Thursday, October 25, 2007

1. Opportunity

First in a series.



No. Watch: this is where this game gets decided.

It's 2nd-and-7 LSU, on the Auburn 35. 1:50 left in the game. Colt David's career long is 45 yards; LSU needs seven more yards to make that range and probably 12 to feel good about themselves. Or as good as they can feel, anyway, with a kicker who missed a 36-yarder just two weeks ago at home and honked a 28-yarder to open the fourth quarter in this same game, in this same venue, two years ago. Put briefly: until LSU cuts the field-goal distance to 42, 43 yards or less or so, Auburn is the game's most likely winner.

So: 2nd-and-7. The call is a toss right, to the strong side of the formation, to Jacob Hester.

Sen'Derrick Marks, playing left defensive tackle for Auburn, gets a decent push upfield but the play moves wide too quick for him to do anything but force Hester to cut upfield a touch later than he might like. Quentin Groves, playing left end, is blown three yards off the line of scrimmage and towards the sideline by LSU tight end Richard Dickson. LSU's right tackle, Carnell Stewart, fills in behind Dickson and erases linebacker Craig Stevens at the point of attack. Dickson's and Stewart's blocks have opened a lane for Hester.

Auburn has a player standing in this lane, however. Safety Eric Brock moved quickly and smartly towards the line of scrimmage on the toss and is in position to make the tackle. It will be one-on-one between Brock and Hester, a mere half-yard beyond the line of scrimmage. If Brock stones him (unlikely), LSU will face 3rd-and-7. If he simply tackles, LSU faces 3rd-and-5, 3rd-and-4. Makeable distances, yes, particularly in two-down territory, but Auburn will still have the upper hand and LSU did not execute in a similar situation the week prior at Kentucky. And: while there is a lot of space for Hester to work with, Brock is in position.

But he does not make the tackle. Hester cuts to his left and Brock nearly whiffs entirely, leaving pursuing weakside linebacker Chris Evans to drag Hester down from behind but not before LSU has moved to the 25-yard line. First down. Auburn no longer has the upper hand, and 90 seconds later Les Miles will feel secure enough in his field position that he will smartly eliminate his field goal kicker from the equation entirely. The game is not lost on the touchdown pass. The game is lost when the touchdown pass not only becomes a possibility, but a sound strategy. The game is lost when Eric Brock fails to tackle Jacob Hester.

I don't mean to single Brock out as a goat; he just happened to be the key Auburn player on what I view as the game's key play. (Hell, you could argue Groves was as much at fault for not holding his ground and allowing the lane to form in the first place.) There are also extenuating circumstances for Brock: Due to the injury to Aairon Savage, Brock has been on the field nearly every play for the last several games. Hester, on the other hand, was fresh as a corndog-scented daisy thanks to LSU's flotilla of running backs and is a load in any case. And as quickly as Brock reacted, so clean were LSU's other blocks that didn't really have time to set himself and explode. He did everything right; he gave himself the opportunity to make a play that may have altered the game's outcome; but for understandable reasons, he didn't take advantage of it.

Which is why that play not only played a major role in deciding the game, but serves as a microcosm of it; Auburn-LSU 2007 in a disappointing nutshell. This game was Auburn's capital-O Opportunity. A massive, season-sized one. There are oodles of sound reasons Auburn missed it. But that doesn't mean it wasn't there.

It's true that in the wake of the Crooming, the idea of Auburn even receiving (much less seizing) that kind of opportunity seemed flat impossible, the mere starry-eyed dreams of too-close-to-see-the-big-picture team members and coaches, the delusional CandyLand chirpings of fans not mature enough to see the truth. So I wonder if finding out that the truth was as bright and pastel-colored as those fans said, as Tubby bafflingly declared it might be, is why many Auburn fans seems to have this loss shaken off while I'm still watching Hester slip through Brock's grasp on DVR, cursing, rewinding, cursing again.

Of course it's exciting to think about the program's future when the entire team, sans QB, is back next year. Of course it's terrific that a team that turned the ball over 10 times in two weeks neither fumbled nor threw an interception facing quite possibly the country's best defense. Of course I am more than proud of the Tigers' incredible team effort, of the guile of Brandon Cox and that amazing 83-yard TD drive, of even Jerraud Powers being in the best possible position to foil that last touchdown pass when we would all immediately forgive him for falling a step behind on a call like that one.

