Monday, November 17, 2008

Down But Not Out

As we're all re-learning when our 401(k) statements arrive lately, you have to hit bottom before you can start going back up. Auburn lost again Saturday, but for the first time in about eight weeks, the Tigers were able to walk away with something like confidence, and at least a glimmer of hope in the aftermath.

Georgia '08 was a hard loss to take, but I was still very proud of the team Saturday. Auburn played its best game since taking LSU to the wire in September, played hard for the duration, and finally played well on both sides of the ball. The defense broke out of its month-long funk and did a fine job, holding a very talented Georgia offense to 17 points and only 351 yards. Given the defensive eggs the Tigers laid in their last two games against the same team, that's a significant improvement.

It sure didn't look like AU was going to have a good defensive game early. Auburn wasn't able to stop much of anything on Georgia's opening drive, but aided by Tez Doolittle's block of a chip-shot field goal, the "D" was able to adjust and get a handle on things after a bad first quarter. After romping for more than 140 yards in the initial 15 minutes, the Bulldogs would average less than half as much per period for the rest of the game.

Kodi Burns has continued to improve. He had his best game so far as a Tiger, finally putting together a balanced attack on the ground and in the air. All those incompletions in the fourth quarter hurt his stats, but Burns deserves credit on most of those passes for recognizing that the receiver was carrying another guy on his back, and an incompletion is better than an interception. Burns threw for 180 yards and never put the ball where that other guy could catch it, and after the Ole Miss game, that's a step forward.

It's been a very long time since Auburn could drive 90 yards in the second half against, hell, anybody, but Burns put together just such a drive at the end of the third and start of the fourth quarters. Mario Fannin also had a breakout game, even while making legions of Auburn fans reach for their long-since torn-out hair and scream, "Why hasn't he been getting the ball all year?"

Obviously, that's not to say that everything went well. As one message board wag noted last week, if Auburn were James Bond, this year's movie would be titled "You Only Score Twice." Georgia does not have a great defensive team, but the Tigers still couldn't get it done in the red zone.

Part of that was thanks to play calling. As usual, Steve Ensminger was terrible in critical situations. Why anybody would call all those fades to the end zone when you demonstrably don't have receivers who can get enough separation to run a fade is way beyond me. Yes, UGA's defenders were doing a good impression of your average mugger, and the officiating crew are apparently expecting to get a bonus check depending on the quality of Georgia's bowl bid, but neither of those things excuse calling the same dumb play over and over again. For example, I thought going for it on fourth down during AU's penultimate possession was the right decision, but the play call on that fourth down (you guessed it, a fade to a covered-up Montez Billings) was execrable.

So, better, but still another loss. This team has one last shot at redemption coming up, and while you'd have to be a truly committed pumper of sunshine to predict a win in two weeks, their performance Georgia game does give reason for optimism.

Monday, November 10, 2008


There shouldn't be much to say about a Homecoming game against a 1-AA opponent, other than, "Nice day, the kids had a lot of fun." In what Jerry's calling The Season of DEATH, things aren't so straightforward.

The game started out literally as well as it possibly could for Auburn when Tristan Davis took the opening kickoff 95 yards for an easy 7-0 lead. Since nothing is supposed to be easy for the Tigers this year, Robert Dunn made what might be the worst mistake I've ever seen from a senior player when UT-Martin punted on their first possession, fumbling in the end zone to give the Skyhawks a just-as-easy tying score. And just like that, what should have been a walk turned into a battle, at least for three quarters.

A friend of mine sent a message after UTM's first offensive touchdown, which thanks only to a muffed PAT pulled the game to within a point at 14-13: "How did we let them score?!?" There are two answers. The first is that Auburn had no answer for basically one play, namely a very simple pitch-and-catch from quarterback Cade Thompson to receiver Mike Hicks. Number 19 was camped out and wide open over on the short-side flat for what felt like a hundred snaps. Thompson, who was only sacked once, had pleny of time to throw, and Hicks must have thought he was playing pre-game drills without a defense most of the time. Not being stupid, UTM's play callers kept calling a play that worked fine, and AU rarely did anything about it.

The other answer was, Auburn was playing with absolutely no intensity on defense. Sure, lots of guys were hurt, and there's no doubt not having Sen'derrick Marks and Antonio Coleman up front is going to affect your pass rush against anybody, but it was obvious from the stands that there was a whole lot of going through the motions on the field and precious little aggression or hustle. A team that didn't win a game in October had no business taking any opponent lightly, but that's what Auburn did on Saturday.

