Monday, September 01, 2008

Monday recap: UL-Monroe

Like the proverbial blind squirrel on the hunt for the nuts he loves, even the JCCW gets a prediction right every once in a while.*

Even though I'd started to believe sometime in June it would never arrive, Saturday did finally come. And despite my worries it would all be an extravagant lie, sure enough, Auburn played a football game. In fact, they played it pretty well.

It--and the broadcast of said game--go pretty much like so:


--Coming to you live and in color via the magic of ESPN Gameplan and presented in CSS's patented "Underwater-O-Vision," it's Auburn vs. Louisiana-Monroe! Your broadcast team for tonight's game are Andy Burcham and the solidly-named Cole Cubelic. I personally think Andy should change his name to Candy Curcham for both the Three Guys named Dave announcing team symmetry and because it would just be cooler--too bad he'd probably disagree.

--Andy informs us that Burns is the better runner and Todd the better passer in the Tigers' quarterback duo, helpful news for any Auburn fans who spent the last eight months stranded in the Andes following a freak plane crash and surviving on wild llama meat and mildly-poisonous mushrooms.

First quarter

--Burcham pronounces Philip Pierre-Louis's name as first just "Lewis" and then "Pierre-Lewis," and I don't care how Philip has said his name is supposed to be pronounced: if his nickname is "Frenchy" and his last name is "Pierre-Louis," just say it "Pierre-Loueee," please. And if you need any more proof that's what should have happened, Frenchy returns the opening kickoff just 18 yards before leaving the game (and the entire season, dammit) with a knee injury. Thanks, Andy.

--Tony Franklin gets off to a less than encouraging start on making good on his "We'll run the ball, honest" promises by calling passes on Auburn's first three plays from scrimmage. The first two go for naught, but Burns--now revealed as the starter Tubby's been hiding behind the curtain--bails him out with a 17-yard scramble on third.

--Second and 8 and Lester puts together a nimble first-down run, but it's calledb ack for a hold on Byron Isom. Replay shows that the downfield blocker absolutely pancaking some helpless ULM corner is none other than Tommy "Not a Blocking Tight End, My Ass" Trott. Why, if he keeps those kinds of plays up, he could be Auburn's offensive player of the game without even making a catch!

--The hold stalls the drive and sure enough, Clinton Durst is on the field for the first play of competitive football in his life. He appears to neither wet himself nor try to "trap" the snap with his feet soccer-style, so those are good signs. As is the 40-yard fair-caught punt. ULM starts at their 14.

--Oh my. Somehow I suspect that ULM leaving Antonio Coleman completely unblocked was as likely the proper gameplan as "Have QB take snap, blindfold self, spin around 20 times, then heave in general percevied direction of the sun"--and actually, that might have been a better idea--but nonetheless the ULM left tackle shuffles amiably to the right, blocks the hell out of the moist August air, and leaves Coleman free to disembowel Kinsmon Lancaster from the blind side. Lancaster fumbles the ball into the path of Michael Goggans and it's a TOUCHDOWN! on Auburn's first defensive snap of the season. That? Was sweet. 7-0.

--After taking the kickoff out to their own 32, ULM shows that maybe they really don't mind leaving Auburn guys unblocked: they run towards a free-roaming Goggans on first down and a couple plays later watch Blackmon tear through the line on a blitz untouched by Warhawk hands. RB Frank Goodin escapes Goggans on the former play to help ULM smartly drive to the Auburn 34 in three plays, but the Blackmon hurry leads to third-and-long and ULM can't convert.

--The Warhawks try the ol' line-up-for-a-FG-then-pooch-it ploy, but for the first time I can recall in all my years of pooch-watchin', the kick from Jeremy Gener isn't so much a pooch as a full-fledged PUNT and flies out of the back of the end zone. This is the first sign we get that ULM's kickers may leave just a wee bit to be desired in the area of "not sucking."

--Todd comes on for his first series and completes pass to Slaughter for 4. But then Slaughter whiffs his block on a Lester sweep (gain of 1) and Lester, making sure the blame gets shared equally by all, drops a swing pass despite being surrounded by so many acres of space I'm pretty sure I saw a sign to his right offering it as hunting land through Pine Belt Realty. Sigh--that's two mistakes in two drives that have taken away sure first downs. Durst shanks it but gets a good roll to the ULM 38.

