Sunday, October 14, 2007

What I care about

The timing could have been better. But I don't care about the 7 points Arkansas scored Saturday night.

What I care about is the 20 they didn't. I don't care about the 43 yards Darren McFadden gained against the Auburn defense; I care about the other 127, playing at home in a must-win game in every possible sense of the term, he did not. I don't care about Felix Jones's 10-yard and 17-yard runs on the Hogs' touchdown drive; I care about the 74-yard second-quarter touchdown run he never made, the 35-yard third-quarter backbreaker that would have given the crippled Arkansas offense just enough confidence to breathe. I don't care that Casey Dick finally threw a touchdown pass; I care that he put the ball in the air 25 other times and still got less than 98 yards out of it.

I care deeply, deeply about those things because only the most insular and jaded (or "National Championship or bust!"-delusional) of Auburn fans could deny that we are watching one of the more--if not the most--phenomenal Tiger defenses of recent history, a throwback to the Rocker-and-Bruce-and-Benji Roland-and Craig-Ogletree '80s nightmares that powered Dye's best teams.

Obviously the '07 Tigers--even after a three-game stretch in which they allowed only 31 points combined--aren't quite the 1988 Destroyers of Worlds and they certainly don't have that kind of All-American star power. Yes, when Blackmon regained his eligibility in July I wrote that "the next great Auburn defense" might be on its way, predicated on the fearmongering talents of studs like Blackmon and Groves and the budding Savage. But those talents have either been laid waste by injury or selfishness (both, I suppose, in Groves' case), and that makes what the Auburn D is doing right now even more memorable, because they're not doing it with talent. What are they doing it with instead?

They're doing it with coaching. Muschamp is just the latest evidence that whatever you think of Tubby's game-day motivation and preparation, he is nearly unparalelled in his ability to choose quality assistants. With his and his players' orientation year under their belts, Muschamp has both time and again put his Tigers in the correct position to make plays and lit the kind of fire in them necessary to make sure they make said plays. I suspect that the longer Muschamp patrols the Auburn sideline the more his hummingbird-on-his-third-espresso persona will lead to chuckles and cracks from the SEC peanut gallery, but if you were a college defender, would you rather play for a guy who taps you on the butt for a good play or the guy who leaps clear into your friggin' arms he's so uncontainably excited by your play?

Muschamp is a big reason Auburn is doing it with heart. Chris Evans wasn't even a scholarship player when he arrived at Auburn. All he has done is hold together the spit-and-bailing-wire Tiger linebacking crew nearly singlehandedly in the face of opponents like Tebow and McFadden. Pat Sims nearly left the team. He is now an unmovable rock in the center of the line. Zac Etheridge was supposed to spend a year learning behind Eric Brock. He beat out Brock, who could have sulked and instead has ensured Savage's absence has barely been noticed.

The list goes on: Josh Thompson. Craig Stevens. Pat Lee and Jae Wilhite. Antonio Coleman and Antoine Carter. Sen'Derrick Marks shouldn't really go on a list about "heart," since he offers more physical gifts than any Auburn starter from Saturday other than Blackmon, but he's been playing like his hair is on fire all season anyway, too.

I spent the first part of last Saturday at the Big House watching Michigan blast hapless Purdue, and one of the things you can't help but notice is just how much Wolverine fans care about Mike Hart. Whether it's the endless stream of "20" jerseys, Hart t-shirts, the cries of joy when he spun off the back of a defender and scored on what appeared to be a lost play, the cries of anguish when he left the game with a limp and appeared on the JumboTron grimacing as his ankle got the once-over.

It occurred to me that perhaps not since the outpouring of admiration and respect Auburn fans offered Campbell, Cadillac and Ronnie, and Borges in 2004 have we cared about our players or coaches in anything approaching the kind of fashion you see here in Ann Arbor regarding Hart. I know as an SEC fan I'm supposed to never admit envying anything about a Big 10 program under any circumstances, but yeah, I was jealous.

