Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunday knee-jerk isn't talking about the "Auburn Tigers"

Proposed: we stop talking, right now, today, about the "Auburn Tigers."

Because it's impossible. After last night's 3-2 win, there's nothing coherent to write or say about the Auburn baseball soccer field hockey football team. Trying to address the "Auburn Tigers" as a whole is like calling both heads and tails on a coinflip, like rooting for both teams at the Iron Bowl. You can't do it.

Because the "Auburn Tigers" we saw last night weren't a football team. They were two separate football teams, two unique sets of Auburn Tigers, two subspecies of what our more scientifically-minded readers might call Auburna tigris: namely, Auburna tigris defensis and Auburna tigris offensis. Both subspecies have identical markings and are indistinguishable to the naked eye, but the comprehensively divergent behavioral patterns of each--and the differing projected long-term survival rate and success of the two subspecies--are irreconcilable with them sharing a unified classification.

In short: there's no way to discuss the "Auburn Tigers" without either selling the Auburn defense's accomplishments short or failing to fully address how broken the Auburn offense appears to be. So I'm not going to try. There are two teams here who happen to be joined by one uniform, one sideline, one school, one nickname and one scoreboard: thus there are two posts here, joined in a single URL.

1. Names

As per the official box score, these are the men who played defense for Auburn against Mississippi St.:

52-Antonio Coleman, 93-Mike Blanc, 94-Sen'Derrick Marks, 49-Michael Goggans, 46-Craig Stevens, 10-Tray Blackmon, 59-Chris Evans, 26-Mike McNeil, 4-Zac Etheridge, 8-Jerraud Powers, 6-Walter McFadden, 11-Mike Slade, 15-Neiko Thorpe, 17-Josh Bynes, 25-D'Antoine Hood, 31-Adam Herring, 33-Christian Thompson, 39-Spencer Pybus, 45-Antoine Carter, 55-Merrill Johnson, 56-Courtney Harden, 83-Gabe McKenzie, 91-Jake Ricks, 98-Zach Clayton, 99-Tez Doolittle.

This is what they accomplished: 6 first downs allowed. 38 rushing yards allowed. 79 passing yards allowed. 116 total yards allowed. 1.3 yards a rush, 3.1 yards a passing attempt, 2.1 yards a play allowed. 0 third-down conversions in 14 attempts. 15 possessions faced, 0 points allowed. 1 game won, single-handedly. On the road. Against an SEC team.

So I list their names because they deserve to be listed. They deserved to be named. (It's possible a couple of them only played special teams, I'm not sure: whatever, Pegues never got loose.) Part of me thinks it's too soon, too over-the-top to say whatever hope we Auburn fans have of this season living up to our, well, hopes lies with them--I'd have said the same after the South Florida game last year, only to see Good Brandon ride in and save the day against the Gators. But most of me thinks that's where we are. Whatever hope we Auburn fans have of this season living up to our hopes lies with them.

That's almost OK, because it's a hell of a hope. Walt McFadden was supposed to be something of a question mark: he only made, particularly given the timing, one of the best interceptions I can ever remember by an Auburn player. Sen'Derrick Marks has shouldered the burden of being a potential first-round draft pick and the best player on one of the country's best defenses, the one that seemed to haunt Q. Groves all season long last year: instead he's been even better than expected, the wrecking ball around which everything else our opponents have attempted has crumbled. Blackmon finally looked liked Blackmon. Tez Doolittle, back from the football dead. Powers. Stevens, Johnson, and Evans. Gabe friggin' McKenzie.

Can they beat the likes of LSU by themselves? Could they beat Georgia? The Tide? I don't know. But after what they did in Starkville, I don't think it's only my burnt-orange-and-navy-blue glasses that makes me think they might. They're that good. They offered us all a lifeline last night, and I'm going to cling to it this week--and probably longer--like a football-crazed man drowning in his worry.

2. Mirage?

Remember how optimistic we all were after the Clemson game? Remember?

As false a prophet as Tony Franklin appeared to be last night, I swear he gave us more than ample reason to believe last New Year's Eve. We'd asked all season for someone to get more of our talented running backs on the field: he did that. We asked all season for someone to find a way to use the unique and unquestionably valuable talents of Kodi Burns: he did that. We'd asked for someone to construct an Auburn offense that felt like it could do something more than grind out four yards a carry and then pray that Brandon Cox would throw to someone wearing the proper color of jersey, an offense that felt like it attacked rather than hung on by its fingernails as--let's be honest--Borges's had for two seasons: Franklin did that in that Clemson game, and he did it in only nine practices.

So why in the bloody hell is that Clemson game still the sharpest Tony Franklin's offense has looked at Auburn, with:

1. an entire spring and fall camps' worth of practice and three more games in which to continuing develop said offense

2. every player of significance who took the field on offense against Clemson, save Brandon Cox, back this season

3. even more versatility available at running back (with Davis's health) and wide receiver (via recruiting, health, etc.).