But this was an Opportunity to play for and possibly win the SEC championship. This team was (no, not "is," unless Flynn decays back into his vs. Kentucky form) fully capable of that accomplishment. And that's not an Opportunity--however badly we Auburn fans would like to believe it is--that comes every year.

Just looking at the Tubby era, the 1999 and 2003 teams were never close. The 2001 team was capable of pulling things together for one-off shots of brilliance (Florida, Georgia) but was never top-to-bottom good enough to win a title. Ditto 2000, fun as the ride with Rudi was, with Florida standing in the way. Ditto 2006 after that brutal LSU win, with victory after victory arriving via smoke-and-turnover-related-mirrors.

The 2002, 2004, and 2005 teams, yes, did have this Opportunity. 2002's was lost on 4th-and-Too-Damn-Far against that outstanding Georgia team. 2005's disappeared in the haze of J**n V****n's brain. 2004's, of course, was seized by the throat and never released.

And now we have seen the 2007 team give itself that same Opportunity, and we have now seen it go. Give Tubby full credit, yes, for ever having a group of Tigers this young in that remarkable position. But I don't think Auburn fans can be at the point yet where we can take these Opportunities for granted. It was there, right there, barrelling into Auburn's arms like Hester coming towards Brock.

Should we expect Brock to make that tackle? Should we have expected Auburn to come back from Baton Rouge with a win? No. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't still hurt like total hell to watch Jacob Hester break free and carry another SEC title away and out of reach for our team.

If Auburn finishes 10-3, even 9-4 with an Iron Bowl win, I will feel better about this. But today Auburn is 5-3, and forgive me for still mourning what was lost for good this year last Saturday.

4 comments:

J.M. said...

Thanks for that. My stomach hurts again.

Nigel Tufnel: It really puts perspective on things, though, doesn't it?

David St. Hubbins: Too much, there's too much f***ng perspective now.

Anonymous said...

My God, dude..

I was starting to get over that loss.

Reading your last entry is like being in high school and seeing your ex girlfriend (whom you still love) make out with some other dude who looks better than you.

Just painful.

War Eagle anyway..

-Reynolds

Pat said...

Jerry,

Take a deep breath. Let it out. Once more. Hold it. Let it out.

Think back to the evening after the MSU nightmare. One of the winningest 5-year senior QBs in Auburn history was no longer the starter. The memory of the most horrific noise ever heard in Jordan Hare hung over our heads like a pall. Brandon Cox was benched, bewildered and booed (My God!) by the home crowd and facing a 1-2 start to the season, complete with a defeat by the worst team in the entire conference in our home stadium.

This is that same team.

This is the same team that came within a second of beating the #1 team in the nation at their home stadium, only two weeks after defeating the #4 team in THEIR home stadium. In between they limited the #3 and #8 leading rushers in the entire NCAA to less than 43 yards each.

This is that same team.

It's not the height, but the steepness of the climb that makes one a mountain climber. And these youngsters have indeed climbed several mountains, and deserve more than agonized second guessing from their fans. Just enjoy thier development into men. Win or lose, I'm positive this season's trials and triumphs will pay big dividends in a very short time.

God Bless them, but they had me at "Touchdown" on that beautiful, breathtaking 4th quarter drive that took the lead back from LSU. The one that no other team has been able to do on the Bengals all season.

This is that same team.

War Eagle!

Pat

Richard said...

Jerry,
Hard to take wasn't it? I know how you feel, believe me. But this one was never in the bag, ever! You know that. You even wrote about it. It was a swim upstream all the way. This entire season has been a swim upstream. But as bad as I feel about the way it turned out, I still love this team. I know you do too, and hoped they would get the win we all know that they deserved, but who could have seen that touchdown coming (though, the field goal would have finished us up just as well). Anyway, I'm not cashing the chips just because we lost one we were expected to lose.

To be honest, I was willing to bet the farm (or a big chunk of cash if anybody would take me up on it) that we would win this game against all odds. And I would have been justified in spending the winnings for 59 min and 48 seconds of that game. Even though I would have lost, I would have been proud of them. The magic is still there. We know this season won't be a 'great one' on the W/L tally, but I still like the way these kids are coming together. Now, let's polish off the rest of these guys and wrap this season up as a winner.

WAR EAGLE!

SCTiger