Tuesday, September 25, 2007

First down breakdown (and Power Poll ballot)

Will Collier's From the Bleachers isn't the most frequntly-updated Auburn blog out there, but like your classic hole-in-the-wall BBQ joint that doesn't bother with any fancy sides other than a half-assed cole slaw, the quality of each of Will's posts more than makes up for any lack of variety and/or quantity.

So when Will wrote this about the Auburn play-calling against New Mexico St. ...
While I can understand difficulties due to personnel, I do not understand what's going on with Auburn's offense in terms of game planning and play calling. Thus far the offense hasn't even been vanilla, it's more like unflavored yogurt. It's not just ineffectual a lot of the time, it's also predictable and even boring to watch. There's no misdirection, no deception, not even a hint of unpredictability. If I see Ben Tate run off tackle for a yard on first down again I think I'm going to scream (okay, I confess: it already makes me scream). It reminds me of the worst days of the Nallsminger disaster, and the sheer un-Borges-ness of Auburn's tactics makes me wonder just who is making the important decisions this year. If the answer is "Borges," then Al needs to get his mojo back. If the answer is "somebody else," that somebody needs to go tend to his knitting, because what he's doing so far ain't working, and it ain't going to work.
... I was just a tad surprised.

Like Will, I wasn't happy with the six straight runs to open the game regardless of the result of the bomb to Smith, but following that I couldn't think of any particular point where the game was still in doubt and I thought "Wow, that was painfully predictable." I've stood up for Borges a couple of times over the past few weeks and have generally considered the criticism of him to be mostly knee-jerk reaction to offensive sputterings entirely blamable on the personnel he's working with. After all, I don't think it's a coincidence Borges was a grade-A Certified Genius amongst Auburn fans right up until the point Cox got chewed into corn meal by Dorsey and friends in 2006.

But if Will feels this strongly, I thought maybe I'd missed something. So I decided to go back through the play-by-play and chart Auburn's first-downs. Were the Tigers as un-creative as Will said? They finished the game with 22 1st-and-10s before Fannin's fourth-quarter score put the lead at 48-20 and the game completely out of reach. Those 22 went like so, with "M" for middle, "E" for end and "L" or "RT" for off-tackle/guard plays:

1. Burns LT for 4
2. Tate LT for 5
3. Burns to Smith for 58
4. Burns to Smith, inc.
5. N/A, fumbled snap
6. Tate E for 3
7. Cox to Dunn, inc. (this was the TD drop)
8. Tate E for 9
9. Tate M for 3
10. Tate E for 12
11. Cox to Bennett for 9
12. Cox to Stewart for 13
13. Fannin RT for 6
14. Tate RT for 8
15. Tate M for 1
16. Cox to Tate for 23
17. Tate M for 1
18. Fannin E loss of 5
19. Cox to Swinton, inc.
20. Tate M for 5
21. Tate E for 4
22. Tate E for 13

Auburn went up 22 on that possession and then started their next drive first-and-goal before going up 28, so I think that's the end of where this would be useful.

Discounting the botched snap, that's 21 Borges playcalls on first down. Seven, or exactly a third, were pass plays with the other 14 all runs with either Fannin or Tate. To some extent, I think they back up Will's assertions: there's no outright trickery here, no end-arounds or misdirection and just the single screen pass to Stewart (the Tate reception was a check down). Play-action was pretty much as creative as Borges got on first down, and I think he will have to do more to keep the likes of, well, hmm, let me strain to come up with an example, Florida on their toes. And running a full 66 percent of the time on 1st-and-10 is probably still a little high, even for a team that was ahead the entire second half. (Though some teams make even 66 percent look like Leach's pirateball.)

But there's two things very much worth noting:

1. All that running helped make Auburn's first-down passing very, very effective. Burns and Cox combined to go 4-7 for a TD and an average of 14.7 yards-per-attempt, and those numbers of course look substantially better if Dunn doesn't botch the sure-thing score in the second quarter. (Though the penalty on the Stewart play would hurt them slightly as well). Borges perhaps could have been more creative on first down, but I would say he did about as well as could be expected (if not better) capitalziing on the tendencies Auburn was showing.

2. Even when running, Auburn had more than a little success. The Tigers averaged 8.19 yards-a-play on these 21 first downs. It's a little hard to argue, from where I sit, that Auburn should have been doing something different on first downs when 2nd-and-2 was the average result. Even tossing out the bomb to Smith doesn't hurt the numbers too much--even without it Auburn netted 5.7 yards on these first downs.

The bottom line? There's room for tweaking, certainly. But I have to disagree with Will, based on this game at least, that we're back to the Nallsminger days or that it was even "ineffectual." Yes, New Mexico St.'s defense is, to put it charitably, forgiving. But 4.9 yards a rush, 5.9 a play, a single flukish turnover, and 42 points (with 13 ascribed to the defense) is more than acceptable regardless of the opponent (Tennessee Tech excepted), particularly when half the offense hasn't even started shaving yet. Until Saturday at least, I have no complaint with Borges or the offensive coaching.

Might as well toss this out there while I'm at it ...

1. LSU. Well thank goodness Trindon Holliday looked so freaking good last Saturday, because if there's one thing LSU needed it was another weapon in the backfield.

2. Florida. Seriously: has anyone ever seen a quarterback combine Tebow's passing ability with his kind of smashmouth running ability? Ever? Anyone? Bueller?

3. South Carolina. Honestly, no shame in losing by 12 to LSU on the road (the shame's in Spurrier's shocking white-flag field goal decision) and the road win over the Dawgs is still the most impressive win on anyone's resume south of the top two.

