Monday, November 30, 2009

Not There Yet

When asked over the past two weeks how Auburn might be able to beat Alabama, I replied, "Get a lead early and hold on late." In this case, it's not very comforting to have been right. Auburn was able to do the first, and in spectacular fashion, but as most of us feared, not the second.

Even so, there can be little doubt that this was the best possible effort from the 2009 Auburn defense. I'm still stunned that Auburn was able to completely shut down Mark Ingram while playing the same three linebackers for the entire football game. I completely expected Alabama to man up and wear down the defense with the run in the second half, but that contingency never even threatened to materialize. The Antonio Coleman-led front four utterly shut down the rightly-vaunted Tide running attack, and linebackers Craig Stevens, Josh Bynes and Jonathan Evans all played the games of their lives. The only shame I can find is that Auburn just didn't have anybody to spell them with. I'm not about to get mad at a secondary full of freshman for giving up yardage on the game-winning drive--especially when they had to do so against a team playing rules-optional football.

There was some grousing last week over Pat Dye's observation that Tommy Tuberville's recruiting over his last three years was weak. I can see how you could argue that Dye shouldn't be running down one of his successors in public, but it's very hard to argue that what Dye said wasn't accurate. Fifteen Auburn defenders registered tackles on Friday, compared to 24 for Alabama. Those extra nine guys (and the lack thereof on the Tiger side) made a huge difference in the second half. Lack of depth is not an excuse--you play the Iron Bowl with the players you have--but an excuse is not the same thing as a reason. Thanks in no small part to the previous staff's fall-off in recruiting, Auburn just didn't have enough players this time around, and it cost the Tigers what would have been a monumental win.

There was a moment, midway through the third quarter, when the sense of opportunity was palpable. With a touchdown's lead, Auburn's defense stuffed alleged Heisman frontrunner Ingram on four straight plays to reclaim possession, and you could feel the electricity surging through the stadium all the way down to your marrow. Every instinct shouted that a Tiger touchdown here would put the game away--and those instincts turned out to be correct. But instead, Auburn went three-and-out, and aided by (wait for it) a needless penalty, Alabama then managed a short drive and a field goal to recover a modicum of momentum.

While giving due credit to Alabama's excellent front seven--which does a great deal to mask a pretty pedestrian secondary outside of Javier Arenas--it's hard not to suspect that Gus Malzahn "went Tuberville" after getting that quick lead. Nick Saban's defense has always been susceptible to motion and misdirection. Utah famously ate it alive last year with misdirection and tempo, and all Al Borges had to do to discombobulate it in 2007 was move his tight ends around before the snap. Malzahn took advantage of those tendencies, and exploited the weak UAT secondary--big time--in all of Auburn's scoring drives.

So why, after blazing down the field for two scores, as well as after the second-half bomb to Darvin Adams, did Auburn go into a shell and insist on running Ben Tate into the tackles all those times? Alabama blitzes as well as anybody in the country, and Auburn hasn't handled the blitz well all season--so why insist on having Chris Todd try to throw from the pocket in predictable situations with little or no motion? And where'd the tempo game go? Beyond the Tigers' one long touchdown drive, it scarcely appeared for the rest of the game.

Some of the answer is surely that Alabama played better defense late than they did early, but I suspect those two floated Todd passes in the general direction of Tommy Trott on AU's third possession are the main answer. I'm no mind-reader, but it sure looked like Malzahn decided at that point that he was going to play close to the vest and avoid turnovers from then on out. Getting back to the numbers game, I'm sure it also made a big difference that Auburn essentially only has two wide receivers, making it easier on the defense to cover Terrell Zackery and Adams tight and ignore everybody else most of the time.

* * *

It took a while for the game to sink in. There's no doubt it was a great football game, one of the better AU/UAT scraps in recent history, but losing a great game can feel a lot worse than just getting stomped. It's worse when the outcome is a surprise, as in 2001 (or 2002 for the Tide fans), and worse still when you had it in your hands, but still lost.

The fact is that the shellacking of 2008 meant a great deal more to Alabama fans and the in-state media (please forgive the redundancy) than it did to Auburn fans. That outcome had been telegraphed for a good two months before the game ever kicked off, and nobody was particularly surprised when Auburn came out on the bad end of a lopsided score. Don't get me wrong, it still sucked (plenty), but the general reaction in Auburndom was more of a wincing shrug than an offended scream. When you know for weeks in advance that you have no particular hope of winning, losing doesn't have as much of a bite. In terms of pain and/or outrage, 2008 didn't even register on the same scale as say, 1985 or 2001. The 2009 game didn't hit those low marks, and certainly not in terms of the play on the field, but it's still one that nobody's going to forget anytime soon.

