Monday, October 26, 2009

Full Circle

There's a palpable air of disgust among Auburn fans since the team's most recent debacle, this time a never-close-for-a-moment blowout in Baton Rouge. One bad loss--Arkansas--could be shrugged off as a blip. A second--Kentucky--might be rationalized as a young team struggling to reestablish its identity. But three in a row, with the last coming in spectacularly inept fashion, that can't be acknowledged as anything less than a very ugly trend.

From the rash of mental errors on the field to the ubiquitous and ridiculous sight of former ticket office manager (and Jay Jacobs' BFF) Tim Jackson lurking around on the sidelines, an Auburn machine that ran with scarcely a hitch through September has thrown every conceivable rod in October. You didn't have to be a mind reader to hear the thoughts of the dispirited faces of the AU players and fans in Tiger Stadium. They sang out loud and clear: "Here we go again."

For opponents, the recipe for beating Auburn--soundly--is right back to where it was a year ago: stuff the run, get a lead, and cruise. That's all you need to do, because Auburn can't hurt you down the field, and their defense is too thin to stop you.

Chris Todd was either injured against Tennessee (and I strongly suspect that to be the case), or he's simply lost his mojo. Either way, Todd can no longer make the throws he was nailing for the first four and a half games, and by now everybody Auburn plays knows it. With the long threat gone, defenses can just stuff the run early and tee off on Todd late. All the misdirection in the world doesn't do you any good when the defense knows you're limited to the first 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. The safeties can just stay home and the defensive line can pin its ears back and go after you. Under those conditions, the magic of early 2009 has precipitously faded right back to the immobility of 2008. And of course it doesn't help any that the offensive line has gone right back to jumping offsides at the worst possible moments, or that Auburn still doesn't have a punt returner who can be trusted not to fumble a fair catch.

Auburn's defense hasn't had anything resembling a pass rush since late in the West Virginia game, and whether due to lack of players or just poor strategy, defensive coordinator Ted Roof is looking worse and worse as the opposing scores keep running up. And I think it's safe to say that the early season rumormongering about Gus Malzahn leaving in December to take a head coaching job aren't going to be heard again so long as his offense is averaging in the single-digits, as it has over the last two weeks (if you take out the meaningless garbage-time touchdown late Saturday night, it's a shining five point average).

I'd like to come up with something positive here, but the best thing I can say is that LSU wasn't able to run the ball all that much against Auburn. Of course, LSU hasn't been running the ball against much of anybody this year, and since they were able to throw pretty much at will against Auburn, they really didn't have to run if they didn't want to, so the point is rather moot.

Try as I might, I can't see how you don't look at this team and think that the wheels have come off. As to what that says about the young Gene Chizik era, the best thing I can say is that first years are rarely indicative of future performance (here's the canonical example). Recruiting and attrition have been so horrendous recently, Auburn might as well have been on probation for the past three years; the Tigers are playing with at least fifteen fewer scholarships than their opponents, and one glance at the defense tells you that in terms of SEC talent, things are even worse than that.

But even a team with limited numbers can play with discipline, and keep fighting on every play. Auburn's not doing either one right now, and that's a damning indictment of a coaching staff that certainly appears to have lost their team, and their way.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bad To Worse

It's a sportswriting trope--and a truism--that there's nothing new under the sun (or the lights). Sports and the teams that play them have cycles, and if you watch long enough, you'll see the same things happen again and again to very different people.

Almost exactly eleven years ago, Auburn fandom watched in shock as Terry Bowden up and split halfway through a disastrous season. At that time, the fan base itself was split, divided between those who'd had enough of Bowden's antics and those who thought he'd been unfairly pushed out by the "power brokers." But roughly a year after that, the number of Terry's defenders dropped away precipitously as it became painfully clear just how bare the cupboard had become in the latter years of his tenure. The then-new Tuberville staff wasn't free of blame for the mid-season losing streak of 1999 (playing not to lose cost them close games against both Mississippis, for instance), but it was clear from early October that they were dealing from a very limited deck.

