Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday knee-jerk: Pick yer poison. Or, rather, the opponent's.

The JCCW's new weekly Sunday feature.

You're an Auburn fan, seated in the ear-splitting lower bowl of Jordan-Hare Stadium as ULM lines up for the kickoff last night. Shakers are shaking, Auburn's bench players are waving their arms in the universal sign for "I can't HEAR you," you're trying to hold your "Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrr" for as long as you can without taking a second breath. The Monroe kicker takes a couple steps forward. And then, just as you prepare for Eagle, Hey!, you notice you seem to be the only person still making any noise.

Everyone's frozen in place. The shakers and are in mid-shake, the kicker's leg poised like wax behind him, the Auburn sideline's arms stuck in the air, everyone else's mouth weirdly open. It's like some movie or other you can't remember.

"Cool," you say. Then there's a voice.

"Good evening, Auburn fan," says the voice. "This is God."

"Sweet. Finally nice to meet you in person, God," you say, because you are cheeky.

"The pleasure's mine," says God, chuckling, because even the Almighty can appreciate a little cheekiness. "I'm here--well, I mean, I was here already, omnipresence being what it is, but here in the revealing myself to you sense of 'here,' you follow me ... anyways, here to offer you a choice. In a moment the ball will be kicked off and Auburn's season is going to begin. You are going to be able to choose the ways in which Auburn excels tonight."

"Whoa," you say, because ... Whoa.

"Tonight, you can see Auburn be above average in all facets: in the passing game, the running game, defensively, special teams," God says. "In each of these ways, Auburn will be sound and functional, but they will not be outstanding. They will win by 34 points, 48-14. This is your first option.

"Your second option," God continues, "is that the passing game will struggle. And I do mean struggle--at times it will look like the quarterbacks and receivers spent their last month on the practice field playing canasta and pinochle instead of the game of football.

"But in exchange, Auburn will be completely dominant in all other aspects of the game. The running game will have holes opened for it wide enough to land small planes in, and every back who takes a carry will run with power and purpose. The defense will pitch a shutout despite Monroe's spread putting Hood and Thorpe on the field for virtually the entire game. And aside from a missed makeable field goal, the special teams will look as sharp as they ever have--they'll even get that me-damn punt return monkey off their back.

"In short, in every facet aside from the passing game Auburn will look every bit as good as you, the Auburn fan, had been hoping they would since Burns scored against Clemson last New Year's Eve. They will win by 34 points, 34-0.

"This is your second option. You can take either this scenario, or the all-around above-average one I described for you earlier, and you will see it play out before you. Choose."

"Hmmm," you say. "I can't have everything besides passing be awesome and the passing game also be awesome? Or, like, at least be mostly good if not awesome?"

God sighs. "No," he says. "I can't give you the world. It's mine."

"OK. Well, I guess I'll take the dominance and bad passing over the above-average stuff," you say. "I mean, spread or not, under Tubby Auburn's always won with defense and the running game. So if both of those things are totally and completely kick-ass, that should make up for the passing thing, right? It's not like we've been the second coming of '80s BYU either of the last two seasons anyway, and that's with a running game that's been pretty good, I guess, rather than balls-out excellent. If it ends up that good this year, hell, screw the forward pass. This is the SEC, God! It's about the run. It's about, like, getting 10 more yards out of a punt so your D has that many more yards to wok with. It's about 11-guys-to-the-ball defense and smacking people in the mouth and beating LSU 7-to-freaking-3, God. I will totally take the dominant running game and defense over the decent passing game. That's my choice."

"Probably a good one," said God. "Enjoy the game."

"Wait," you say. "You're sure Auburn can't throw the ball around a bit and still shut those other guys out?"

"Maybe later this season," God said, and the air seemed to smile. "But not tonight. See you later."

"Thanks, God!" you say, as the Monroe kicker's leg accelerates back into normal speed, Eagle, hey! resounds in your ear, Pierre-Louis fields the kickoff, and Auburn goes on to own Warhawk ass as you cheer your throat raw. Except, of course, when Auburn drops back to pass.

Three Stars*

Antonio Coleman. His game-opening sack must have been the easiest one of his career--why yes, Warhawks, we'd love for you to leave our most dangerous defensive end completely unblocked on your first play from scrimmage, thank you very much--but it's one thing to tackle the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage, it's another to utterly clobber him in a Grovesian manner that results in the release of the ball (and possibly poor Kinsmon Lancaster's bowels) and six easy points. Auburn never really had to break a sweat after that. I don't think most plays that broadcasters claim "set the tone for the whole game" actually set the tone for a whole game, but this one did. And all that's before you get to Coleman's four other tackles, including one for-loss.

