Sunday, September 09, 2007

Going South

Ask a dozen Auburn fans what they think about Brandon Cox and you'll get a dozen different answers--or at least you would have prior to Saturday night. Those who remember Cox's sophomore year will tell you that he's a accurate passer who, given protection, can rip a defense to shreds. And they're right. The defenses of Georgia, Alabama and LSU were all abused by a Cox-led offense that season.

Others, who recall last year, will tell you that despite Cox's limited physical skills compared to some other quarterbacks, he's a warrior on the field who will soldier on despite injuries that would bench most players. And they're right. No player at any position had any business going on the field in the condition Cox played in for most of 2006, but he did it anyhow, and earned eleven wins along the way.

Still more will say that Cox can't throw a consistent deep ball, that he's too immobile in the pocket, and that he's making inexplicable throws for a guy who's effectively a sixth-year senior. They'll tell you--particularly after last Saturday--that he's gone backwards in 2007, and that his play is hurting the team.

And unfortunately, they're right, too.

Nothing hurts worse than losing one you had in the palm of your hand. After a shaky start, Auburn took control of the South Florida game in the second quarter, and to all eyes was cruising to a bumpy but still acceptable win until about 11PM, when the wheels started to come off. While an absolutely stunning defensive effort kept South Florida from scoring a single point off of Auburn's five turnovers, those turnovers also prevented the Tigers from adding the extra scores that likely would have put the game away. Two of those turnovers were fumbles by Mario Fannin, a redshirt freshman seeing his first serious minutes of college play. Nobody likes to see a freshman turn the ball over, but nobody should be particularly surprised by it, either.

The other side of that coin, of course, is that nobody expects a senior quarterback to fumble on a sneak and throw two bad interceptions in the same game. What's worse, that pick total could easily have risen much higher.

I don't think all of Auburn's problems can be or should be deposited on Brandon Cox's doorstep. Even given all the angst over Cox's poor play, he'd have led AU to another late victory if the kick return game hadn't completely broken down after the Tigers' final go-ahead field goal. Auburn was spoiled over the last few years in having Matt Clark's kickoffs fly out the back of the end zone on virtually every kick. The Tigers' special team coverage got slack, and the combination of that plus the '07 rule change and losing Clark all caught up with AU at the worst possible time as Saturday turned to Sunday.

It's also fair to note that Cox looked a whole lot better when he was being protected by Ben Grubbs and Marcus McNeil, and throwing to Devin Aromashodu, Ben Obomanu, Courtney Taylor and Anthony Mix, to say nothing of handing off to Kenny Irons. It's painfully obvious that Auburn just didn't do a good job of recruiting and/or developing the players who've replaced all those famous names. Two games in and not only does AU still lack even one go-to receiver, there aren't any obvious candidates for the job making their presence known. A deep tight end corps was supposed to help support the wideouts, but one third of that corps seems to have forgotten how to catch.

Things are somewhat better on the running back front, where Fannin's speed and tough running gave Auburn a great spark in the second quarter; getting Tristan Davis back in the next week or two will also help, but there's no getting around that fact that this is a largely moribund offense. Put Auburn in second and long and you are most likely going to get the ball back sometime within the next three snaps. All those great players helped make Al Borges call some brilliant games for a couple of years, but now it's time for Borges to really earn his money. Thus far in 2007, we haven't seen a lot of the creativity and unpredictability that we came to expect from a Borges offense. If his offensive plan is too complicated (or too conservative) for the current players, then the plan has to change. The players won't.

It would be grossly unfair to stop here without recognizing the astonishing play of the Auburn defense late Saturday night. As seems to be the norm for a Will Muschamp squad, they gave up a score on the opening drive, but then just played lights-out for the duration. I don't think I've ever seen or even heard of a quality offensive team failing to score on that many trips inside an opponent's red zone. I've certainly never heard of five turnovers resulting in zero points. Anybody who can fault the defense for giving up the last score in overtime was not paying attention; those guys had been on the field doing yeoman's work for virtually the entire second half. Anything less and there never would have been an overtime, because Auburn would have been losing by three or four scores. You also can't say enough about true freshman placekicker Wes Byrum, who came through on one long, high-pressure field goal after another in a bravura performance.

The greatest shame and frustration of the USF game is that those efforts went for naught.