--This time it's Merrill Johnson's turn to dash in on Lancaster without being so much as politely tapped on the shoulder, forcing an incompletion and setting up third-and-8. Unfortunately the Warhawks finally decide to pick up a blitz and Lancaster finds an open receiver on the out for 12. Cubelic confusingly praises Lancaster for finding the space "between the corner and the safety" when there's clearly no one within shouting distance of the left flat and Thorpe--corner, not safety--was the defender who pushed the receiver out-of-bounds. I shouldn't say bad things about Cole, I know, but, like, seriously, dude ... the thing you just described as happening didn't happen.

--This Goodin guy is, sadly, good in running. (I slay me.) He darts nicely though a couple of seams and sets up ULM 1st-and-10 at the Auburn 26. But fortunately we have our first Sen'Derrick Marks sighting of the young season on second down, as he roars through the line, takes Goodin down for a loss of 3, and helps stall ULM at the 24. Radi Jabour runs out for the 39-yard field goal Gener might have attempted if his pooch hadn't been such an abysmal failure, but unfortunately for the Warhawks Jabour's attempt--wide right by a mile and a half--is as equally abysmal a failure as Gener's pooch. Tee hee.

--The zone read with Burns at the controls is a play I expect to become one of the Spread Eagle's signature calls, and Burns shows why by executing it to perfection on third-and-1, picking up seven and so badly faking out the end zone camera with the psych-out handoff all we get a replay of is bodies moving one way and heads suddenly turning the other--not that doesn't say a lot by itself. Unfortunately the drive stalls when Ziemba simply falls over while trying to get outside for a first-down screen and Burns can't find anyone on third down. Durst punts. Again.

--ULM curiously decides to go away from the little off-tackle runs by Goodin that have worked so well to this point, having Lancaster toss incompletions on first and second. Then they get even more curious by handing it to Goodin on a 3rd-and-10 draw play Coleman (amongst others) buries. Not an exhibition of sterling offensive execution, this first quarter.

--Dunn fields the punt on the Auburn 34, finds a seam for 10 yards, pulls off a stop-and-start stutter that leaves some poor ULM defender grasping air--and Chris Berman to go WHOOP! a thousand miles away in the middle of a romantic dinner with his wife, for reasons he cannot explain to either her or himself--and houses it. TOUCHDOWN! 66 yards! 12 years since it's happened, Burcham says, and won't the Sports Information guy who has to type out the "The Last Time Auburn ..." section of the media guide be pleased to finally change that. 14-0 as we head to the ...

Second quarter

--ULM opens the second quarter by meekly going three-and-out. Auburn picks up one first down on Tate's first carry of the season, but Todd panics three plays later when ULM blitzes on third down and rifles the ball at Tate when, uh, "toy rubber dart guns the ball" would have been a happier thing for me to write. Incomplete, punt. Durst is killing it--54 yards, fair catch--and obviously the D has found its footing, but man, the frustration level with the offense is starting to rise a bit.

--We're informed Blackmon looked hurt on one of the special teams plays and is out of the game. Hooray. At least the D forces a three-and-out again, and after the criticism earlier I should point out that Cubelic makes an excellent point about Craig Stevens's coverage work on receivers out of the backfield. So it's not all bad.

--Wait, Auburn gives the ball to Lester for three straight plays and gain four yards, punts, then watches a middle-of-the-field-bomb and sure touchdown bounce off the hands of ULM receiver McCall. Good coverage from Powers and the hand he gets up likely causes the bobble, but still. Goodness. Get it going, guys.

--After a ULM punt, a bad snap causes Todd to rush a throw directly into the arms of a Warhawk linebacker who drops it WHEEEEEE Lester commits a holding penalty HOORAY incompletion WHEEEEE WHEEEEEE incompletion, punt PIZZA PARTY FOR EVERYONE

--The Auburn D forces another punt before Tate finally breaks the offensive tedium, breaking loose down the left sideline for 49 yards and first down at the ULM 24. Two rushes by Lester yield another first ... and then it goes pear-shaped again. False start on Pugh. A low snap--get it together, Bosley--on 2nd-and-12 means Burns can't sell the misdirection or set his feet before launching a remarkable pass under pressure to Smith, who misses getting his foot down by a toenail. Burns can't find a blanketed Dunn on third down and it's time for Wes Byrum's first make of the season. 17-0.

--Johnson sacks Lancaster on 3rd-and-10, Auburn burns its timeouts in the hopes of blocking the punt, the punt isn't blocked, and we head to halftime.

