen of starving wolverine, you still probably couldn't come up with a guy who could get a team fired up about playing an 0-3 Ball State. Like it or not, right or wrong, this was a checkbook win, and Auburn treated it that way for roughly two bookended quarters on yet another rainy Saturday night.
Of course, fired up or not, take away the thus-far perfect placekicking, and Auburn's special teams are still abysmally bad, and their ugly head popped up early against the Cardinals. Yet another fumbled punt led quickly to a 7-0 score against the home team, and I'm here to tell you, Auburn is going to have some games very shortly here where they won't be able to afford that kind of a screw-up. The Tigers are also consistently giving up 30-40 yards on kickoffs and 15-25 yards on punts, and that's almost as bad as turning the ball over. Sure, a month ago nobody would have predicted that AU's Achilles heel would be the kicking game, but there it is, and it needs fixing. Badly.
The kicking game also brought us the first really bad in-game decision of Gene Chizik's tenure, namely the boneheaded decision to go for a fake punt midway through the third quarter. Let's not gloss over here. It was a dumb and unnecessary call that darn near got a major cog in the offense, Onterio McCalebb, injured. McCalebb didn't return to the game, but he was walking around normally on the sidelines shortly after being examined by the team doctors.
Bad move, bad call. Don't do it again, and get busy fixing the regular, non-trickery stuff the special teams are doing so badly right now.
Give the other two legs of the stool the credit: after they shook off the cobwebs (or more accurately, I suspect, after some rapid attitude adjustments on the sidelines), both the offense and defense came roaring back to dominate Ball State. From about the five-minute mark in the first quarter through the third, Auburn did pretty much whatever they wanted to do. The starting defense absolutely smothered BSU from that point on; if you were looking for a textbook description of a defense intimidating an offense, just watch that short "drive" that led to Auburn's safety in the second quarter.
It didn't take long to start losing count of all the big scoring plays, as virtually everybody on the offense broke a long one or caught a touchdown pass. Chris Todd, written off by the world just about a year ago, continues to do the right things well and avoid almost all of the wrong things; I would say that this was Todd's best game to date, but really, he's been playing rock-solid ball since the first snap against Louisiana Tech.
What Todd really needs now is a reliable #3 receiver. Darvin Adams and Terrell "My Name Should Be Ed" Zackery have solidified their positions at this point, and either can be the go-to guy (and that doesn't even count the running backs, all of which are catching the ball well), but it would sure be nice if somebody else would step up to join them at wideout.
It was easy to get frustrated starting in the third quarter, when Auburn, leading 40-10, gave up a dumb score after the fake punt, then started wholesale substitutions. BSU was able to take advantage of both on offense. Ball State never really stopped Auburn's offense (minus the interception that showed painfully why Neal Caudle will not be a starter without a couple of serious injuries), but they were able to take advantage of the turnovers, and dinked and dunked the second- and third-team defense out of a good 13 points in the late going.
Granted, the outcome was never in doubt, and AU still won by three touchdowns and change, but it's still not comforting to see an outmanned MAC team get that many points. It was a reminder of two unfortunate realities in this year when so much good fortune has (finally) shined on the Tigers. There just isn't much quality depth on the Auburn defense (or the offensive line, as became clear rather early when a true freshman had to step in for the suspended Byron Isom), and that's unfortunately thanks to the previous coaching staff having done a pretty crummy job in recruiting over their last two years.
Those aren't fixable problems in 2009. All Gene Chizik and company can do in the meantime is to keep doing what they've been doing, and hope the first team can stay healthy. A rash of injuries in the wrong places could still doom what's been shaping up as a sublime year.
But in the meantime, Auburn remains gaudily undefeated (and gallingly unranked, but that just goes to show that there are few people as prone to following the herd as sportswriters), and ready to take on a Southeastern Conference run that suddenly looks a lot less daunting than it did just ten days ago.
Taking all that into account, seeing the third team give up garbage-time points doesn't seem like a very big deal.