While I am immensely proud of how well these guys played on Friday, I'm not remotely inclined to declare a "moral victory." While I do believe such things exist, I think they're a bit like Halley's Comet, something that might occur once in a lifetime as opposed to every few years (and certainly not, as the press seemed to assert during Mike Shula's tenure at UAT, every few ball games). The last one I'd hang my hat on at Auburn would be the 1982 Georgia game, and AU would have to fall very far for a very long time before anybody could talk about recovering from a programmatic slump akin to 1975-81. Nothing like that has happened here; AU had a bad year in 2008, followed by a decent rebuilding season in 2009. That's not the stuff of "moral victories," it just means you've got more work to do to get back to where you've been.

It is a small comfort that the 2009 game served, at least for a short time, to smack down the overweening arrogance of the crimson polyester set that had been growing like bacteria in a sewer (although not as attractively) since September of last year. Based on what little I heard from the in-state call-in shows and from friends and family with the misfortune to be living in Alabama during 2008-09, the UAT fan yahoo and media concensus (again, pardon the redundancy) was that Alabama could roll in and whip Auburn by an even greater margin than '08 with just their third team. The rather different reality was enough to short circuit the classless "rammer jammer" cheer (I guess "we just escaped by the skin of our teeth!" doesn't have very much punch), although I doubt it'll matter as much to the can't-spell-college morons populating the Tide bandwagon these days.

But beyond the sidewalk alumni, I suspect this game did put a considerable dent in the smug confidence among the UAT booster set that every season from now on was going to be a replay of 1979. When Auburn collapsed amidst an Alabama surge last year and then hired a lightly-regarded head coach in Gene Chizik, that bunch thought the days of easy wins, cheap media adulation and complete disregard for the rules were back for good.

Having eked out a win, no doubt many of those bozos have already convinced themselves that, "it was just a rivalry game on the road," or other such rationalization… but what they can't say (at least not honestly) is that they expect for Auburn to be nothing more than a bump in their road for decades to come. That particular delusion has been put to rest; like it or not, they know today that the Auburn team that took their best squad in a generation right down to the wire is also the worst Auburn team they'll get to play against for the forseeable future.

That said, it's obviously not an ideal outcome. It's not even close to one. I'd rather have the win.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Wages of Inconsistency

It's been a very long time since a football game made me as angry as this one did. It shouldn't have; there have been plenty of losses far less explicable over the past five years--Vanderbilt last season, Georgia again in 2006, and practically any game this decade against Arkansas--but this one, for the time being, took the furious cake.

The loss wasn't an utter debacle; Auburn completely dominated the first quarter, and (rather obviously, given Demond Washington's 99-yard return), the special teams had by far their best game of the year. But in a game played by the two most penalty-prone teams in the conference, and against the SEC's most prolific granter of turnovers, AU wound up on the bad side of both counts, giving up 60 penalty yards--often at the worst possible moments--and committing two awful interceptions. Georgia, which had averaged more than two giveaways a game going in, didn't turn the ball over once. This kind of turnabout has become entirely too familiar in the recent losing streak to the Bulldogs: every time they play Auburn lately, Georgia manages to stop doing the bad things they've been doing a lot of, and start doing good things they haven't done well at all.

Then again, Georgia, even while playing well, couldn't do it all themselves. They got entirely too much help from Auburn. After ten games, it was no particular surprise that a one-deep-at-best Auburn defense gave up a lot of yards and points in the second half. The Tigers are playing two true freshmen and a sophomore in the secondary, and after Eltoro Freeman went out with a concussion, the defense had, at best, two SEC-caliber players left at linebacker.

But nobody expected this defense to play lights-out for 60 minutes. What was a lot more troubling was the offense's lapse into foot-shooting and predictability when it needed to keep pouring on the points. That, of course, didn't happen. The running game never got in a groove, and pass protection broke down badly in the second half.

The third quarter simply killed Auburn. The Tigers had only two posessions, yielding a three-and-out and a field goal. By contrast, Georgia held the ball for nearly twelve minutes and tacked on 10 points, with another touchdown coming less than a minute into the final period. After an interception gave UGA an easy drive for their final score, Washingon's kick return heroics and a mammoth but ultimately fruitless fourteen-play AU drive weren't enough. And once again, no really critical Auburn play--even one coming after consecutive time outs--can be considered complete without a false start from three-year starter Lee Ziemba, who still can't manage to stay in position until the ball is snapped.

I can understand Ted Roof wanting to protect a couple of freshman safeties, and it's worth noting that Auburn pretty much controlled A.J. Green, limiting the supposed best player on the field to three catches and 19 yards. But Auburn's pass rush died off somewhere in the second period, and given plenty of time and an effective running game, particularly in the second half, Joe Cox was able to get the ball to Green's teammates often enough to play catch-up and then some.