Third quarter

--Spencer "Great Story" Pybus mocks all the folks who mocked him when he signed on Signing Day by recovering a fumble caused by Merrill Johnson (again ... he's ben all over the place), and Auburn opens the second half at the ULM 30. The way Auburn's defense is playing, a touchdown here magically changes--POOF!--the rest of the game into garbage time. Let's do it, Tigers.

--Franklin gives us a taste of the creativity that's been yanked out of the playbook for this game, bringing Fannin out of the slot on a nifty end-around that picks up 19. From there, it's nothing fancy--Lester right end for eight, Lester right end for 3, TOUCHDOWN! 24-0, and now it's just a matter of whether Auburn covers the spread or not.

--Frankly, that TD seems to have taken some of the starch out of ULM--despite the fact that they're just out of halftime, they look slower and kinda fatigued trying (and failing) to push Auburn back on first 2nd-and-1 and then 3rd-and-1. And then rather than have to bravely try a third time, one of the linemen false starts to bring out the punting unit.

--Not that anyone's looked terribly impressive in the passing game to this point, but
Chris Slaughter has looked particularly off to me--an impression that gets further confirmed when he lets a well-nigh perfect deep ball from Burns plummet directly between his hands. Auburn's quarterbacks have not been sharp, but let it be noted they're not getting a shred of help from their receivers tonight, either.

--Burns decides after that to take matters into his own hands, scrambling for 23 on 3rd-and-11, including a couple of yards picked up when he cuts back along the sideline and goes down under a Warhawk a second later. Can I ask you, politely, Kodi to just go ahead and step out-of-bounds next time? I know it's not the manliest thing in the world, but the only thing remotely good to have come out of any given pass play call tonight has been your scrambling ... and if you get hurt, that's toast.

--Precisely three plays later, Burns gets the QB draw call, scampers for 16 yards to the ULM 19, and leaves the game with some kind of shin injury. SEE?

--On first down, Isom is shoved several yards into the backfield as Lester--who I think's run as every bit as hard as Tate, just with less help from the line--struggles to get back to line of scrimmage. Way to make that whole "We won't miss Chaz Ramsey!" prediction look sharp, Byron. Andy and Cole miss it, but the coaches don't: Bart Eddins replaces Isom immediately.

--Dunn drops a third-down pass from Todd that hits him in the hands and could have gone for a first. Robert giveth, Robert taketh away.

--With the game no longer in doubt and the surge of adrenaline he craves no longer pumping through his veins, Wes "Drama Queen Thrill-Seeker" Byrum honks the 32-yarder. He jogs over to the sideline phone, calls his travel agent, and immediately signs up for a cliff-jumping expedition.

--On ULM's next possession an Auburn defender sprints off the field just before the snap, prompting an official to drop his flag for illegal substitution--forgetting for a moment that the "12 men in the huddle" rule only applies to the offense. Andy and Cole skip the "it's the first game for the officials, too" cliche, which is kind of a shame, because it amuses me for unknown reasons. On third down it's Antoine Carter's turn to fly in unmolested--oh, wait, nevermind, they tried to block him and just failed miserably--and he forces an incompletion.

--Um, Chris? That throw you made, on third down there? The one where you were sort of rolling to one side and threw a bit back across your body 10 yards behind your intended target and instead landed directly into the breadbasket of the defender, who felt so bad for you he kindly let it inexplicably fall to the ground? Yeah, please don't that any more. I'd like to stop occasionally prefacing our quarterbacks' names with "Evil" if I could, thanks. (Durst-watch: he uncorks a 58-yarder.)

--After solid coverage by Neiko Thorpe (!) helps force yet another ULM punt, Franklin finally decides "Eh, screw it" and dials up 11 consecutive rushes (!!). The first 10 of these go to Lester (19 yards), Tate (25 yards), and Eric Smith, whose balance and tackle-breaking ability look positively Kenny Irons-esque as he picks up 32 yards and leaves Auburn with 3rd-and-goal at the 3. The 12th carry goes to Chris Todd on the QB draw, and it might work--there's a hole for a moment--if Isom didn't lose control of his block and if Todd wasn't so decidedly, um, Caucasian quarterbacky in hitting the hole. Byrum hits the 19-yarder. 27-0.

--Auburn's started bringing in the second string. For the ULM offense, it doesn't matter: Zach Clayton and Josh Bynes (who's also looked quite, quite good in relief of Blackmon) smother Lancaster for a loss of two on the last play of the quarter.

