Thursday, September 11, 2008

Monday Thursday recap: USM, half the second

Picking up where we left off ...


Third quarter

--Morgan Hull handles the opening kickoff of the second half and deposits in the end zone for one of those fun touchbacks where for a split second it looks like the returner is going to run right through the alternate returner who's waving for him to take a knee. Methinks Hull is on the verge of wrapping up the kickoff job.

--Somehow I don't think this is the series Southern Miss imagined coming out of the locker room: Fletcher for 5, Fletcher for minus-2, Fletcher drops a sure first down on a screen pass as one of their starting tackles gets kneed in the head making his cut block. It's one of those proverbial "scary moments" as he lays near-motionless on the field for few minutes, but eventually he wobbles his way to the sideline. Still: we're not seeing him again today.

--About that "minus-2": it's a terrific play by Michael Goggans, who tears his way down the backside of the line and catches the speedy Fletcher by the ankles. This is just what Auburn's opponents needed: yet another star-in-the-making along the Auburn defensive line. Permit me an evil cackle for a moment, please: Mwahahahaha!

--It's been a game and a half and Robert Dunn already has a more complete punt return highlight reel than Auburn typically compiles during an entire season, but I'll be damned if he's at it again: he gets a great early block from Eric Smith, gathers a veritable convoy around him as he breaks across the field and to the outside, and he's gone! Two in two games after none for 12 years, how the hell do you like them apples, son! It's almost too good to be true ... and just as I break out my whittlin' knife to start work on my wax bust of Dunn, I find out it is: apparently Smith caught someone from behind, in the words of Dave Neal, "50 yards from the play." The flag flew on the 20-yard line, near the sideline opposite from where Dunn trotted into the end zone. %&#@! Tough to be too hard on Smith when it was his block that got the whole shebang started, but, but .... #@%$!

--Burns is in to start the second half and after Todd's big display in the first 30 minutes he'll want to make an impression. Too bad for him his teammates have other ideas: first Rod smith uncharacteristically whiffs on a block to ruin what was otherwise a promising looking QB sweep; Billings wastes a beautiful-looking on-the-run downfield throw from Burns by letting himself get edged out-of-bounds on the route; and on third down no one picks up a blitzing linebacker who nails Burns just as he's throwing to an open receiver for a potential first down. It's just not your week, is it, Kodi?

--Tubby expressed some genuine disappointment with Foot Lauderdale after he honked that 30-yarder against ULM, but like Dunn I doubt he's going to live with that disapproval for very long after connecting from 52, a new career long. 17-0 and Auburn's deathgrip on this game continues to tighten.

--Powers twice wraps up USM receivers a nanosecond after they make a catch on the Eagles' next drive. If you want a measure of how effective Auburn's been at limiting yards-after-catch, check out the mid-possession statline the Daves give us for Austin Davis: 15-of-20 for 75 yards. The average completion for USM has gone for exactly five yards. That's not bad, folks, not bad at all.

--With the help of a third-down pass interference call on Chris Evans, the Eagles do manage to string three first downs together. But that's pretty much ended by Marks--for the umpteenth time in a game still just midway through the third quarter--mauling his man and tackling Fletcher for a four-yard loss. From there it's two quick incompletions (the second admittedly something of a drop after Davis hit his guy in the hands right at the sticks) and it's time once again for the busiest man on the USM roster, Britt Barefoot, to punt away.

--Larry Fedora runs up the white flag on his team's attempts to stop Dunn, ordering Barefoot to apparently find that TV dude in the red hat who runs onto the field during timeouts and kick it directly to him. This strategy results in a 26-yard punt, a handful of boos from the Auburn faithful, and a big wide smile on the JCCW's face.

--Boy, remember when we were worried Tony Franklin was going to call too many passes? It's 3rd-and-10 for Auburn after Todd fumbles a snap and a Lester screen goes nowhere, and Franklin dials up a straight sweep right for Tate. Pretty awesome in and of itself, and even awesomer when it catches the Eagles totally off-guard: Trott (!) and Green get great seal blocks and Tate cuts up for 13 yards and the first. Sweet.

--After a Billings block helps spring a Tate screen for 20, Todd shows in a nutshell exactly how much more comfortable he is in the Auburn pocket this week. Against ULM a big blitz had left Tate with a farmstead's worth of space if Todd could just hit him with a touch pass; instead he fired a bullet at Tate's head. Now it's USM blitzing and leaving Tristan Davis with all the green he could ever need; this time Todd floats it gently out in front of Davis and it's a 20-yard pickup. Mmmmmm, progress.