Then came Arkansas's 3rd-and-2 on the Auburn 45 in the first quarter, and McFadden, as I said just this week the best SEC running back in a decade, taking the pitch right. He gets strung out, cuts forward, and Thompson and Evans stone him in the hole as coldly as a stoning comes. No gain. Punt.

And it occurs to me that Auburn fans do have something to care that strongly about: this injury-ravaged, star-less, manic, gutty, madman-coached, Gator- and Hog-conquering remarkable defense. They may not be able to pull out a win in the cauldron of Baton Rouge. But I have no doubt that the defense of Will Muschamp and Chris Evans and Pat Sims is going to give us a reason to applaud, a reason to hold our hearts in our throat, a reason to care for our Tigers in a way four short weeks ago we never thought we would in 2007. God bless them.

Other thoughts from Saturday:

--Auburn is now 2-0 halfway through our murderous four-game road slate. That's 14 out of 15 road wins for Tubby. Patently unbelievable.

--Tubby might not have been overflowing in compliments for his team afterward, but this wasn't as close a game down-to-down as the score indicated. Auburn outgained the Hogs by nearly a hundred yards, 290-193, fumbled inside the 10, missed two makeable field goals, and handed the Hogs dozens of yards in field position with uncharacteristically crappy punts. Auburn was, without question, the better team. To be the unquestionably better team on the road against a quality team scratching for its season's life (remember, a claim outgained Kentucky couldn't even begin to make following their visit to Fayetteville), particularly on a night when Auburn couldn't pass its way out of a wet paper bag, is a very, very encouraging sign. Speaking of said paper bags ...

--He didn't throw a pick, seemed fairly aware in the pocket (one sack!), and of course led yet another game-winning drive (again: someone please brainwash Cox into thinking it's the last drive of the fourth quarter and Auburn's tied or trailing on every drive. Yes, he'll be confused and angry if Auburn faces 4th-and-long early in the drive and sends the punt unit out, but what are the odds that happens if Cox really is trying to lead a two-minute drill?), so it's not fair to say that Evil Brandon made an appearance this game. But geez, the Auburn passing game nonetheless finished up averaging a Notre Dame-esque 4.4 yards an attempt, and that's after it gained 30 yards on its final attempt of the evening. (Before then? 12-22, 71 yards, 3.2 an attempt. Ugh.) I wrote this week that expecting the Auburn offense to continue its dreamlike efficiency from the Florida and Vandy outings was to ask for disappointment, but obviously it would have been nice to not see it plummet off the statistical cliff quite so dramatically. Some blame here has to go to the Auburn receivers, who regressed to their weeks 2/3 "Make plays? Us? No, sorry, you want the units on the other side of the ball" shirking of responsibility.

--Fumbling is officially an Auburn running back problem, not a problem of any particular Auburn running back. Someone tell them that the tub the ACME salesman left on the sidelines was axle grease, not glue.

--When I wrote (again, from the RazorbackExpat Q n' A) that "if Wes Byrum has the opportunity to kick a game-winning field goal, Wes Byrum is going to kick a game-winning field goal, by damn," I didn't realize he would be quite so intent he would miss other field goals to set up said game-winner. I appreciate you going the extra mile to make me look prophetic, Wes (given this blog's track record, moreso than most bloggers would, in fact), but next time, just don't sweat it and go ahead and make the earlier kicks. Thanks.

--What's with Scarbinsky claiming the LSU-UK result gave Auburn "an opportunity" it "took advantage" of? After the UK win, an Auburn win Saturday meant the Tigers would be in control of their own destiny in the West. But an Auburn loss meant the Tigers ... would still be in control of their own destiny in the West. (The only set of results that would have meant otherwise was an LSU win and an Auburn loss.) Unless Auburn follows up with a second win over LSU this week, the only thing the LSU loss did for Auburn was to piss LSU off. I hardly think Tubby was celebrating when he heard the news. (Also? If columnists are going to insist on writing one-sentence paragraphs in their columns, is it really too much to ask them that those sentences be, well, complete sentences and not half-assed fragments? Are "To lose the game" or "Combined" really acceptable to use as complete, stand-alone paragraphs? I dunno, maybe it's just me, but somewhere my second-grade grammar teacher is circling Scarbinsky's column in red pen and Ms. Thrasher, I'm somewhere over here nodding in agreement.)