Fourth quarter

--The Tigers look like they've made yet another stop when Lancaster is forced out-of-bounds on a scramble a couple yards shy of the sticks, but D'Antoine Hood gives him a good pop a full yard or two past the boundary and it's an automatic 15 yarder. C'mon, Hood! You're playing like you're an 18-year-old kid who'd never played a game of Division I, SEC-caliber college football in his life! Get it together!

--Auburn forces a punt on the next set of downs anyway--because every Auburn linebacker on the roster is bound to get himself mentioned in this recap somehow, it's worth pointing out that Chris Evans is involved in all three plays in the stop--and then finally, after one first down, the interception Todd's been begging for arrives. Naturally, though, it's not entirely his fault--he appears to fit the pass in past tight coverage into the hands of Rod Smith, but it bounces off said hands into the air and into the arms of Cardiac Jackson. Not that Todd didn't deserve to have a pick added to his line tonight, but again: our receivers have to get better.

--ULM fails to ruin the shutout when Tez Doolittle bursts inside on 4th-and-1 and blows things up but good. I didn't think 300-pound defensive tackles recovering from Achilles tears were supposed to be in position to take the handoff themselves, were they?

--After some more impressive work by Eric Smith on the next drive, we finally get to see the Chris Todd we've been hearing about; a second down completion to Rod Smith for a first at the ULM 39, then a nicely floated spiral down the right sideline to Smith for 33 more yards, then a well-placed touch pass to Slaughter over the middle for the three-yard TOUCHDOWN! 34-0. You can see why Auburn's coaches would be tempted by Todd--even if Burns can make those throws, he's not likely to make them look quite so smooth and effortless.

--Morgan Hull booted the last kickoff into the end zone and angles this one skillfully into the right corner of the endzone and sideline, leading to a 12-yard return and starting field position for ULM at their own 16. Methinks that as the evidence from this game is that there's no difference between the results if Byrum kicks off and if Hull kicks off--or that if there is, the better results are from Hull--we're going to see Hull handle kickoffs against Southern Miss. There's precisely zero point in throwing Byrum out there to risk injury and tire his leg out if Hull's just as good or better.

--Most of the game's final six minutes are gobbled up by a long drive by ULM against Auburn's second- and third-stringers; there's Jake Ricks, Gabe McKenzie, and Jonathan Vickers sightings and "Great Story" Pybus even gets the chance to tee off on Lancaster on a blitz. Eventually Thorpe makes his YouTube case by blowing some poor sucker up along the sideline, forcing fourth down, and Gener returns to try a 45-yarder. No good! It's a shutout, and frankly, Auburn's defense deserved it: with the offense executing the exact opposite of the "hold the ball, grind out long drives, give the D a chance to rest" gameplan, they could have been forgiven for giving up a TD somewhere along the way. They didn't. Kudos.

--Smith barrels into the line twice and that's it. 34-0. War Eagle!

Quick thoughts on a second viewing: The rumors you heard about Auburn going rich creamy Blue Bell vanilla for this game and waiting to break out the Moose Tracks for SEC play looked dead-on; aside from the end-around to Fannin and the zone read, there wasn't any kind of misdirection or even mild trickery on Auburn's part. It was all straight-ahead runs and sweeps, standard-issue bubble screens and curls, and the very occasional toss downfield. It's not really surprising that running this watered-down a version of an offense that ULM and their eight returning defensive starters were already well-versed in didn't set the world on fire. Plus, the receivers (and backs) were even more buttery-fingered than I remembered. Bottom line: the quarterbacks, Burns in particular when you consider how big a threat he was on the move (6 carries, 69 yards), weren't as bad as you might think.

However: Auburn's front seven looked to me as good as you might think. Coleman, Marks, Goggans, Doolittle, Clayton, Blackmon, Evans, Johnson, Bynes, Stevens--it's not just that ULM didn't have an answer for them, it's that they never seemed close to having an answer for them. 220 total yards, 3.2 a play, 11 punts, zero points: that's domination, and even if it's just ULM, domination over mid-majors is nonetheless a good sign for competence (or better) against SEC teams.

Weird note about the photo at the top of this post: is now offering an "image code" (similar to an embed code for videos, though it looks like it's for bulletin boards) at the bottom of the picture page. What happened to the copyright warning I've so enjoyed blissfully ignoring?

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