Monday, November 02, 2009

Signs Of Life

When the Ole Miss game started, it was hard not to be swept up in a depressing wave of déjà vu. All the pieces were lined up: early kickoff, a bad three-game losing streak, and playing against a coach who'd made a career out of bedeviling Auburn. The defense promptly did a good impression of a worn-down speed bump, giving up a 96-yard touchdown drive, the offense's response was stopped by--wait for it--a badly-timed penalty, and petered out with a field goal. Not too much later, Chris Todd badly overthrew a wide-open Terrell Zachery on a deep route, the third such miss in four games.

If you'd walked in optimistic--and I confess, I did not--it must have been pretty tough to keep your chin up at that point. When Zac Etheridge was strapped to a back board and rolled out of the stadium with a very scary injury--one that must have been nauseatingly familiar to the Ole Miss fans in particular--it looked like matters had gone from bad to absolutely abysmal.

The best thing that happened afterwards, of course, was the news that Etheridge has regained motion in all of his extremities, and is expected to make a full recovery, although he'll probably have to give up football. The last is terrible for somebody who loves the game as much as Etheridge, but it still beats the hell out of an injury that could have crippled him for the rest of his life.

The next-best treat this Halloween was seeing Etheridge's teammates get up off the deck and start playing like a real football team again. Ted Roof has deserved some of the criticism he's received over the past month. His secondary continues to play with too-soft cushions, for instance, but let's give him some credit today: after that ugly first drive, he was able to adjust to bring more pressure on Jevan Snead, making that first touchdown drive the Rebels' last for the day. Holding any SEC team to one drive and one big play was something I really didn't think Auburn was capable of this year. I cordially despise "bend, don't break" as a defensive philosophy, but I suspect it's all Roof is able to do with the current team. When it works, and it did work Saturday, he deserves the recognition.

One funny thing that struck me was the general pointlessness of running trick plays against these two defenses. Houston Nutt's playbook has more goofy doo-doo plays than anybody's this side of Lubbock, Texas, and Gus Malzahn isn't far behind him. You run trick plays generally because you think you can surprise the other guy's defense and get a big gain or a score, but in this case, the other defense has seen this stuff in every day of practice, making them pretty hard to fool. That didn't stop either coach from pulling out most of his stops on Saturday, but with the exceptions of about two plays (both of them from Auburn), almost none of the doo-doo worked.

What did work for Auburn was the at-long-last return of Todd and the deep passing game. After that early misfire, Todd apparently settled down, and got a ton of help from Zachery, who managed to pull in a couple of astonishing catches in close coverage. The big second quarter reception that set up AU's first touchdown looked like it broke the dam; after that Todd was comfortable putting the ball down the field, and Zachery and Darvin Adams continued to pull it down with one acrobatic reception after another. That finally freed up Gus Malzahn's offense to "do what it does," namely get the defense out of position with misdirection and then go at them faster than they can recover. When the Ole Miss safeties had to step back to defend the long ball, it was Ben Tate time (with some welcome help from Mario Fannin), and Tate, now the #13 rusher in the nation, was more than happy to provide still more punishment in his stellar senior season.

After the first couple of series, I don't think anybody on the planet expected Auburn to rattle off 31 unanswered points. Midway through perhaps the longest and certainly the weirdest third quarter in recorded history, AU was up 31-7, and I think if the Tigers had stopped the Rebs on their next possession or two, the game would have been over right there. Unfortunately for my blood pressure, Auburn proceeded to give up a kickoff return for a touchdown and then a McCluster bolt for another score, but the defense woke up again, grabbed the first two-point runback in Jordan-Hare I can recall since the '96 LSU game (that one went for the other team), and shut down Ole Miss for the duration. Not letting the Rebels get back in the game, even after the slightly-flukey instant two touchdowns, speaks pretty well of all those young guys on the defense.

While any win after three straight losses is a good one, and an upset win over a conference opponent is better still, this was a very long way from a complete victory. It was a win Auburn had to have to rescue this season, but one that still clearly showed long-term problems, not least being the still-dreadful kick coverage and return game. I think we can say now that the offense has found its bearings again, but it's still entirely too inconsistent, and has to get back to making sustained scoring drives. Auburn can't rely on the big play to bail them out every week. The scoreless fourth quarter was a comedy of errors for both AU and UM on offense, and the Tigers wouldn't have survived it against a better team--although I was very heartened to see AU pound out a couple of first downs to seal the game; it's been a long time since they were able to do that.

The thing is though, Ole Miss isn't all that good. Snead is one of those guys with a big arm but no head to match. A few good games and a ton of media adulation apparently went straight to the aforementioned head, and now the kid thinks he's Dan Marino. He's not; like many highly-touted QB's with limited experience, if you can get him in pressure situations it's just a matter of time until he throws the ball to your defense. Dexter McCluster is just an outstanding running back, but besides him and maybe Shay Hodge, the Rebels don't have a lot on offense. The defense is better, no doubt thanks to Ed Orgeron's leftovers, but Houston Nutt's televangelist clown act has apparently already run its course in Oxford. It'll be highly entertaining to watch the reactions of the most delusional fan base in the SEC (at least when results vs. expectations are taken into account) if their formerly-number-four Rebels finish the season with a 1-4 collapse.

But enough about that bunch. The doldrums of October are behind us, and Auburn is back on the winning side, and two very winnable games away from a long-needed open date. Homecoming should provide an opportunity to rest just about everybody who's been worn down to date, and play everybody who hasn't. After that, Gene Chizik will have his opportunity to live up to September's bright promise… or not.


Jorge said...

I have some MSU co-workers who are really good guys but were scared at the start of the season of the potential juggernaut that Old Piss was supposed to be.

As I told them after the first game of the season... the next QB that Nutt develops will be his first! Seems he has done an excellent job of destroying Snead.

Jeff said...

That pooch kick thing had already been pissing me off from previous games as it often assures decent field position for them (they must have been thinking it should limit run backs, but for the most part, it hasn't). In this game, we had been kicking it into or near the endzone, and getting decent coverage (look at that opening kickoff as an example... caused a fumble, although not recovering it, it forced them to start near the 5). So what
do they do? Screw the pooch.

Yes, there were some ill-timed penlties. But at least there far fewer of them. I'd say this performance done last weekend would have been decent enough to at least compete with LSU, if not beat them.

And I do remember a PAT blocked for a return 2-point conversion on our field against LSU, but I coulda sworn AU was the one that did the blocking and returning. I specifically remember losing this particular game, and having that play be one of the few highlights. Maybe I'm just remembering it wrong.

Alyse said...

WDE! Just found your blog...very enjoyable.