God girl grill gridiron

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Take me home to a place I belong.

What a terrible season. And what a terrible game.

In spite of our bottomless cellar of defeat, I was looking forward to our Morgantown brawl. Earlier on Thursday I took the second round of nine-hour computerized standardized tests to which all medical students are subjected - I was mentally exhausted after two weeks of study and a long day under the microscope. But the game was on - what luck! My fiancee, in the utmost kindness, urged me to watch. Cider in hand, I settled in. But what transpired was our season in perfect miniature. A nerfed offense, a bewildered defense, and just enough of a bright spot to make you think if only we had...

But what? If only we had what?

It was especially painful to me because we were playing West Virginia, a team who I've followed with some delight the last few years. I loved the spread and shred's ingenious combination of option power running a la the single wing and the hypermodern spread passing game. I couldn't get enough of the bandit 3-3-5 defense that they run and all its blitz-havoc potential. I had a huge man crush on Owen Schmitt. Honestly, when I heard Auburn was going to the spread this year, the thought of West Virginia on the plains made me nearly delirious. I looked at Lester, at Burns, and Ziemba and thought we're better than them already. Cue PPL. Cue Tristan Davis and Mario Fannin. Lights-out... right?

We all know how that turned out. The wrong version of the spread was haphazardly installed in a team that wasn't prepared for any version of the spread, and it was then mismanaged. The defense inexplicably bent and broke and broke again. Desperation. Panic. Chaos.

So when I watched that game... when I watched the play-action screen go for a first down, the zone read run to perfection, simple swing passes rocket through our secondary like Patriot missiles... I thought if only we had done that. And in a bizarre, Stockholm Syndrome-like turn of events, I kind of turned off. It was fun watching West Virginia's plays succeed, because they were good plays and well-executed. Yes, it sucked mightily that it was happening to Auburn, but in West Virginia I saw a shadow of the Spread Eagle and I exhaled.

Like Isaac, who watched his eldest son sell his birthright and himself was deceived, as I watched my Esau of the plains get clobbered by the mountaineers I could only think this is what what I wanted for you.

The Offense
fries at the bottom of the bag

We sure surpised 'em right up front, going to the power and powering our powerful way down the field. The first half was the classic Tuberville grind-like-a-six-ton-millstone offense. But then they adjusted and the 2008 incarnation of the power looked worse than 2007's. Then we had to go back to the spread because our defense was hemorrhaging points, and the spread looked worse than the 2008 power. We gained 27 yard in the second half, fourteen of which came during garbage-time prevent-defended Kodifying.


My gut is tellin' me our stripped-down playbook doesn't allow us to make significant adjustments at halftime, which explains why defenses stone us with such regularity. We might get ahead for a half, but they figure out what we're doing, game-plan to stop it, and take care of business. The business of giving us the business.

But that's sort of encouraging for the program on the whole. It means that we are still as talented as Auburn is ever rumored to be, even though we only play half a football game offensively. It was very satisfying to never even get a glimpse of Barrett Trotter, as Kodi did a good job of accurate throws and well-timed runs. And it warmed the cockles of my heart to see our backs punishing the mountaineers for their overpursuit. Did I mention that Tommy Trott caught every well-thrown ball sent in his direction, for multiple first downs?

Those guys are really the fries at the bottom of the bag. War Damn Eagle!

The Defense
"The fundamentals of the [defense] are strong."

Pat White's two turnovers in the first half were all to the defense's credit. The one was a fantastic heads-up play by Bynes to end a long would-be-scoring drive, and the second was a good throw under pressure that Walt MacFadden flat-out stole and God bless him for it.

But the fact of the matter is that West Virginia did basically whatever they wanted - the game was not as close as the scoreboard would have you believe. And we can't blame it on the offense any longer, as the Tigers dominated time-of-possession right out of the gate - in fact, the defense took the field on the first possession and let West Virginia right into the red zone. Their first drive went like this: incomplete, complete for 13, rush for -2, rush for 22, complete for 8, complete for 7, int. And in my humble opinion, that PA screen to the mid field would have found our men well out of position had Josh Bynes not sniffed it out. In the second quarter, when the offense was moving methodically and keeping our defense happily rested, Noel Devine took off down the field for consecutive runs of 20 and 36 yards on the first two snaps of a drive. The mountaineers punted once. You just can't say the defense got worn down when they looked exhausted the entire game.