--The same team that lost to Miss. St at home is 60 minutes away (60 incredibly difficult minutes by the end of which Cox will likely be chewed up and spit out, but still) from taking a two-game lead over the West frontrunners in the division race. I know everyone's been saying this season is insane, but has anyone's season been more pleasantly insane to date than Auburn's?


Pat said...

Heart. Courage. Fortitude. Tenacity. No one word encompasses all that can be said about Auburn's defense this year. If this were Finland, it would be easy as the word is "Sisu" (which is described as hanging from a cliff until you feel you can't hang any more,... then hanging on for six more hours).

I agree with your assessment about Muschamp. What a great coach. It isn't hard to understand why and how his players make play after play against some of the most productive offensive talent in the nation. As skilled as his defensive plan is, the passion he brings to his coaching style is infectious.

This guy is a keeper, at least for a few seasons. When the inevitable happens and he leaves for his first head coaching job, let's just hope it is outside of the SEC. As much as I like the guy on the field, I don't want to regularly see him on the other sideline.

Great game, great coaches, great team.

War Eagle!

d761 said...

A few things:

- Is it just me or did you get the feeling that both offenses wanted the other team to win? No, Auburn, you win. No, I insist, Arkansas, take this game, please. Maddening.

- How do you know you're an Auburn fan? Phone call to my Dad in the third quarter: "Dad, Arkansas is going to drive it down the field late in the fourth quarter to win this game, I can feel it." Phone call to Dad in the fourth quarter after Arkansas scores: "Dad, AU is going to drive it down the field and Wes is going to miss the field goal." It never can be easy, can it?

- Muschamp has made a believer out of me. I don't ever want to hear some tripe about Saban running the show at LSU. In fact, if the defensive output (or lack thereof) against OM is any proof, I'd say the opposite is true.

- Little thing, but Montez Billings has progressed very nicely this year. He made some extremely clutch and difficult catches against Arkansas. Dunn may be the most maddening wide receiver I've ever watched. Break five tackles for a five yard gain? No problem. Catch a slant for a thirty yard gain? No problem. Drop previous passes that are right in your hands? No problem.

- It all comes down to LSU. Regardless, I'm extremely proud of this team and the way, as you pointed out, they have come together to overcome very disappointing losses. We've finally got some chemistry.

d761 said...

One last thing:

A funny thing happened during the broadcast Saturday night. While I listened to Patrick and Blackledge talk about fried pies for twenty minutes, I had a breathtaking thought. The Three Daves on JP are now better commentators than anything ESPN has to offer.

I small part of me died that night.

Thanks for the great write-up.

J.M. said...

Scarbinsky is horrible in his post-game columns.

He relies on the one-to-three word paragraphs to fill column space.

All the time.

Oh crap.

I'm doing it.

Make it stop.

P.S. d761, I didn't know that pecan and chocolate fried pies existed. I'm kinda thankfully that the 20 minutes of fried pie talkin' happened.

Anonymous said...

    Nice post, J! But we DO bleed for our team. They guy on my watch list right now is Pat Simms. I watch him every play on defense, and cringe when he gets hit hard. It's AMAZING what lengths teams are having to go to to keep him from getting the handoff!

    I've suffered with Scarbinsky for a LONG time in my paper. What's sad is that he's written some of his best stuff, this year. Thank God for the internet, where you can pick up better written Auburn news!

Jerry Hinnen said...

Pat: "Sisu." I like it.

d761: I told the buddies I was watching the game with at the start of the fourth that it felt like another [expletive deleted] Earthquake Game. Thanks goodness Arkansas left us a little more time than LSU did. You're right that Dunn is maddening.

JM, anon.: I actually used to like Scarbinsky (better than the alternatives, anyway) but somewhere along the line it seems like he just got a little too talk-radioish.

It's not a good thing.

At all.

(and yes, Sims has been a monster. All-SEC caliber, if you ask me.)