Why was this game so frustrating? Sure, part of it was losing again to a team that Auburn had been consistently beating two-out-of-three over the last generation or so. Part of it was handing a lifeline--again--to a faltering major rival. But I think what really got to me was seeing this team play so damn well and so damn badly all in the same game.

By the end of last year, there was no expectation of good play from Auburn. The team fell apart in early October, and by November was essentially un-coached. Losing was neither a surprise nor particularly painful. The loss to Georgia in 2008 was almost comforting, in that the Tigers turned in arguably their best effort of that dismal season.

This time around, though, we've seen this team play at a very high level--as well as a very low one, on a couple of occasions, but whatever else it's been, 2009 has definitely not been what Jerry used to call a "season of DEATH." And that, I think, is what made this one so hard to take. It's not the losing so much as knowing that the team is capable of being so much better, to the point of seeing exceptionally high quality play on the field, in this very game, but then also seeing a team that's still unable to maintain any consistency for sixty minutes.

And paying the price for it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Time Out

Sorry for the radio silence so far this week; I was on the road most of Sunday and Monday, and real life that piled up over the weekend is still interfering with a Georgia recap at the moment. I should have something up by sometime Wednesday.

If you're so inclined, you can click on over to to see what I was up to the last couple of days, including live-from-my-iPhone video of Monday's Space Shuttle launch.

Monday, November 09, 2009


The best thing about Homecoming, 2009: for the first Auburn game in what feels like an eternity, it didn't rain. Blue skies, bright sun, a stadium full of children and a game that was over before it started.

For all the heat Jay Jacobs takes for goofy scheduling (much of it deserved), this one was exquisitely well-timed. Light work against Furman after nine straight weeks of football was just what Auburn needed. The starters did everything they wanted to and then took the second half off, giving everybody this side of the waterboys a chance to get some snaps in a real game.

From a coaching standpoint, it was very nice to see such crisp execution (give or take the defense on Furman's opening field goal drive) and businesslike play against a ferociously outmanned opponent. You can grumble about the Paladins' fourth-quarter scores if you want to, but understand, that was basically against the scout team defense, and guys who might never see an actual game again in their careers. If Gene Chizik had pulled an Urban Meyer and left his starters in for the second half, he'd probably have been able to threaten John Heisman's scoring record.

The worst thing, of course, was losing Travante Stallworth, most likely for the rest of the season, to an ankle injury. Next-to-worst was the continuing horror that is Auburn's punt return game, which gave Furman a gift-wrapped score when Phillip Pierre-Louis fumbled the ball away on the six yard line early in the third quarter. That's awful against anybody, and it'll be fatal against either of the two remaining opponents.

Freshman Anthony Gulley, on the other hand, is what you might call a "good problem." Gulley played just about every position except the interior line and kicker on Saturday, including time at cornerback, receiver, and oh yeah, running back, where he scored two touchdowns and wound up being Auburn's leading rusher for the game. Given the parlous state of depth in the secondary, I'm guessing we'll see him at corner (if anywhere) for the remainder of the season, but he's obviously a kid with a very bright future.

There's really very little else to be said about Homecoming--although one could, if they liked, note the outstanding day from both Auburn quarterbacks, who combined for an eye-popping 27 of 30 and 373 passing yards--but it's well worth comparing this game to last year's 37-20 swan song against Tennessee Martin.

Auburn didn't pull ahead in that one until the middle of the third quarter, and didn't put the game away until early in the fourth--and even with that, the lowly Skyhawks got deep into Auburn territory three times in the second half. There wasn't a lot of scout team participation in that game, and anybody who left with a good feeling was probably still in pre-school.

The comparison is as stark as it is instructive. As Jerry notes, the Furman game was as relaxing for an Auburn fan as a cozy February afternoon in a comfy chair next to a roaring fireplace. The UTM game 360-odd years ago, er, wasn't. Things are a just a tad different this year, and entirely for the better.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Signs Of Life

When the Ole Miss game started, it was hard not to be swept up in a depressing wave of déjà vu. All the pieces were lined up: early kickoff, a bad three-game losing streak, and playing against a coach who'd made a career out of bedeviling Auburn. The defense promptly did a good impression of a worn-down speed bump, giving up a 96-yard touchdown drive, the offense's response was stopped by--wait for it--a badly-timed penalty, and petered out with a field goal. Not too much later, Chris Todd badly overthrew a wide-open Terrell Zachery on a deep route, the third such miss in four games.

If you'd walked in optimistic--and I confess, I did not--it must have been pretty tough to keep your chin up at that point. When Zac Etheridge was strapped to a back board and rolled out of the stadium with a very scary injury--one that must have been nauseatingly familiar to the Ole Miss fans in particular--it looked like matters had gone from bad to absolutely abysmal.