Other tiger fans may be more adept at reading this defense, may be more schematically attuned. So I'm offering these up mostly as questions: four main things I saw that really bother me:

1. Linebackers covering receivers
Rhoads has been extremely willing to play 4-3 against the three-wide and nickel vs. the four-wide. This might be a good call, considering our linebackers are really beefed-up strong safeties. And I can understand that man-for-man our linebackers are George Patton compared to the callow youths that inhabit our secondary. But when were in the nickel, for instance, often I'd see one linebacker blitz and the other drop into a hook zone. This leaves a lot of the field undefended, and it puts a safety on the slot receiver. The choice of formation just isn't getting the job done. This wouldn't be so much of an issue if not for...

2. Ineffective blitzing
We had three honest-to-God blitzes that stick out to me. The pressure that forced the screen pass to Josh Bynes, and the two sacks. The two sacks were things of true beauty that wrung out my adrenal glands, perfect storms of angry young defenders swirling in from all directions and closing down on Pat White like a burning house. (Sure, we did have a number of strong moments in the run defense, but these were entirely offset by the remaining plays in which we were nearly unable to defend the run at all.) Other than that, the pass rush was non-existent, even when Mike fired down and the offensive line had to man-block. As we had been cracked up to be, our line should be able to get pressure from Doolittle, Coleman, Goggans and co. when it's one-on-one blocking. But we don't.

3. Single tacklers
The pride of the Auburn defense under Chizik and under Muschamp was the swarming tackle. Some poor sap would get the ball and instantly be buried by three, four, five Tigers. But those days seem to be gone. Now, instead of tackling in parallel, the Auburn Tigers tackle in series, whereby a ballcarrier must break four tackles in succession rather than break all four simultaneously. Again, this may be a choice of scheme, but it isn't working because....

4. Auburn will miss the first tackle
Unless Antonio Coleman or Josh Bynes was tackling, this was painfully true. A single white jersey usually meant broken ankles and broken tackles.

Now, we also gave up yards because we bit real hard on West Virginia's option attack, but I think we had to because of #2 and #4 - they boil down to not controlling the line of scrimmage and not tackling. This defense is simply not performing its fundamental duties. Against teams that have a pulse*, they will lose a battle that our offense can not win in a single half. Against effective running teams, the defense is going to get romped on. LSU snockered us, Arkansas embarassed us, West Virginia leveled the dental playing field, and I don't need to remind anyone here that the two most effective running teams left on our schedule constitute Amen Corner.

Special Teams
God bless you, kick return game

If there's any one unit we needed to flourish, it was the kick return game. And by God it was electrifying! Hat's off to you, Fannin and Davis.

The rest of the special teaming was largely irrelevant. Durst was phenomenally unlucky on the bounce, but the defense didn't exactly make it matter. Likewise, Byrum didn't exactly contribute to the loss with his hook.

The return game, though - wow!

for want of a kingdom, a space heater was lost

Tommy Tuberville is livid.

In what was surely the most enlightening bit of in-game commentary that I will ever hear, the ESPN commentators pointed out that our sideline heaters were off. Deliberately. As in, you're gonna be cold until you play like men. I'll buy you a coke if you can tell me the last time Tommy Tuberville - or any other Auburn coach - was so clearly furious and resorted to such means as hypothermia to motivate his team. Or even needed to.

What do you make of it? Tuberville's been cool as a cucumber for as long as I can remember, even in the midst of humiliating, soul-crushing defeat. And now this?

Auburn tigers, please, someone disabuse me of the notion that if we can handle UT-Martin, we will lose seven games this year.

War Damn Eagle, always.

* In 2008, "having a pulse" means you are Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Tennessee if they had a quarterback or an offense that by many accounts came into this game in worse shape than ours.

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