Watching Auburn's defense trying in vain to bottle up Kentucky's running game on Saturday night was probably enough to remove any lingering nostalgia for the Tommy Tuberville era among Auburn fans. While Gene Chizik and Ted Roof will and should share some of the blame for the current mess on the field, neither can do anything about the two or three years of lackadaisical recruiting that brought us to this point. It's hard to locate even half a dozen starters who'd make the two-deep on any SEC defense this side of Nashville, and I'm sorry to say that Tuberville's legendary laziness is largely to blame.

The problems aren't limited to simple talent deficiencies. All those defenders leaving their feet or vainly grasping at passing ankles goes right back to not having practiced adequately. Lack of numbers and fear of injuries on defense led Chizik to ban full-speed tackling during the week. Unfortunately for Auburn, the numbers aren't going to get any better from here on out, and it's still up to Chizik and Roof to find some workable answers. Yes, they're limited in what they can do, but what they've been doing so far isn't enough.

Of course, the defense wouldn't be so much of a concern if the offense hadn't come 360 degrees back around to its flailing level of a year ago. Back in August, you would never have convinced me that Auburn could average scoring 40-plus points over five games--and after those five games, you'd have had a hard time convincing anybody that the Tigers could be held to seven offensive points... against Kentucky. But all of that still happened.

The reasons why aren't that hard to hash out. Gus Malzahn's offense is quarterback-centric, and Chris Todd is on his second consecutive bad outing. But what's far worse is that apparently five games worth of film was all that was needed for two very middling defensive teams to out-scheme the Mad Scientist. During the first half, when Todd would step up and fake a snap count, then look to the sidelines for the check play, Kentucky's defensive backfield would almost always shift... and far more often than not, they shifted to the right places to stop that play.

I did a little checking around on Sunday to make sure I wasn't seeing things, but the consensus was pretty clear: Malzahn is showing his cards. He's playing to consistent tendencies, and his opposition has figured that out. When both Arkansas and Kentucky are blowing up your plays left and right, that's as clear a sign as you can get that you've tipped your hand. Malzahn's offense is highly dependent upon misdirection and confusing the defense, but I'm here to tell you: they weren't confused these last two weeks. It doesn't say anything good that nobody realized that after the Arkansas game--or worse, they did realize it, but didn't do anything about it.

Maybe worse than the lack of performance, Auburn showed a distressing lack of composure and discipline for the first time this year. Just when the offense finally looked like it could put together a decent second-half drive, five consecutive penalties effectively ended the game. That's something nobody can blame on Tommy Tuberville. Whether the penalty on the goofy third-down trick play was correctly called or not, it's up to the coaches to warn the referee ahead of time when you're going to pull something like that. If you don't, you're running the risk of confusing the officials, and confused officials penalize first and apologize later (if that).

Add all that up and you've got a very bad combination. After a boffo start, Auburn is now way off its moorings, and there are some very nasty storms rolling up on the horizon.

For almost all of the last staff's tenure, one of Tuberville's better traits was his ability to coach up his assistants when matters got particularly dire (although one of his worst traits was the converse; when things were going well, Tubs didn't bother). Now that responsibility falls to Chizik. It's up to him to push Malzahn's schemes away from where his opposite numbers can predict what's coming, and to get Roof and the defense on track regarding basic fundamentals. If he can't do either (and very likely if he can't do both), it's hard to see how he's going to do better than break even in his first season as head coach.

Monday, October 12, 2009

But I Don't Like Spam

When the game time for Arkansas was announced late last weekend, I had a mind to put up a short post linking to previous early-kickoff debacles against the Razorbacks. I never had the time to go chase down the links (last week was exceptionally busy in the real world), but it would have looked something like this:
So the Arkansas game will be kicking off at 11AM. What could possibly go wrong?
... and, of course, this Saturday's game wound up being yet another can of rancid Spam for breakfast.

I could try and be cool here and rant about how I don't get how this keeps happening, but the truth is really pretty plain: Auburn just doesn't take playing lightly-regarded Arkansas teams seriously, and as you can see by perusing the above links (to which I could have added 1992 and 1995, even though the latter wasn't a day game), the results of that casual disdain are usually pretty ugly.

