Monday, September 22, 2008

Monday knee-jerk: Human after all

This is going to come off as beyond trite, a statement from a strange fifth dimension of trite where we all walk around sounding like NBC's Olympic sideline reporters dithering about "guts" and "heart" as they cover a sport they understand nothing about, but it's true and I'm saying it anyway: One of the great things about college football is that makes you feel like a kid again.

The overwhelming majority of the time, this is a Good Thing. When you are a kid, every single thing you encounter or do is worth getting WAY EXCITED or WAY SAD about. A quarter's worth of rubber bouncy ball you can throw hard enough so that it bounces from the floor to the ceiling and back is a week's worth of entertainment. A dead bird beneath the sill of the window it crashed into will start the waterworks up not only for an immediate half-hour, but again at dinner, and again as your Mom tucks you in for the night. We can't help but eventually grow into thinking of the ball as just a piece of rubber and the bird as just one dead bird in a flock of hundreds, but it's an awfully dull life you lay out for yourself if you don't feel that way about something on a regular basis. Every week for 14 weeks in August, September, October, and November--and, with luck, one day in late December or early January--college football gives us all a reason to either dance with joy or cry in frustration.

This is important. Auburn-LSU is important. We don't follow college football because we want to bring back the repeated thumping of the heart and swoop in the guts that come with being nine; we follow college football because when the next-biggest thrill of the week is a particularly good rerun of House on USA you hadn't seen before, we freaking need them.

Of course, there's a flip side. Having access to the emotion of a nine-year-old also means putting away the rational thought processes of the 29-year-old, which is how a bunch of college-age kids dressed up in plastic armor become your heroes. There's no point in pretending that's not what they are. They are gifted in ways that allow them to win battles we could never even compete in, to defeat the villains we hate but can do nothing about. They're the ones who will prevent the crushing sadness of defeat and give us all the euphoria of victory. They'll Save the Day. And so despite the fact you are 29, you spend all last week believing the same things about Auburn's defense you believed about Dad growing up. They can fix anything. Everything will be OK as long as they're around. There's nothing they can't do.

There is always a point, however--when he gets the family hopelessly lost on vacation, say, or slices his hand wide open carving the Thanksgiving turkey, or something like that--at which you realize that as much as you love and respect your Dad, he's not Superman. He can make mistakes, however forgivable. It's a realization that's inevitable, and even necessary--but that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt like bloody hell itself.

And so we finally come to halftime of Auburn against LSU, the stadium still buzzing the buzz of thousands with Gabe McKenzie's pick-six and the Good Tigers' 14-3 lead. I had no illusions about the game casually ending with Auburn two possessions in front--it's simply not the way this series works anymore--but I had a hard, hard time imagining at that point that Auburn would lose the game. Not only would LSU have to score at least 11 points after a half in which they'd gained barely more than 100 yards, they'd probably have to put up 14, since I figured Auburn's offense had moved it just well enough to be worth a field goal at least. That was two touchdowns, and there was no way--just no way--Auburn would let LSU into the end zone twice, not in a home stadium this crazed, not with so much on the line. LSU would have the ball last and as they had in 2004, as they had in 2006, Auburn would stop them. I believed this with as much fervor as I have anything that wasn't gravity or God, with a faith I have no problem calling childlike.

So the most painful moment of the game for yours truly was not the 15-yard sack of Chris Todd on Auburn's final desperate possession that for all intents and purposes ended the game, not the LSU touchdown that snatched away in decisive fashion the lead Auburn's offense had so thrillingly scratched out for itself, not even the long silent walk out of the Jordan-Hare upper deck, a walk that after a loss always feels like leaving a giant birthday party where one of the guests accidentally ran over the birthday kid's dog.

No, the most painful moment was LSU's fourth possession of the second half, when after watching the 14-3 lead somehow become a 17-14 deficit, Auburn's defense at least had the good fortune of seeing LSU pinned back at their own nine with the chance to reclaim a modicum of field position. Instead, Charles Scott burst through a gigantic hole for 12 yards. The next play Scott ran untouched into the secondary for nine more. A quick screen to a wide-open Brandon Lafell gained 18. And then, for your coup-de-grace, Scott dashed footloose and fancy-free through the heart of Auburn's defense for 31 more yards. In four plays, LSU had gone from their own 9 to Auburn's 21.

Each one of those plays felt like having a nice clean hole in the pit of my stomach carve out with an ice cream scoop. I'd been wrong. There weren't any capes after all. None of them could fly. Antonio Coleman? Human. Tray Blackmon? Human. Jerraud Powers and Zac Etheridge and Merrill Johnson and Antoine Carter and Chris Evans? Human, every one of them. Even Sen'Derrick Marks, terror of terrors, who for all his blindingly-obvious brilliance was one of our two defensive tackles on a drive where the middle of the line parted in a fashion the Red Sea would be ashamed of? Achingly, heartbreakingly human. The Auburn defense is not, as it turns out, composed of an unending chain of demons. It's just made up of very, very good football players.