4. Georgia. Bama fans, we feel your pain. Though not really. Actually, what we felt at the end of that game wasn't anything like pain. Sorry for the confusion.

5. Kentucky. Sorry, after what Syracuse did to Louisville my personal jury's still out on the 'Cats.

6. Alabama. I liked the Tide a lot better when they did things like punt from the opponent's 41 down 10 in the fourth quarter, not all this resiliency and poise crap we're seeing now.

7. Tennessee. Had less trouble with Arkansas St. than Texas did, you can say that for them.

8. Arkansas. Am I the only one who thinks the Hogs drawing a crushing 15-yarder for having one guy knock the other guy into the UK kicker is a little silly? Shouldn't there be some kind of "incidental contact" leeway? Not that you deserve to win when you have McFadden and Jones in the same backfield and score zero offensive points at home to Kentucky.

9. Vanderbilt. Domination of Ole Miss looking a bit shinier. Still very much frighten the easily-frightened Auburn fan in me.

10. Mississippi St. UAB (likely), Ole Miss (quite possible), and one more upset along the road (home to Tennessee Oct. 13?), and the Bulldogs could be bowl-bound. Startling.

11. Auburn. No, I do not believe Auburn to be the 11th-best team in the SEC. But they can't go ahead of Miss. St., unlike Vandy we lost our home SEC game to a Mississippi school, and Arkansas gets a lot more slack to losing to Woodson, et al than we do to MSU Third-Stringer, et al. This poll thing sucks sometimes.

12. Ole Miss. Nicw showing, but horseshoes and hand grenades, fellas, horseshoes and hand grenades. Unless you're Charlie Weis.


Anonymous said...

.....I'd also add, to the would-be Borges critics, a scenario to keep in mind. In the first quarter, we go to the line with three freshman starters on the OL, AND a freshman QB. Facing a 9-man front, the last thing you want is your 18-year-old QB dropping back and being faceplanted by some crazy blitz.

.....Instead, we tried to establish the run, then burned 'em with play-action. Result: defensive confusion. If our receivers could catch better, this thing would have been in the 70-point range.

Acid Reign

MiseanAUFan said...

I agree with you on the play calling- in addition to what you have stated, I also feel that a game against a team like NMSU is not the best on which to judge our play calling. In fact, I was actually surprised that we threw the ball as much as we did, but Cox struggling in previous games probably had a good deal to do with that, otherwise we probably would have ran the ball even more.

Besides, it's hard to blame the play calling when you put up 420+ yards of offense (which probably been more, had our defense not been forcing turnovers so well, leading to short fields for our offense), or score 7 TD's, regardless of the competition.

Buford T. Justice said...

I'm with you Jerry. The offense certainly looks better when, you know, guys are catching the ball, not missing blocks and not turning the ball over.

However, I thought it looked like there was a different playbook with Burns and with Cox. Of course that observation is based on a small sample size (two series) and I would also say that expectations should be pretty low for a guy who has only been on campus for two months.

The argument could be made that we are all being a little unrealistic in comparing every team to 2004. Obviously that was a special team the likes of which we may not see for some time. On the other hand though, I expect us to reach a level as a program where we don't look so inept regardless of personnel.

KennyBanya said...

Bottom line is that the game was against NMSU. That's not going to tell us much.

All we learned is that Cox can be an adequate quarterback when we rush for 200 yards. But then again we already knew that (see 2005).

I also disagree with Will and the common sentiment that Borges' play calling has been sub par. I think that is a cop-out for the AU fans that just won't own up to the fact that we have very little talent on this offense - and what talent we do have is almost all Freshman and RS Freshman.

I don't think Bill Walsh could finish better than the top half of the SEC offensively with Cox, Tate, average offensive line and the worst receivers in the league.

Now, who is to blame for the lack of talent and a very thin quarterback depth chart? That should be the real question.

Sidenote: I was upset that Al didn't take the opportunity late in the game to work on Kodi Burns passing the ball more. That seems like the exact kind of game practice that he needs. I am so sick of Tuberville saying that Burns doesn't know "half the offense". How freaking hard is it to put 25 passing plays in the gameplan that Burns could have been learning for the last 8 weeks?

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Joe Blow said...

Great 1st down analysis. However, I would much rather see an analysis of what Auburn has done on 3rd downs. They are dead last in the SEC and 92nd in the nation in 3rd down conversions at 33%...which is absolutely abysmal. I'd love to know what's going on there.

Jerry Hinnen said...

Great series of comments here.

AR: I think you're absolutely right that the o-line/QB situation dictated how they opened the game. I'm with Will, though that you still can't really afford to just open the game three-and-out twice in a row.

Kenny: No question that Tubby and crew whiffed badly on their WR recruiting a couple years back. I mean, they handed Swinton a scholly and it's his best friend who's the go-to guy now. That say something. Also agree on Burns not getting enough reps.

Joe: If some rich Auburn fan wants to pay me $20K a year so I can blog full-time, we'll get you not only first and third down but second, fourth, and even the occasional Colorado-style fifth down. You do raise a good point, of course, about conversions and I'll see if maybe I can do something after the UF game.

Joe Blow said...

Haha, I hear you! I didn't mean it to come across as a slam or anything. I've just brought up third down conversions in several conversations with my fellow Auburn friends, and they always shrug it off. I don't know why a lot of people ignore that statistic, but they do. To me, that's the one Auburn statistic that sticks out like a sore thumb. Keep up the good work. I enjoy reading your blog.