Arkansas 2009 was fundamentally no different from those embarrassments of years past. Auburn sauntered in to an early-kickoff game against an SEC opponent (in this case, on the road to boot), played uninspired, lackadaisical ball, and got killed.

Give all the credit where it's deserved: Arkansas had its act together on Saturday. They had a great game plan and they executed it well. Ryan Mallett, bereft of the pressure that had hounded him in a couple of bad outings, played like the NFL prospect he's so highly touted to be, and his receivers caught everything in their time zones. Better still for the Hogs, their defense completely stifled Auburn in the first half, and the successful passing game along with the big lead let the running game get on track for really the first time this season. It was as complete a win as you're likely to see.

Auburn, on the other hand, seemed to be looking for ways to screw up, and the Tigers generally found what they were looking for. Neither line played worth a damn; Chris Todd rarely had time to throw, and in the first half none of the backs had holes to run through. The defense took a huge step backwards in general. There was no pass rush to speak of, tackling was lousy again after showing marked improvement against Tennessee, and the secondary drew more pass intereference calls than I care to remember (some of them were even deserved).

Watching Auburn play Saturday was like a live demonstration of Murphy's Law: every dumb thing that could happen, did. Critical fumbles, stupid penalties, blown assignments. The two most productive players on the offense, Todd and Ben Tate, both blew plays that could have put the Tigers back in the game: Todd overthrew a nobody-near-him Terrell Zackery in the first half, and Tate fumbled inside the five in the third quarter.

The game was a gigantic misfire for the new coaching staff. No team as young and thin as Auburn has any business taking an SEC opponent lightly, and it was up to the coaches to get the team ready to play with intensity. Suffice to say, that didn't happen.

That's not to bury Gene Chizik and his staff just half-a-dozen games into their tenure. There isn't a coach in the world who hasn't had the same problem; Auburn's previous regime was rather infamous for it. The real question is whether the staff and the team will be able to learn from the loss, and have the ability to not repeat the same mistakes again.

I've heard more than a bit of grousing directed at defensive coordinator Ted Roof. While Roof certainly doesn't deserve a pass for what turned out to be a very poor game plan, it ought to be recalled that the guy really doesn't have a lot to work with this year. Auburn is way short of a solid two-deep on defense, and in terms of legitimate SEC players, the numbers are probably even worse than that. Roof had been doing a pretty fair job of working with mirrors to date; some of those mirrors are now just glittering shards on the fake turf of Razorback Stadium. It's going to be a serious challenge for Roof and his boss to patch things up for the rest of the season.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

What He Said

Orson Spencer Swindle Hall Mellencamp on Bobby Bowden:
Please remember that in the case of the Bowden family, the coach equals the program, something entirely separate from the school, and not really something tied to the school in any substantive way, like in the form of a library or some other non-footballin’ related thing like that.
Exactly so. The Bowdens are about the Bowdens, and everyone and everything else are, at best, secondary

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Full Moon Fever

Towards the end of the 1993 season, a Sports Illustrated writer lamented that year's SEC Championship Game being another Alabama-Florida snooze-fest, and noted that he'd have preferred to see Auburn play Tennessee, for reasons that included, as he put it (or at least as best I can paraphrase from memory), 'two fanbases with an inveterate disrespect for each other.'

I've never been a big SI fan, but in that particular the mag was exactly right. Neither Auburn nor Tennessee folks think much of one another; having spent the better part of fifty years ruining each others' seasons back in the days when the Tigers and Vols were annual early-season opponents will do that to you, and the intervening years since the 1992 conference split haven't changed opinions much. The offseason additions of two new head coaches who've been held in general contempt by rival fans since they days they were hired also helped contribute to the general disdain.

Speaking of intervening years, it's been almost exactly five of them since Auburn last traveled to Knoxville, undefeated but unheralded, and proceeded to run the Vol masses right out of their own stadium.

The more things change...

There were quite a few times on Saturday night when it looked like the 2009 Tigers were about to crank up a similar blowout, but the ball never quite bounced that way. Instead, the Tennessee home crowd and ESPN audience were treated to a remarkably Tubervillian Auburn win: a few big drives accompanied by a lot of offensive miscues, wrapped around a generally solid but occasionally sloppy defensive performance, and a final score that looks closer than the actual game ever was.

