Monday, September 07, 2009

Starting Strong

While a comfortable win, complete with some genuine offensive fireworks, was a more than welcome sight to sore Auburn eyes, I think I was most relieved--and impressed--by things I didn't see Saturday night.

In the immediate aftermath of Gene Chizik's hiring, a number of articles and blog posts popped up out of Ames, Iowa complaining about the kind of things that made Doug Barfield's inauspicious tenure in Auburn the anti-legend it is today: poor game planning, chaos on the sidelines, indecision at key moments, and a general state of haphazard-ness that allegedly permeated the Cyclone program. Happily, there were no signs of any such foul-ups in Chizik's Auburn debut. When a team with an entirely brand-new staff, including their third brand-new offense in as many years, has exactly one off-sides penalty and no delay of game penalties in their first outing, that speaks quite well of the level of preparation and organization on the part of the coaching staff. Not everything was perfect, but Auburn didn't look like a team with a new coach on Saturday; they just looked like a team playing their first game.

On offense, this was quite obviously the best Auburn has looked in a long, long time, perhaps going all the way back to the 2005 season. There were no traces of Tony Franklin's chaotic first half of 2008, much less the entirely inept second half allegedly "coached" by Steve Ensminger. As my dad noted afterwards, I'm not sure the 2008 Tigers could have amassed 550 yards against Auburn High School. It would be going too far (way too far) to call Gus Malzhan's first Auburn offense a well-oiled touchdown machine at this early date, but look at things this way: if the Tigers had possessed a merely mediocre offense last season, as opposed to the catastrophically awful one that actually showed up, they'd have won at least another two games (and possibly two or three more than that), and played in a bowl.

If Auburn can simply keep improving on what they did this week, they'll be considerably better than just mediocre on offense in 2009. Literally everything was better. I freely admit that I was not thrilled at the idea of Chris Todd getting the start at quarterback (although I didn't exactly have any better options to offer), but Todd played a fine game Saturday. I only saw one poor passing decision, and he just nailed that uncoverable corner fade that Danny Wuerffel won about a million games with for a nice fourth-quarter score. The offensive line, returning to a down stance, was able to play power ball up front, and as a result the running game was immensely better--proving once again that such things are possible with that exotic commodity known as "blocking" (and the hot rod wheels on Onterrio McCalebb didn't hurt any, either). While the receivers didn't make anybody forget their counterparts at Florida or Texas, they also didn't much resemble the concrete-handed bunch we'd see in Jordan-Hare over the last few years.

Regarding Kodi Burns' alleged move to wide receiver, after watching this first game, I think I'm safe in saying that said position switch was much more real on paper than in reality. It's clear to me that Auburn has a 1-A quarterback, Todd--and a 1-B quarterback, Burns. If Malzhan can make the combination work--and it worked pretty darn well on Saturday--he's going to have an awful lot of options for this offense, and a lot of opportunities to be quite sneaky in key situations.

Tech has a pretty good offensive team, and it was heartening to see Auburn shut them down for most of the game. The Bulldogs would not have scored their initial touchdown without the Tigers giving them 30 yards in gift penalty yardage (plus another 15-yarder on that bogus interference call courtesy of referee Steve Shaw's typically-inept squad), and they rarely threatened to score afterwards. I really liked what I saw from Jake Ricks up front, and while La Tech's Derek Dooley quite sensibly called a game designed to pick on Auburn's thin linebackers, the patchwork corps was still able to crush Tech's running game and control the passing of QB Russ Jenkins; I was particularly impressed with Josh Bynes. And as far as the special teams are concerned, hey, what's wrong with having over 100 yards in field goals?

Louisiana Tech is obviously not a SEC team; if they were invited to join the conference, it would constitute a monumental success for them to finish higher than twelfth out of thirteen... but they're not Florida International or Charleston Southern, either. La Tech returned most of an offense that won eight games including a bowl last year, and they're clearly a well-coached squad. Beating them soundly won't mean much to Auburn's reputation nationally, but it should make quite a difference in the way this team regards itself, and in the way Auburn fandom regards the team and their coaches.

There's still an awful long way to go in this season, and the real tests haven't even started yet, but if my inbox is any indication, that adjustment among Auburn fans is already happening. Those who were watching Saturday were impressed, and they're starting to feel some confidence again after a long dry spell. Maybe that's the best thing that happened on that humid night of September 5, 2009: for the first time since the last hour of 2007, Auburn football was fun again.


AubTigerman said...

"Auburn football was fun again." Will I always enjoy reading your thoughts and most of the time I concur. I know It felt great to be in the stands Sasturday night!
War Eagle

Spuds said...

Aw, Will!
Auburn, really?
Well, I like how you roll, but in my house it's Roll Tide Roll!

Alan said...

Only two negative yardage plays, another improvement over last year. With nineteen seconds on the clock, the 2008 offense couldn't dream of getting in position to even try to score, let alone convert. Tuberville would have taken the team to the locker room.

On most running plays AU linemen drove the defense back a couple of steps. Sure does help if the runner gets two/three yards past the LOS before being touched! Last season our guys couldn't move UT-M.