Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Wages of Inconsistency

It's been a very long time since a football game made me as angry as this one did. It shouldn't have; there have been plenty of losses far less explicable over the past five years--Vanderbilt last season, Georgia again in 2006, and practically any game this decade against Arkansas--but this one, for the time being, took the furious cake.

The loss wasn't an utter debacle; Auburn completely dominated the first quarter, and (rather obviously, given Demond Washington's 99-yard return), the special teams had by far their best game of the year. But in a game played by the two most penalty-prone teams in the conference, and against the SEC's most prolific granter of turnovers, AU wound up on the bad side of both counts, giving up 60 penalty yards--often at the worst possible moments--and committing two awful interceptions. Georgia, which had averaged more than two giveaways a game going in, didn't turn the ball over once. This kind of turnabout has become entirely too familiar in the recent losing streak to the Bulldogs: every time they play Auburn lately, Georgia manages to stop doing the bad things they've been doing a lot of, and start doing good things they haven't done well at all.

Then again, Georgia, even while playing well, couldn't do it all themselves. They got entirely too much help from Auburn. After ten games, it was no particular surprise that a one-deep-at-best Auburn defense gave up a lot of yards and points in the second half. The Tigers are playing two true freshmen and a sophomore in the secondary, and after Eltoro Freeman went out with a concussion, the defense had, at best, two SEC-caliber players left at linebacker.

But nobody expected this defense to play lights-out for 60 minutes. What was a lot more troubling was the offense's lapse into foot-shooting and predictability when it needed to keep pouring on the points. That, of course, didn't happen. The running game never got in a groove, and pass protection broke down badly in the second half.

The third quarter simply killed Auburn. The Tigers had only two posessions, yielding a three-and-out and a field goal. By contrast, Georgia held the ball for nearly twelve minutes and tacked on 10 points, with another touchdown coming less than a minute into the final period. After an interception gave UGA an easy drive for their final score, Washingon's kick return heroics and a mammoth but ultimately fruitless fourteen-play AU drive weren't enough. And once again, no really critical Auburn play--even one coming after consecutive time outs--can be considered complete without a false start from three-year starter Lee Ziemba, who still can't manage to stay in position until the ball is snapped.

I can understand Ted Roof wanting to protect a couple of freshman safeties, and it's worth noting that Auburn pretty much controlled A.J. Green, limiting the supposed best player on the field to three catches and 19 yards. But Auburn's pass rush died off somewhere in the second period, and given plenty of time and an effective running game, particularly in the second half, Joe Cox was able to get the ball to Green's teammates often enough to play catch-up and then some.

Why was this game so frustrating? Sure, part of it was losing again to a team that Auburn had been consistently beating two-out-of-three over the last generation or so. Part of it was handing a lifeline--again--to a faltering major rival. But I think what really got to me was seeing this team play so damn well and so damn badly all in the same game.

By the end of last year, there was no expectation of good play from Auburn. The team fell apart in early October, and by November was essentially un-coached. Losing was neither a surprise nor particularly painful. The loss to Georgia in 2008 was almost comforting, in that the Tigers turned in arguably their best effort of that dismal season.

This time around, though, we've seen this team play at a very high level--as well as a very low one, on a couple of occasions, but whatever else it's been, 2009 has definitely not been what Jerry used to call a "season of DEATH." And that, I think, is what made this one so hard to take. It's not the losing so much as knowing that the team is capable of being so much better, to the point of seeing exceptionally high quality play on the field, in this very game, but then also seeing a team that's still unable to maintain any consistency for sixty minutes.

And paying the price for it.