The media meme going into the '09 Tigers' first road trip was, "We'll learn a lot about Auburn in this game." What I learned on Saturday night was that this Auburn team is a hell of a lot more physical than it appeared during the first four games. Tennessee has a lot of the same problems today that Auburn had a year ago in terms of the offensive skill players not matching the scheme, but there's nothing wrong with the Vols' offensive or defensive fronts. Even while misfiring too many times in the red zone, Auburn was still able to gash Tennessee for 459 yards of balanced offense without giving up a sack, and while rumbling for 128 of those yards, Ben Tate brought back some very fond memories:

...the more they stay the same.
Photo: Todd Van Ernst

While it's easy (and rather enjoyable) to make fun of little Laney Kiffen and his apparent need for regular diaper changes, the same can't be said for his father Monte, an accomplished veteran who's stepped in to manage Tennessee's defense. As a coach friend of mine noted, the elder Kiffen's respect for Gus Malzahn's offense was clear from the early going. Kiffen played things very safe, sticking with a standard 4-3 alignment for almost the entire game, and committing to keeping big plays to an absolute minimum. While he largely succeeded in the latter, Kiffen still wasn't able to keep Malzahn's speed attack from wearing his guys down. By the time Auburn was driving for the put-away touchdown and coffin-nail field goal in the fourth quarter, the Vol defense looked like it had just finished a triathalon after four or five sleepless nights. Auburn was also able to dial up an answer on virtually every Tennessee blitz (even if the execution wasn't always there) and that all by itself says a lot about Malzahn's abilities as a play caller--just in case outgaining Florida's offense vs. the Vols by 136 yards didn't say enough.

Auburn's defensive performance was exceptionally solid--except when it wasn't. In general the tackling was phenomenally better than we'd seen in the early games, and the Tigers thoroughly stifled Tennessee's admittedly non-explosive offense for a good 55 minutes of the game. Unfortunately though, AU just doesn't have the defensive depth to dominate from start to finish, and it showed at the ends of both halves. Fatigue gave the Vols a hope-saving score just before halftime, and contributed mightily to allowing 16 fourth-quarter points--although even fatigue can't excuse giving up the garbage touchdown as time expired (oh, and Laney: I really doubt you'll ever coach against AU again, but on that off-chance, we'll remember your ridiculous signal to go for two. Punk). The defense deserves great credit for Tennessee never being in position to win the game, but Auburn still needs to bring along some more guys to help out the starters. There are plenty of better offenses than Tennessee's still on the schedule--although not, I suspect, many better defenses.

Lo and behold, the special teams actually showed occasional signs of being good, most notably springing Onterrio McCalebb loose on Tennessee's last kickoff to help slam the door. If the Tiger kickoff team can just pick up their play in coverage, they'll be doing their teammates (and my blood pressure) a world of good.

It was obviously not a perfect night, but a win on the road in the SEC is not required to be perfect. Although confidence is not a trait that Auburn has been conspicuously lacking in this young season, there aren't many confidence-builders better than going into a hundred-thousand-plus hostile stadium and eventually running all those hollering hillbillies off. Auburn had a lot to be proud of, and almost as much to learn from Saturday night. From here, it looks like Gene Chizik's troops are well-positioned to put both of those outcomes to good use.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

All-Gustav Thursday

Auburn's 2009 success on offense has not gone unnoticed (well, except for the toad beat writers populating the AP poll and the SIDs voting in the "coaches" poll, of course). Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn gets the in-depth treatment from Smart Football guru Chris Brown, writing at Dr. Saturday, as well as an, um, somewhat less intellectual take from Clay Travis. Both are impressed, as are Stewart Mandel of SI and Chris Low of ESPN.

In non-Gus news, if this account of blowing off a meeting with Peyton Manning is accurate, Jonathan Crompton may go down as one of history's bigger... hmm, family website. Well, it start with a "d" and ends with "bag, " and has an "oosh" sound in the middle.