--Davis carries right for two yards and is slow to get up when, looking at the replay, his left ankle gets worked over on the tackle. HOORAY BECAUSE IF THERE'S ANYONE WHO DESERVES AN ANKLE INJURY HOORAY IT'S TRISTAN DAVIS HOORAY HOORAY

--Chris Todd Arm Strength Watch, Entry No. 5: Floaty, as he lofts a pass under duress to Dunn along the left sideline. Dunn is wide-slap-open and hauls it in before making the USM 7-yard line, but I'd rather Todd not attempt this throw against LSU: it's up there a loooooong time and a quicker team could take it the other way for six as easy as you please.

--Time for another referendum on how effective the spread can be in the red zone, and it's ... well, like its effort in the first half, it's not exactly pretty. Todd makes a bad read on first down, ignoring Dunn (who has one guy to beat for the score) in the right flat until he's almost sacked and has to throw at Dunn's ankles. On second down Todd can't find anyone and goes on one of those horrifying walkabouts where you're just praying he throws it away instead of trying to force it into coverage, which he does. On third down he finds Trott at the one, thank goodness, and then Burns is able to come in and punch it in for a TOUCHDOWN despite a rather ineffective block from Green at the point of attack. Whew. Can I ask: as complicated as his presence makes things for the defense and as important as that ... complicatedness ... is when working with the short field, why not bring Burns in on first down instead of waiting 'til fourth? In any case: it's Auburn up 24-0 now, and unless the Eagles score a TD on their next possession you can pronounce this game done and dusted.

--Another Burns note: take it however you like, but there's no spinning the fact there's not much celebration from him after the touchdown. A few high fives here and there as he jogs off the field, and that's it.

--It's over. Lather, rinse, repeat for the Auburn D at this point as they stop two short passes dead in their tracks after the catch and watch USM wideout Torris Magee flat drop what would otherwise be a first-down completion on third down. Barefoot tries to punt the ball into Byrum's warm-up net, a kick good for 21 yards. All over now but the shouting ...

-- ... unless one of quarterbacks does something like that. Ugh. Burns is back in and if his previous struggles weren't on his shoulders, his decision to try and flip the ball to Dunn with a running lane as wide as Highway 280 in front of him is all him. The ball sails, gets tipped by Dunn, and lands softly in the Eagles' hands for a first down at Auburn's 25.

--Rolling on the floor laughing my ass off at USM--they call for the ol' pass-back-to-the-QB trick play, but wideout Gerald Baptiste either mistakes retreating lineman Kyle Burkhart for the QB or just throws the thing way too low, because it hits Burkhart right in the chest. Burkhart, for reasons he and only he will ever be able to fully understand, reacts as if the play was instead "the ol' pass-back-to-the-tackle-so-he-can-enjoy-his-one-moment-of-shining-glory play," catching the ball without so much as a flinch and taking off for the most hilarious three-yard gain called back for illegal touching you'll ever see.

--Auburn forces 4th-and-10 and sends the house at Davis--seven Tigers cross the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately, those even Tigers don't seem to be spaced out appropriately and appear to jam each other up in the middle of the line. Result: blitz is picked up easily and Davis finds Brown in man coverage against McFadden for a rather simple first-down pitch-and-catch. The next play Fletcher catches in the flat, takes advantage of an uncalled clip by the Eagles along the sideline, and appears to race in for a score before they call him at the 1. Bleah.

--Even more bleah: the Eagles' play-action on second down works like your grandmother's favorite home remedies and Nelson catches an easy touchdown. He's substantially better-covered on the two-point try, though, so at least it's only 24-6 and still a three-possession game.

--Ewwwww: false start and incompletion on an Auburn first down, Tate falls over untouched by human hands on second, and on third Todd squanders enough time to complete the Sunday crossword before having to fall on his own fumble. Not precisely what we wanted heading to the ...

Fourth quarter

--Raycom shows us clips of Brett Favre throwing for two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to beat Auburn in 1990. Thank you, Raycom. Reminders of great fourth-quarter comesbacks by Southern Miss in this series are exactly what I wanted as Auburn punts away to a sharper-looking USM after a miserable offensive series. Exactly.

--Sure enough, Davis suddenly has it going: 13 to Fletcher, 22 to Fletcher, 16 to Brown. It's Zach Clayton, of all people, who stops the bleeding with a sack that sets up 4th-and-16. Raycom puts up a agrpahic showing that Auburn's opponents are now 3-of-29 on third-down conversions, which is inarguably kick-ass, but I'm thinking "But this is fourth down, not third, are you trying to jinx us?" just as the jinx hands USM the conversion on a pass over the middle to Nelson. Actually, credit where it's due here: coverage isn't bad at all, but Davis threaded the needle. The kid's got skills, I'll give him that.