On offense, while Auburn obviously had a decent day as far as the numbers are concerned, nobody should be overly-fooled by the outcome. Even playing against an entirely outmanned 1-AA opponent with speed issues (the opening kickoff was all the proof you need of that), Auburn couldn't get receivers free and couldn't get any resemblance of blocking until UTM got tired in the second half. Sure, Kodi Burns did some great running in the game. He was making some fantastic, shifty moves--but then again, he had to. He wasn't getting any help to speak of from his offensive line, and as usual, Steve Ensminger's play calling was as predictable (and as appealing) as vomit at the Supper Club.

But it was a win, and that's more than we could say since, oh, the end of September.

If my mailbox and conversations at the game are any indication, a lot of people seem to think I have the "inside" story on what's going to happen to Tommy Tuberville's job status at the end of the year. Sorry to disappoint anybody out there, but I'm not in possession of any such knowledge. I will say this: when UTM pulled even in the third quarter, people briefly stopped asking "if" Tommy Tuberville would be fired, but rather "when." A lot of that dissipated as the Tigers pulled away to win, but I think it's very safe to say that if UTM's defensive line hadn't run out of gas in the fourth quarter, Auburn could well have been holding a press conference sometime today, and not to announce when season tickets for the '09 baseball team will be available.

As to what's actually going to happen, the rumor mill has churned out two basic themes. Tuberville will either be retained for another year and "clean house" on his offensive staff, or he and Auburn will (and depending on whom you believe, an agreement has already been reached) amicably separate, said separation to include a very sizable check to complete AU's contractual obligations. I have no idea which of these stories might be correct, or frankly if either of them has any grounding in reality, but since everybody has asked, that's what I've heard. Take it for what it's worth, or to put it another way, that and ten bucks will get you 50% ownership in Circuit City this morning.

As noted here previously, I think Tuberville has earned the chance to fix this mess, but honestly, the more this fiasco plays out, the more I wonder if everybody involved wouldn't do better to just shake hands and walk away. Sometimes the best cure for dysfunction is a fresh start. But we'll see.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Annus Horribilis

By any sane reckoning, Auburn will finally win another game this Saturday. By any reasonable reckoning, it will probably be the last game the Tigers win this year. I'd most certainly prefer the latter to be an inaccurate prediction, but based on this team's continued slump, it's just hard to see how things are going to turn out differently. It's a horrible year, and one that's getting worse by the week.

As if it weren't obvious from the record and the numbers, this is a pretty bad football team, almost as bad as the talent-starved and snakebitten 1998 squad that finished 3-8 (and even that team beat Ole Miss). Even the defense that started out gangbusters has lapsed into mediocrity, thanks in no small part to an avalanche of injuries, but you also have to think that they've just been relied to on save the offense far too many times as well.

While the offense showed occasional signs of life in Oxford, its limitations are still painfully clear. Kodi Burns has a ton of heart and a lot of talent, but let's face it, Tony Franklin was right when he noted that Burns gets too excited and makes too many mistakes in crucial situations. Saturday was easily Burns' most productive game as a Tiger, but those three awful interceptions doomed any chance of getting a win. But then again, Burns is now being "coached" by a guy who took an eventual first-round NFL starter and wrecked him so badly that people wondered whether the guy would ever play again.

Chris Slaughter had a great individual game, and Tommy Trott continued to improve catching the ball, but the rest of the receiving corps was once again missing in action. And let's not even talk about the blocking, or rather the lack thereof. Auburn's running game has shuddered to a near-complete halt (I would have said complete halt if not for the single great play on Ben Tate's touchdown).

It's also clear that every defense the Tigers play knows exactly what Auburn is going to do before they do it, especially in the running game. AU can't run inside, can't run to the outside, and can't even run a screen without having three defenders around the ball at all times. This is not a surprise, or at least it shouldn't be. The last time Steve Ensminger was in charge of the offense, the same thing happened; Georgia Tech's defenders in 2003 were calling out the plays from the line of scrimmage. I wouldn't be surprised if Ole Miss was doing the same thing over five years later.

It's very little consolation at this point to think that Ensminger only has three games left to screw over Auburn University. Then again, I wrote that five years ago, too, and look where we are now.

A brief respite, and then the annus horribilis will rumble on to its finish. Where we go from there is, I think, anybody's guess.