That's not meant as an insult. I mean it: these guys are very, very good. But they also gave up 293 yards in that second half to a team with a completely untested freshman quarterback who'd finished off the first half throwing what might be the single dumbest interception I've ever seen. They gave up 23 second-half points. Most damningly, for the second straight year they needed one stop to defeat LSU and put Auburn firmly on the road to Atlanta; for the second straight year LSU drove the ball all the way into the end zone. Very good, yes. Heroes, no. The truth, as it so often does, hurts.

In their defense, let me say several things, this first: at times they did not receive help from their defensive coordinator. Paul Rhoads dialed up a seven-man delayed blitz against Southern Miss and had it result in a simple completion for a first down on 4th-and-10, but for some reason neither this nor LSU's far-superior offensive line nor that this call would leave a freshman corner one-on-one with one of LSU's freaks stopped him from calling a virtually identical play with the Bad Tigers facing 3rd-and-10 from Auburn's 39. The result is what you see pictured above: a simple touchdown catch despite the fact that Lee was clobbered by Spencer Pybus as he released the ball. This one is not on them.

Also not on them: a special teams performance I might call comical if it didn't make me want to grind my teeth into dust in frustration every time I start to think about it. LSU out-punted Auburn by a net of 48.3 to 35.7 and with the game on the line, our pre-season All-SEC punter shanked it all of 25 yards--without Trindon Holliday even on the field. Comical? No, after seeing Auburn's last three defeats to LSU all come down in massive part to easily fixable special teams blunders, I have to say it strikes me as something closer to tragic.

But particularly in this series, I wasn't expecting too much more out of Auburn's special teams. The defense, obviously, is another matter. Let there be no faulting their effort--they played as hard as they possibly could for as long as they possibly could. Let there be no questioning their outstanding, even amazing abilities--they will flat stuff several teams between now and the end of the season, I have no doubt. Let there also be no illusions about how good a team they faced Saturday--I suspect Scott and that offensive line will flatten virtually anyone who dares oppose them.

But let us also go forward with the understanding that as much as we love them, as much as we respect them, neither our fathers nor our defense are going to make everything perfect just by the snap of their fingers. Growing up is never easy. I just wish I hadn't had to have been reminded of that Saturday night.

Three Stars

Robert Dunn. Caught everything thrown his way, in the process becoming the first Auburn wide receiver since Aromashadu was running around I feel confident in calling a difference maker. Would have been nice to see him take an end-around or two on a night when Auburn was having so much trouble running the ball, yes/no?

Sen'Derrick Marks. Despite the second-half troubles containing Scott, Marks nonetheless was his usual wave-of-destruction self for most of the evening, racking up seven tackles from DT including 1.5 of them loss. I hesitate to think how bad things might have been if we didn't have him.

Chris Todd. Watching in person, it becomes painfully obvious: Todd's got nothing on his fastball. Given the condition of his shoulder and his positively Leardian and/or Coxesque mobility, I can't imagine there's a less physically gifted quarterbacking starting in the SEC today. Hard to say his decision-making was perfect, either, considering the two picks and the multiple sacks-out-of-field-goal-range. But on a night when Auburn got less than nothing from its running game, he still managed to get Auburn into the end zone twice against what's probably the best defense they'll face outside of Georgia's. I'll take it.

Three opportunities for improvement

Punting. [/obvs] Durst better not just have had the flu, he'd have better been in the critical care ward hooked up to about four IVs. That Shoemaker continued to see the field after that seven-yard shank is, well, let's just say "deeply unfortunate."

Finishing drives. Speaking of that seven-yard shank, consider: Auburn drove to the LSU 19 on that drive and eventually handed the visitors the ball on the 27. It would have been better if they'd simply turned the ball over. With the two TD's I'm not going to gripe too much about red zone execution per se, but Auburn has to at least get a field goal out of a drive like that one--which is why I'd have had no problem with the 4th-and-1 play-action call the next time down against, say, an offensively-oriented team like Ole Miss or Arkansas. (Or if Auburn had been behind by a score or two.) But in this game, in that situation? Take the first down and hope Byrum can do his thing.

Conditioning? No question about it, Auburn looked tired at the end of the game and--more importantly--a lot more gassed than LSU was. I'm sure LSU's rotations along each line (not to mention their size) and in the receiving corps may have had something to do with it, but come on: Auburn ran one more play than LSU did, the game was on ESPN (not CBS, but still), and the defense had something likely approaching 35 minutes of rest between halftime and Auburn's six-minute drive to open the second half. Maybe I have no idea what I'm talking about--someone correct me if I'm wrong in the comments--but seems to me that under those conditions, there shouldn't be so much difference in fatigue as to make that a viable excuse.

Numbers of importance

7.8, 14.7.; 7.6, 15.7. Yards-per-attempt and yards-per-completion for Auburn's quarterbacks and LSU's, respectively. Given the dramatic increase in competition, those numbers mean this was far and away Todd's best performance of the season, even considering the two interceptions. The problem is that the same could easily be said for LSU's quarterbacks, too.