--Two plays later Mike McNeil is a step late to pick up Nelson on a corner route and it's USM's second touchdown. Crappity crap crap crap: the game I was certain was over is now 24-13 with 11:48 still to play. Let's go, Auburn.

--Well that's a good sign: Tristan Davis just returned a kickoff. He didn't set the world on fire, but after he limped off I was expecting to hear after the game he's developed leg botulism and his season was over again, so no worries.

--Again, hard to accuse Franklin of being too fancy in this situation (though a sudden rainstorm of peculiar intensity probably helps): Auburn's first three plays are Lester for 4 (plus personal foul), Lester for 5, Lester for 2. Todd follows up with a nice completion to Billings as he's flushed out of the pocket to his right, Tate picks up 20 two plays later when Terrell Zachery makes a nice block (after weirdly turning inside ... was this a half-second fake end-around or something?) to get him to the corner, and it's safe to say Auburn is responding to to USM pulling within 11 the way we were all hoping they would.

--Two more Tate runs gives Auburn 3rd-and-2 at the USM 4, and here's where the magic runs out: Lester's handoff left is swarmed under, forcing Byrum onto the field for a 23-yarder. It's good and Auburn's back up 27-13, but even after running 4:42 off the clock it's still a two-possession game--one less possession than I'd feel comfortable with.

--A holding call on the kickoff sets USM all the way back at their 10, so we've got that going for us. They pick up a first on 4th-and-1 when Fedora shows he and Franklin really are strategy soulmates, lining the Eagles up in a single-back shotgun despite needing inches.

--Yes! Powers steals whatever momentum USM might have had by making a fantastic over-the-shoulder interception on a Davis overthrow, one of his worst passes of the day. Somewhere the alternate Willie Mays who played football is applauding, Jerraud. Auburn first-and-10 on their own 41 with 4:59 to play, and, once again, provided they don't make some major mistake this game is over.

--WHY DO YOU NOT LISTEN TO ME WHEN I SAY THING LIKE THAT? Eric Smith fumbles the ball away on second down and the end result of Powers's amazing pick is that the Eagles are 27 yards closer to the end zone. Cripes.

--Brown makes the sort of high-flying, one-foot-in catch only 6-5 freaks like him can make, good for 24 yards. I have to say I am quite frustrated this game which should not be even remotely in doubt right now is still, in fact, in doubt.

--Sweet sweet sweet: Davis, as it turns out, has been saving his worst for last. He's nowhere near his intended receiver on a crossing route on second down, and Etheridge has an easy interception. USM's only hope now is a quick stop, a score, and a recovered onside kick. Breath rate finally returning to 24-0 levels.

--Lester runs thrice for eight yards and Auburn punts; whatever. Though I wish Durst didn't pick right now for his weakest non-touchback punt of the day, since Davis finds Nelson (yet again) for 16 yards and the Eagles are already at the Auburn 34. I'm not really worried about the outcome any more--even a newly re-eligible Favre would have issues with this deficit and this little time--but I am going to be a little irritated if the final ends up 27-20 in a game that wasn't truly anywhere near that close, prompting another intense round of "Auburn der wasn't that impressive der der Franklin has issues der der der" chitter-chatter.

--USM's caught more than a few breaks to keep it this close, so forgive me for thinking it's only right that Auburn catches a couple at game's end: first Davis gets an unfriendly spot on a third-down scramble out-of-bounds that appeared to give him a first down and instead gave him fourth-and-a half-yard. Then instead of following Fletcher into the hole on the last-ditch QB draw, Davis attempts to ... you know, I'm not even sure where he's going, but Goggans tackles him short of the chains and that should, finally, do it. It wouldn't just take some metaphorical meteor strike for Auburn to lose now; we'd need an actual meteor strike along the Tiger sideline, and with that freak shower I think we've already filled our quota for weird stuff falling from the sky today.

--Auburn takes a knee and Durst punts it back with one second on the clock, just enough time for any gamblers backing Auburn at -17.5 to get one last thrill--the Eagles fumble the ball away to Craig Stevens on a silly bucket-brigade lateral play (what are they trying to accomplish here?) and Stevens looks like he's in the clear for one brief second before Southern Miss swarms him. Too bad--that would have been fun.

--Your final score: Auburn 27, Southern Miss 13. War Eagle!

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