Clinton Durst, FTW!?! So that's why the SEC's preseason all-league punter couldn't even get onto the field: seven punts for a raw average of 43.4 a pop, four downed inside the 20, and--this the best part--five fair catches leading to a net of 42.3. If maintained over the entirety of 2007, that would have placed Auburn second in the country in net punting, and that's with a couple of jittery-looking first-half efforts.

Robert Dunn. Once again showed off the hands of stone that make him a question mark at wideout. But once again also showed off the Michael Jackson-quality shimmies and shakes that make him such an exclamation point as a punt returner and all-around Guy With Ball in Space. Should maybe give Thorpe and Hood a nod here for being wonderfully anonymous until the point where Thorpe planted that Warhawk receiver like so many discount pine seedlings--but you break a 12-year punt return duck that saddened me every time I heard it mentioned, you deserve some credit, too.

Three Opportunities for Improvement

Khrisodi Burn-Stodd. Obviously. Give Burns some credit for making some things happen with his feet--and displaying why I suspect most Auburn fans would like to see him continue to get the starting nod, assuming his injury isn't serious--but there's not much else I can say that 13-of-27 (in a short-pass system) for 85 yards and both a pick and a TD doesn't.

Establishing the run. Give Tony Franklin a modicum of credit for his blame-hogging honesty in assessing his Auburn debut, but that honesty was needed after seven of his first 10 play calls were passes (despite a Tiger advantage up front that became obvious as the game progressed) and punts on Auburn's first six offensive possessions. I'm not necessarily arguing anything would have been dramatically different had Auburn started the game grinding away on the ground--one second-quarter three-and-out consisted of Lester for 1, Lester for 1, Lester for 2--but nonetheless it didn't surprise anyone to find that this offense's strength was its physicality up front and the stable of backs. It might have been better to have started the game playing to that strength.

Hands. Here we go with the hot potato thing again. Sigh.

Numbers of importance

3.1. Auburn's yards-per-pass-attempt. This is not so much very good.

16. Combined tackles for Neiko Thorpe, D'Antoine Hood, and Josh Bynes in their first major action (or action of any kind) for the Auburn defense. Not bad.

8.8, 3.7. Yards-per-carry for Ben Tate and Brad Lester, respectively, over 13 and 14 attempts. Some of this is bad luck rather that a genuine difference in performance--Lester had a nice gain called back on an Isom hold and got more of his touches in the first half when the Tigers had yet to really start heading downhill--but Round 1 in the battle to become Auburn's late-season starting running back still goes to Tate.

Your bottom line

I might have written a reminder here about how we shouldn't take any win--particularly lopsided ones that even cover Auburn's 26-point spread--for granted, but the nice thing about said win coming against Louisiana-Monroe is that I doubt we need it. Auburn beat the same bunch that handed the SEC its only loss to a non-BCS team in all of 2007 by 34 points. In this post-Appalachian St. era, that's a result that doesn't need any embellishing--even if Texas A&M was happy to oblige by losing to the Warhawks' functional equivalent. (If you want something to be genuinely despondent about, try the loss of Pierre-Louis for the season after one freaking play.)

As for the passing game's woes, I'm not sweating just yet. ULM came in way, way more familiar with Franklin's offense from their battles with Troy, for a start. Season-opening nerves are going to have more of an impact on the precision execution needed for the air game than he ground game. And, again: how many times over the past two years has Auburn won with quarterbacking just as bad--if not worse, given Evil Brandon's interception predilections--as we saw yesterday?

Besides: it'll get better. We didn't see a single thing yesterday to suggest that when it does, Auburn won't be every bit the SEC contender we believe them to be.

*It's a hockey thing.


Anonymous said...

great recap, great opening... war eagle.

tiger7_88 said...

I called Byrum's missed 32-yd field goal "The Joe Cribbs Car Wash Curse".

Sullivan013 said...

Good choice on which game you'd like Auburn to have. Nice to know that God is an Auburn fan.

We can improve the passing game, but to be so-so on D and running is the kiss of death in the SEC.

Nice writeup, Jerry

Jerry Hinnen said...

Not that anyone's reading comments back this far, but on the off-chance the "e-mail follow-ups" button was clicked ...

Sullivan, TWER: Thanks for the kind words. And Sully, yes, after went 11-2 in 2006 while basically outgaining no one, I think it's safe to say the Almighty often looks in our favor.

Tiger: Huh? I said Byrum would kick a game-winner if he had the chance, not that he'd be perfect. But thanks for thinking of me. It would be nice if I could curse things. A certain coachbot would have it coming.