1.9. Auburn's average yards-per-carry. Ewwwwww. More on this, Auburn's quarterback situation, and Tony Franklin in a second post.

0. Combined number of offensive touches for Mario Fannin, Tristan Davis, and Kodi Burns in a game in which Auburn rushed for--again--1.9 yards-a-carry.

Your bottom line

A lot of this post has been on the negative side, I know. A large part of me wants to say that's only appropriate; Auburn lost a potentially season-defining game, at home, they could have easily won. We're not supposed to be happy, particularly when this isn't a case of Auburn outplaying LSU and coming undone by a series of bad breaks.

But I'm well aware there were several positives to come out of the game. Heroes or not, the defense is still hellacious. Chris Todd kept his pants pristine and excrement-free in the biggest game of his life and against one of the best defenses he'll ever face. Look past the devastating sack to close the game, and you realize pass protection was fantastic--allowing just two sacks against a line as ferocious as LSU's with a quarterback as statuesque as Todd is a tremendous accomplishment. (Run blocking was obviously meh, but made much more difficult in-my-humble-opinion by Auburn's peculiar insistence on running the same play over and over again. More on this later.) I was surprised to see Acid Reign chastise the receivers for drops; aside from Trott's early bobble I don't recall any, and that would be the first time in a long time for Auburn's wideouts as a whole. Add all the positives together and this is still a team whose goals--win SEC West, win 10 games, BEAT BAMA--are still more than attainable. There remains no reason to think Auburn will be outmatched in any game on their schedule--yes, even Georgia--and no reason to think our Tigers won't continue to play very well in big games. You have to admit that much: Auburn played very well Saturday night, against a damn strong football team*.

But that's thing: against the LSU's of the world, Auburn just isn't talented enough right now--especially on offense--to win these games merely by playing well. Todd isn't Campbell. Tate isn't Ronnie Brown. The receivers aren't Aromashadu, Obamanu, Taylor, etc. As good as the defense is, its nickel and dime backs are still true freshmen. There is no margin for error when facing a team a dripping with talent as LSU.

It's not the end of the world; it's been this way ever since 2005. Since that point, Auburn's had to play not just very well but damn near out of their minds and catch a couple of breaks to beat the other upper-echelon teams in the SEC. They've done that several times, of course, and it won't surprise me much if against Georgia and 'Bama they do it again. Against teams in the second tier like Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Vandy, Auburn's more than capable of making enough plays to pull out a victory, a la Arkansas last year and 'Bama the last couple.

That's the good news: after the LSU game, it's safe to say Auburn's just as good as they were in 2006 and 2007. Unfortunately, that's also the bad news.

*You try resisting writing that sentence when trying to quantify how good LSU is. Impossible.


The Trainman said...

I can't believe you didn't comment on how Tub got outcoached by Miles. Trick play. Check. Going for it on 4th down. Check. You know, the more everyone lets Les Miles hang around...the more he's going to believe he belongs and can win.

Acid Reign said...

1. 2nd possession, first and ten, out route to Trott, too hot to handle.

2. Same possession, 3rd and 5, in route to Trott, can't come up with it in traffic. Short punt follows, with a Holiday fumble we don't get. LSU's ball at the 44.

3. First possession of the 2nd quarter, 2nd and 8, Tate drops a screen pass. At his knees, yes, but you have to catch that, in the LSU game!

4. Same possession after some brilliant sandlot ball to Hawthorne, Todd lofts a fade route to Trott. Trott is manhandled, but is falling back with the ball right in his chest on the number 5. It comes out before he hits the ground. Would have been a TD. Luckily, the coaches DID put in a short yardage offense, this week, and we got the TD, anyway.

5. In the 4th quarter, on Auburn's first possession after LSU took a 17-14 lead, we faced a critical 3rd and 5 at the Auburn 41. Tate drops a swing pass that hit him in the chest between the two 4's.

6. First offensive play after LSU took a 20-14 lead, Todd throws high on a hitch to Rod Smith. It hit Smith's hands. LSU game. Must catch! Luckily, the heroic scramble/throwback to Hawthorne for 51 was the next play!

.....It pays to have research material. I typed out every play as it happened. Sometimes I was way off on the yard markers, but you type, hit "submit," and move on. No editing...

Acid Reign said...

.....And of course, looking back, it isn't fair to blame the receivers for Tate's two drops! That's early grades, for you!

.....I loved your insights! That's so accurate! Just like little kids! I was SO bitter, at the end! We forget that it's just a game...

Junior said...

LSU fan here- great writing and cool take! I am recommending your blog to friends

Anonymous said...

I'm an LSU fan and I want to commend you on a wonderful piece of journalism and great insight on your beloved Auburn Tigers. Kudos to you my friend.

Jerry Hinnen said...

Trainman: you wanted that post to be longer? Wow! Anyway, I'll have more to say on the coaching today.

AR, no, I wasn't including Tate's drops and I'd totally forgotten about the Smith play. Safe to say there's some room for improvement, but that it's not as bad as it had been.

Thanks to everyone for the nice words.

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