Auburn can't go out and get new players two games into the season. Despite all his problems, it's likely that Cox is the only real option at quarterback. If Blake Field could outplay Cox, he'd be playing by now. Anybody who thinks the Tigers should rip the redshirt off of a true freshman and throw him in at quarterback is frankly nuts, and the suggesting of putting Neal Caudle in at this point is only slightly less nuts. New receivers are in the pipeline, but it's going to be a while before the very young guys are ready. Auburn doesn't have the luxury of that extra time.

I suspect there isn't any amount of coaching that can make this a great offense, but it needs to become at least a respectable one in a very big hurry. Offensive line coach Hugh Nall likes to brag to recruits that he's the highest-paid position coach in the SEC. Al Borges is also one of the highest-paid assistants in the country. It's time for the two of them, to say nothing of their boss, who himself is a rather high earner, to get it together.


Unknown said...

Honestly, I thought it was crazy to even think of pulling Brandon Cox before last nights game.

Now I think it is crazy to not to, at the very least, work in another quarterback for a few series during the game.

You have to ask yourself. Is there really any way someone else could have been much worse?

It's up for debate of course, but stop for a moment and consider if USF had some sure-handed men in the secondary. Its not out of the realm of possibility that Cox could have thrown 5 or even 6 interceptions. Would it be considered nuts to pull a QB with 5 INT's and a fumble against what I would consider an average to good defense? I certainly don't think so.

If the offense shows little improvement next week I believe the coaching staff must send a message. I don't care if your quarterback is a 17th year senior. You are sending a message to the other players that mistakes and a lack of execution will be tolerated if he is not sat for a series or two. I can guarantee you that one more poor performance and Cox will lose the confidence of his team mates.

Of course the real question is, who would get the next shot? That's hard to say since we've hardly seen anyone get a quasi-meaningful snap in 2+ years. And if they fail and Cox gives us a better chance to move the ball then by all means, send him back in. But as a coach you can't let your offense die another slow death and not send a signal to the team that you are trying to resolve it. Otherwise they are going to give up hope.

Just my thoughts, enjoy the blog. Keep it up.

Golfintiger said...

Nice work as usual Will. I put many of the same questions on my blog. I went as far as to predict the rest of the season if Al, Nall, Cox, et al don't significantly improve the situation. I think we lose all 4 road games and the bammer game. Not sure what 6-6 will do to the situation but it won't be good. The question is: if we are going to lose 4-5 more games, why not prepare for next year with Kodi Burns? Otherwise, we enter next year coming off a poor record and have a QB with zero experience.

CTT has a whole lot to think about...

K dog said...

I seriously question Tuberville's coaching ability. He can' seem to prepare or motivate teams for big games, he thought Cox's descision makeing skills in the K St. game were questionable, but played him anyway, and he refuses to take Cox out of the game for even 1 play to get his act together.

I bleed Orange and Blue, but they cannot fire Tuberville fast enough for me. I think Borges would be a beter OC without Tubby stifling him.

Jeff said...

I'm not ready to fire Tuberville. Most years, he's good for laying an egg or two (note Georgia and Arky last season, despite the amazing performances against LSU & UF). But things do need to change, and he should know that by now. After Miss. St., the schedule doesn't get easier. So I say give Cox one more chance to fix things against Miss. St. If he continues to throw into coverage, give his receivers little chance to catch the ball, and take too many sacks due to an inability to throw it away, all by halftime, then it's time to bring Blake Field in. I'd even burn Kodi Burn's redshirt (pun intended) just to try to get things going. Cox was Mr. Alabama or whatever they call it his senior year. KB is the equivalent from Arkansas. Let's see if this one pans out. I know I was hoping for a breakout year for Cox, especially since he got healthy, kinda like Campbell had in 2004. That train has left the station.

Chris Bertelli said...

Three things:

First, nice blog, Will. Sincerely.

Second, we need to collectively stop referring to Brandon Cox's record as a starter in terms of "his" wins and losses. He was pretty good in 2005, not good in 2006 and is, so far, downright crappy in 2007. The 2006 11-2 Tigers won with defense, special teams and the occasional ability of Kenny Irons and Brad Lester to grind out 4th quarter yards. Audibling to the appropriate running play does not, in my book, get you exclusive right to the "W."

Third, give Caudle and Burns meaningful snaps this year. If those two are going to compete for the starting job next year (I'd be surprised if Field is even around), why not prepare and evaluate them in real games instead of just practice? Getting a potential starter real game experience (even of the limited variety) isn't a "waste" of a redshirt, it's good preparation.