Sunday, September 21, 2008

Deja Vu All Over Again

How's this for a quick rundown of last night's game:

Once again, Auburn was able to take control of a game and dominate the first half, but also once again, AU was not able to maintain that control after halftime. Whether it was due to the fan-decried "Tubershell" of conservative play-calling with a lead or simply LSU stepping up its game in the third quarter (I think it was the latter), Auburn stopped moving the ball until after the Bengals had taken the lead midway though the final period.

What I didn't like is fairly obvious: Auburn's running game lost steam and the pass defense all but fell apart in the third quarter. I didn't like the pooch kickoffs, and I really didn't understand pooch-kicking after Auburn's last score. Yes, AU's kick coverage has been awful this year and LSU has a great return game, but I don't think that validates giving them the ball on the 40 for that last drive.

The preceeding was lifted directly from my column on last year's Auburn-LSU tilt. I removed exactly one word ("road," as in "road game"), but otherwise it fits the 2008 edition just fine.

I've heard of deja vu, but this is ridiculous.

Obviously, not everything was quite the same, but enough was to make an orange-and-blue Tiger feel like tearing some hair out, starting with the kicking game. Tommy Tuberville turned out to be dead on when he predicted last week that special teams would be the difference in the game. Whether Ryan Shoemaker was being told to corner-punt (if he was, why, particularly after Trindon Holliday was benched for fumbling?) or just shanking everything he hit in the second half, bad field position put a tiring Auburn defense in terrible situations. Was Chad Jones really a threat to make a big return? I tend to doubt it--but we're never going to know based on that game.

It was a frustrating second half, but you have to give credit to LSU's depth for being the difference in the game. They were able to hold off a slackening Auburn pass rush and run past the thin AU secondary when it counted. When Paul Rhodes inexplicably stopped blitzing freshman QB Jarrett Lee, the defensive line didn't have enough gas left to get after him on their own. LSU's fleet of receivers did the rest, with no small help from Charles Scott, who looks to be a sensational running back.

On the other side of the ball, Auburn's penchant for not platooning offensive linemen caught up with the Tigers in a big and bad way. LSU's two-deep defensive line stayed fresh enough to account for two monumental sacks, one to knock Auburn out of field goal range in the third quarter, and then again to kill the would-be comeback drive, knocking AU back to an impossible-to-make-up second and 25.

Obviously, things weren't all bad. Auburn really did dominate defensively in the first half, and the Chris Todd-led offense finally showed signs of life. Receivers were getting open, and generally making catches (although Tommy Trott continues to do a good impression of a stone-handed defensive back). Robert Dunn probably had the best day of his career in terms of clutch grabs. The running game was less effective; why Tony Franklin continued to call Ben Tate runs into the heart of the LSU defensive line with no lead blocker is beyond me. There were plenty of times when the offense had LSU on its heels, particularly when Auburn would run a play, immediately get back to the line, and quickly run another play repeatedly. The "Meercat" option of stopping to look back at the sidelines didn't work anywhere near as well, and clearly caused problems in both communication and execution.

And finally, somebody figured out that lining up in the "I" near the goal line makes sense. That somebody has my sincere gratitude.

Before anybody asks, no, I don't know why Kodi Burns didn't play (again). It could be due to that leg injury from the first game; Burns was held out against Mississippi State largely because the cut broke open again during his brief set of snaps against Southern Miss. By most accounts, that was a very nasty cut, and even a highly-conditioned athlete can't make his flesh heal any faster than normal humans (it's my understanding that the NCAA is already moving to ban a new design of facemask visor that caused the cut in the first place). Maybe that was it; maybe the coaches didn't want to break up Todd's play. Given how LSU was crowding the line and leaving the deep ball open, I have to think they simply chose to stay with the "pass first" guy.

Where-to from here is obviously an open question. Saturday's game against Tennessee is a genuine must-win for both teams; you have to think Auburn has the advantage given how inept the Vols have looked this season, but Phat Phil always seems to pull one big surprise win (and usually on the road) out from under his stack of McRibs. Auburn is clearly improving on offense, but "the system" has still got a lot of bugs.

Auburn had better get out the Raid in a big hurry. Saturday's loss removed any margin for error in the SEC West race. LSU could conceivably lose on the road to Florida and at home to Georgia (I think they'll win the rest rather comfortably), but the flipside is, one more conference loss is tantamount to elimination for the eastern Tigers.


Charlie Robot said...

It's hard to blame the coaches or any particular player (besides Shoemaker -- field position lost this game) for the loss; they played well enough to win, but just didn't. I also think we saw how much losing Savage (and to a lesser extent Ramsey) hurt.

John Stubbs said...

I gotta admit that after we went up 21-20 with only a handful of minutes left in the fourth quarter, the game should have been over. At Auburn, there is no reason we should pooch kick after a go-ahead touchdown.