Monday, September 21, 2009

Thunderbolts And Lightning (Very Very Frightening)

I was going to try and describe the scene in Auburn just before the scheduled kickoff time on Saturday, but then I realized that Neil Peart had already done it for me:

The clouds prepare for battle
In the dark and brooding silence
Bruised and sullen storm clouds
Have the light of day obscured
Looming low and ominous
In twilight premature
Thunderheads are rumbling
In a distant overture...

--"Jacob's Ladder," Rush

My extended family and I almost made it to the stadium gates before the bottom fell out. Almost. We were about halfway through the big scholarship lot on the west side when the deluge started. Instead of trying to run the rest of the way with two senior citizens and a four-year-old in tow, we ducked under a tailgate tent (actually just a canvas "roof" on stilts) and rode the storm out, and so I missed seeing the raucous reaction of the AU student section to their impromptu (and extended) shower, For this I am truly regretful.

Of course, after the storm passed and the game finally started, most of the hometown crowd wondered for a while whether they hadn't been better off in the rain. Both West Virginia and Auburn appeared to have picked up where they had left off last October in Morgantown last; the Mountaineers leapt out to a 14-0 lead thanks to big plays from their hyperdrive-fast offensive skill players, and Auburn's offense couldn't get out of its own way for a couple of possessions.

It's funny looking back at just how much football was packed into a mere four quarters on Saturday night. Maybe I have a bad internal clock or something, but that first half alone seemed like it lasted about eight hours. The initial WVU burst actually took less than five minutes off the clock; by the ten-minute mark the Tigers had righted themselves and started to methodically claw their way back. From that moment to the near-midnight final buzzer, Auburn outscored the visitors by 41-16.

When it's time to put this season in perspective, I think the manner of this win will be more significant than the score. Most good football teams can do one or two things very well, but have a hard time recovering when their opposition can counter those primary skills. A year ago, once the Mountaneers figured out how to stymie Auburn's patchwork offense, they were freed to go off to the races against a demoralized Tiger defense.

In 2009, having watched the films and noted the national statistics, WVU committed to stopping the run and attacking AU's defense where it is still thin and relatively inexperienced. For that first five minutes (and sporadically for the remainder of the game) the strategy worked quite well, but it wasn't enough. This time around, Auburn was able to adapt and find advantages outside of their prior comfort zones, and that was what made all the difference.

Last year all a defense really had to do was stack the line to stop Auburn; no combination of AU quarterbacks or receivers were a serious threat to beat you through the air. In 2009, as the Mountaneers learned, that ain't the case, and the Tigers' production is no longer limited to one or two guys. Chris Todd to Darvin Adams is rightfully getting a lot of ink this week, but look a little deeper and you'll also find those nice wheel routes to Eric Smith and Mario Fannin coming out of the backfield. Fannin's monstrous, untouched 82-yard romp in the third quarter was the real play of the game. It signaled that West Virginia's defense was gassed, and shortly afterwards WVU's offensive coaches pushed the panic button, abandoning the run for the duration.

WVU got one more scoring drive after Fannin's touchdown, managing a field goal to claim a brief 30-27 lead, but that was it. Noel Devine and Jarrett Brown are marvelous football players, but in the second half they both clearly were affected by the poundings they'd absorbed from a Tiger defense that just wouldn't be worn down. That defense, allegedly vulnerable to the pass but revitalized this year by finally getting help from their offensive teammates, responded to WVU's change in tactics with a flurry of interceptions that put the game away.

So here's what I really took away from the West Virginia game--other than some really wet clothes, that is: Auburn is good, but more importantly Auburn is showing that it can be better than good. As noted above, you can beat a good team if you attack the right spots, but when you successfully attack those spots only to see the other guys adjust to you and start hitting you where you didn't expect it... then you're in trouble, because you've just found yourself playing something beyond a merely good football team.

Auburn is going to have to be better than merely good to continue the recovery run they're on right now. After a brief breather this Saturday, the Tigers are facing a brutal five-week all-SEC October stretch that includes three away games. They're going to need every bit of confidence and experience they've built up in this opening month to make it through successfully (to say nothing of some luck in the no-injuries department), but so far, if you're not feeling optimistic about Auburn's future, you either have a closet full of red polyester or you simply haven't been paying attention.

* * *

You may have asked yourself sometime Sunday afternoon, "Self, why the hell is Auburn still unranked in the polls?" The answer--and the situation--encapsulate everything that's wrong with Division 1-A's (spare me the dumb new PR acronym) disgraceful lack of a legitimate championship system. Auburn isn't ranked yet largely because the AP poll is mostly populated by local beat writers, who barely have time to cover their own assigned team on a given Saturday (and the same applies to the various Sports Information Directors who actually fill out the ballots in the "coaches" poll).

Those voters catch up at the end of the day by watching highlights on ESPN--but ESPN barely mentions unranked teams, and rarely airs highlights of their games. Since Auburn and West Virginia were both unranked in the preseason--and so weren't ranked in the following two weeks' polls--there were no highlights afterwards, essentially communicating to the AP voters that no game of note actually took place. No preseason ranking (never mind that the previous year's finish, by the written but ignored rules of the polls, should have no bearing) means no highlights, no highlights meant no new ranking. Just another example of how arbitrary and stupid the poll system is and always has been.


gabe said...

I would say...just beat UT and the ranking will take care of itself, but that is what I thought about West Virginia.

I'm hoping for a couple more 100 yard rushing performances against Ball State

gabe said...

I was happy to see Mississippi State handle Vanderbilt so well. That gives our lone SEC victory a little more cred.

Jay said...

We were able to retreat to the Letterman's lounge for the duration of the storm. Will's comment included the feeling of the length of the first quarter. Upon our return to the condo, we all commented how exhausted we were. As though WE had played the game.