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.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Good analogy, Will. I can't find any holes at all in it. We left after the 3rd Quarter to beat the traffic, and I told my daughter as we were leaving, "if we don't score again, we lose."

BTW, thanks for the tix, again. Much appreciated.