The best thing that happened afterwards, of course, was the news that Etheridge has regained motion in all of his extremities, and is expected to make a full recovery, although he'll probably have to give up football. The last is terrible for somebody who loves the game as much as Etheridge, but it still beats the hell out of an injury that could have crippled him for the rest of his life.

The next-best treat this Halloween was seeing Etheridge's teammates get up off the deck and start playing like a real football team again. Ted Roof has deserved some of the criticism he's received over the past month. His secondary continues to play with too-soft cushions, for instance, but let's give him some credit today: after that ugly first drive, he was able to adjust to bring more pressure on Jevan Snead, making that first touchdown drive the Rebels' last for the day. Holding any SEC team to one drive and one big play was something I really didn't think Auburn was capable of this year. I cordially despise "bend, don't break" as a defensive philosophy, but I suspect it's all Roof is able to do with the current team. When it works, and it did work Saturday, he deserves the recognition.

One funny thing that struck me was the general pointlessness of running trick plays against these two defenses. Houston Nutt's playbook has more goofy doo-doo plays than anybody's this side of Lubbock, Texas, and Gus Malzahn isn't far behind him. You run trick plays generally because you think you can surprise the other guy's defense and get a big gain or a score, but in this case, the other defense has seen this stuff in every day of practice, making them pretty hard to fool. That didn't stop either coach from pulling out most of his stops on Saturday, but with the exceptions of about two plays (both of them from Auburn), almost none of the doo-doo worked.

What did work for Auburn was the at-long-last return of Todd and the deep passing game. After that early misfire, Todd apparently settled down, and got a ton of help from Zachery, who managed to pull in a couple of astonishing catches in close coverage. The big second quarter reception that set up AU's first touchdown looked like it broke the dam; after that Todd was comfortable putting the ball down the field, and Zachery and Darvin Adams continued to pull it down with one acrobatic reception after another. That finally freed up Gus Malzahn's offense to "do what it does," namely get the defense out of position with misdirection and then go at them faster than they can recover. When the Ole Miss safeties had to step back to defend the long ball, it was Ben Tate time (with some welcome help from Mario Fannin), and Tate, now the #13 rusher in the nation, was more than happy to provide still more punishment in his stellar senior season.

After the first couple of series, I don't think anybody on the planet expected Auburn to rattle off 31 unanswered points. Midway through perhaps the longest and certainly the weirdest third quarter in recorded history, AU was up 31-7, and I think if the Tigers had stopped the Rebs on their next possession or two, the game would have been over right there. Unfortunately for my blood pressure, Auburn proceeded to give up a kickoff return for a touchdown and then a McCluster bolt for another score, but the defense woke up again, grabbed the first two-point runback in Jordan-Hare I can recall since the '96 LSU game (that one went for the other team), and shut down Ole Miss for the duration. Not letting the Rebels get back in the game, even after the slightly-flukey instant two touchdowns, speaks pretty well of all those young guys on the defense.

While any win after three straight losses is a good one, and an upset win over a conference opponent is better still, this was a very long way from a complete victory. It was a win Auburn had to have to rescue this season, but one that still clearly showed long-term problems, not least being the still-dreadful kick coverage and return game. I think we can say now that the offense has found its bearings again, but it's still entirely too inconsistent, and has to get back to making sustained scoring drives. Auburn can't rely on the big play to bail them out every week. The scoreless fourth quarter was a comedy of errors for both AU and UM on offense, and the Tigers wouldn't have survived it against a better team--although I was very heartened to see AU pound out a couple of first downs to seal the game; it's been a long time since they were able to do that.

The thing is though, Ole Miss isn't all that good. Snead is one of those guys with a big arm but no head to match. A few good games and a ton of media adulation apparently went straight to the aforementioned head, and now the kid thinks he's Dan Marino. He's not; like many highly-touted QB's with limited experience, if you can get him in pressure situations it's just a matter of time until he throws the ball to your defense. Dexter McCluster is just an outstanding running back, but besides him and maybe Shay Hodge, the Rebels don't have a lot on offense. The defense is better, no doubt thanks to Ed Orgeron's leftovers, but Houston Nutt's televangelist clown act has apparently already run its course in Oxford. It'll be highly entertaining to watch the reactions of the most delusional fan base in the SEC (at least when results vs. expectations are taken into account) if their formerly-number-four Rebels finish the season with a 1-4 collapse.

But enough about that bunch. The doldrums of October are behind us, and Auburn is back on the winning side, and two very winnable games away from a long-needed open date. Homecoming should provide an opportunity to rest just about everybody who's been worn down to date, and play everybody who hasn't. After that, Gene Chizik will have his opportunity to live up to September's bright promise… or not.