Sunday, August 31, 2008

Back To The Future

One of Auburn's questions was answered Saturday night, at least as well as such a thing could be answered against a Louisiana-Monroe: you can have a power running game from "the spread." Running the ball was not a problem. Brad Lester, Ben Tate and newcomer Eric Smith were all able to move the ball on the ground, amassing over 300 rushing yards on the night. Passing, on the other hand...

The first (okay, first and a half) version of the Tony Franklin offense looked an awful lot like the last crippled couple of years of the Al Borges offense: lots of screens with no blocking support, nobody getting open for longer balls, and thus an inability to... wait for it... spread the field. Now, tell me, what hasn't changed here? (*COUGH* "inside receivers" coach *COUGH*). Third and long conversions were, to polite, not good.

As Tommy Tuberville noted at halftime, the much-ballyhooed feature of this offense to speed up the game's tempo was missing in action Saturday night. Kodi Burns rarely threw down the field, and the one time he did attempt a long pass, it bounced off the hands of the receiver. Talk about deja-vu. Chris Todd's standard play was to check about a receiver and a half and then try to scramble. News flash--he's not a scrambler. Teach him to step up in the pocket and/or get rid of the ball. It didn't help either quarterback that pass protection--against LAMO, mind you, not LSU--was downright awful in the first half, something Franklin noted in a Quentin-Riggins-reported chewing out of the rest of the offensive staff at halftime. Said chewing did seem to help; protection was notably better in the second half.

Let's hope we've seen the last of alternating series for the quarterbacks. That's fine for A-Day (and what was this opener, if not a glorified A-Day?), but it's not going to fly against the rest of the schedule. Pick one, preferably Burns. Leave him in, and let him establish something. It's very telling to me that the one time Todd looked good was in the Tigers' last scoring drive, after Burns had left the game and Todd was able to stay in for several series by default (Burns turned out to have a laceration on his leg, and should be fine). The long pass to Rod Smith and follow-up baseline dart to Slaughter were easily Todd's best plays of the night.

On the other side of the ball, it's hard to criticize a shutout that opens with a defensive touchdown. Antonio Coleman has inherited not only Quentin Groves' position (which Coleman actually won and didn't give up midway through last season), but also the miasma of fear generated by Auburn's weakside defensive end over the last several seasons. Jerraud Powers had a couple of outstanding pass breakups, and the hit of the night came courtesy of freshman DB Neiko Thorpe, midway through the fourth quarter.

The kicking game was something of a mixed bag. I think I'm safe in saying that nobody knew what to make of preseason all-SEC punter Ryan Shoemaker losing his position to Clinton Durst, a guy who'd never played football before Saturday night. That impression was enhanced when Durst shanked a punt in the middle of the game, but that flub didn't keep Durst from racking up a decent 43-yard average on seven kicks, with one 58-yard boomer. Robert Dunn's punt return for a touchdown was obviously a great run--but then Dunn reminded everybody why he drives us all up the wall by losing yardage on his next reception. AU's kickoff coverage is still depressingly bad.

So, a first game, a warmup. As such things go, it wasn't great, but it could have been a whole lot worse. With a solid defense and the running game still there, there's reason for optimism going forward, but let's be honest here: Auburn was emphatically not ready to play anybody much better than LAMO on Saturday.

Disclaimer: this is not by any stretch a prediction. But. Four years ago, I wrote this about an Auburn opening against... LAMO:

On the one hand, you've got a workmanlike shutout of (let's face it) one of the worst football teams in the country. To their great credit, Louisiana Monroe's players didn't show a lot of give-up on Saturday, but they also didn't show a whole lot of ability. Auburn substituted all the way into the scout team by the fourth quarter, and the closest LA-MO ever got to scoring was a couple of missed field goals. On the other hand...

Look, it's obvious that the AU coaches went into this game intending to show future opponents absolutely nothing of use, and it's safe to say that they succeeded. "Vanilla" doesn't begin to describe the blandness of the formations and plays displayed on Saturday. Try "tasteless and odorless," or maybe "invisible."

... With that understood, there are still worries. Either La-Mo's defensive line has gotten a lot better since last October (entirely possible; they were big and quick, easily the best-looking athletes as a group that the Indians fielded), or Hugh Nall still has a lot of work to do up front. Run blocking was hit-and-miss (sometimes literally), and pass blocking was downright bad a lot of the time. And don't get me started on the reappearance of last year's bugaboo, the dreaded slanting defenders. More than once, a friend sitting nearby said, "It's a good thing they suck, or we'd be in trouble."

I would also be remiss if I didn't admit that Jason Campbell's play was not encouraging. Whether by habit, design, or just happenstance, Campbell is still locking in on his first guy and not seeing open receivers down the field, he's throwing behind the receiver too often, and his two turnovers were flat-out awful, the kind of stuff you expect from a freshman, not a fifth-year senior.

Sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it?

Now, once again--not a prediction, or anything remotely like it. I'm not expecting, anticipating, or even wildly dreaming about a 2004-ish run for this team. But it's still comforting, in an odd and nostalgic kind of way, that the best Auburn season in recent history also started against LAMO, and not with a bang, but with a "What the--?"

1 comment:

CFull said...

Good post Will. Not much to add to it. I will say that yet again we fail to get the TEs involved in the game, other than blocking. And we really need to work on our kickoff coverage. I believe the offense will look much better against Southern Miss though.