It defies logical sense. Why was Fannin worthy of touching the ball eight times against Clemson and all of twice last night? The running backs--still, without question, the most talented unit on the offense--caught 11 balls against Clemson; they caught five last night. Against Clemson, after nine practices in the new system, Auburn's quarterbacks completed 60 percent of their passes; after bringing in a QB who we all know KNOWS THE SYSTEM and giving the line, receivers, etc. all the time necessary to find their grooves in the offense, that completion percentage has increased to ... 53.8 percent. Nine practices yielded three offensive penalties; an entire year's worth of work yielded nine. How?

The relative strength of State's defense compared to Clemson's obviously changes the numbers around a bit, but it doesn't change the fact that all the creativity, the attitude of surprise, the damn spark that Franklin brought to Auburn last December seems utterly leached away. There was no better symbol of this than ESPN's repeated shots of an interested-but-hardly-engaged Kodi Burns on the sideline, re-reduced to hoping (or least I'm hoping he was hoping) he'd get a snap or two here or there but otherwise consigned to spectating ... even as the Auburn offense could not cry out more loudly--particularly inside the red zone--for the kind of unpredictable explosiveness he could bring to the field. Burns's inclusion in the Clemson gameplan was the single biggest sign, we thought, that Franklin had committed to finding a way to use every weapon Auburn could offer him; seeing Chris Todd take every snap of last night's game was likewise the single biggest sign that Franklin has apparently forgotten that commitment or never genuinely made it.

From Burns's absence to the avalanche of penalties to Todd's inabililty to hit a crossing pattern to the continuing, maddening fumbling issues--Auburn has handed the ball to four different tailbacks the past two games and all four of them have fumbled at least once--there's no point in soft-selling the fact that Auburn's offense was poorly prepared for last night's game. They were poorly coached. After Auburn has gone four of the six halves they've played without scoring an offensive touchdown, it's neither unfair nor sensationalist to say than as the offensive coordinator Tony Franklin has done a poor job to date.

But I'm not ready to say Franklin is a poor coach, not ready to leap off the cliff and declare his offense incapable of functioning at an SEC level. The Clemson game continues to stand as a testament to what he can do when he's willing to be creative. When Franklin is willing to put the ball in the hands of his best playmakers via the system rather than stubbornly letting the system (or god knows what other demands) dictate where the ball ends up, he should be smart enough to make this work. He coached the Clemson game as if he was proving he deserved the job; this Saturday he'd best coach the LSU game as if to prove he deserves to keep it. Or past whatever New Year's Eve game Auburn lands in this year, he may not.

Three Stars

Tray Blackmon. Team lead in tackles, several pounding hits, the critical 4th-and-1 stop in the fourth. Maybe there was something to that bit about Blackmon regaining his old Little Ball of Hate form once he faced a team that, say, had use for a fullback?

Clinton Durst. As in (mostly justifiable) awe as Davis and Davie and an awful lot of Auburn fans were of State punter Blake McAdam, his net punting average was 35.9. Durst's--facing a returner of equal ability with Pegues as McAdam faced with Dunn--was 35.1. In a game in which Auburn couldn't afford to give up field position via an exchange of punts--obviously--Durst made sure they didn't.

Walt McFadden. Honestly, there's not a guy on the defense that wouldn't fit in this spot, but we'll go with the guy who made the most spectacular defensive play of the season so far.

Three Opportunities for Improvement

Wait ... just three?

Red zone scoring. As Will pointed out, after wheezing across the goal line vs. USM and then looking as abjectly hopeless inside the 10 as they did against State, it's time for Auburn's offense to either abandon the spread entirely whilst in scoring position or maybe, I dunno, bring in the quarterback whose proven time and again he can get the ball in the endzone without having to throw it amidst an inevitable thicket of defenders.

Byrum. Auburn: your home for placekickers capable of stone-cold brilliance and mind-melting chokery within the same calendar year since 1999! (See: Duval, Damon, and V****n, J**n.)

Oh geez, I don't know, the multiple unforced fumbles in the final dying minutes of a one-point game in which our defense has already been on the field for way too damn long? Maybe that could be improved? Sorry ... maybe taking this “knee-jerk” thing too far. On the other hand … seriously, what the hell?

Numbers of importance

11. Auburn’s yards-per-completion. Peculiarly, after getting basically nothing going down the field through the first two games, the Tigers’ only semi-successful ploy on offense last night (well, aside from the occasional rushing opening) was to air it out. Some gentle kudos to Billings for his efforts in this, uh, effort, and considering that Todd was asked to stretch the field a bit more, it’s worth noting that …

0 is the number of interceptions Todd threw. So he’s got that going for him. Then again, when the best thing you can say about a quarterback is that he didn’t completely screw things up, perhaps it’s an indication he could have accomplished a bit more, no?

3-for-46. The combined success on third-down conversions of Auburn’s three opponents to date. Yep, 3-for-46. I’ll live with that.

Your bottom line

As stated, Auburn’s defense sure seems like the last hope of our Tigers surviving LSU’s visit. It’s hope enough: win that one 3-2—or 7-3 or 10-9, neither of the latter completely out of the question—and we’ll all be dancing down Gay Street regardless of whether Tate holds on to the ball or Todd runs a fully-committed option this go-round.

But as a wise man once said when told there was a single hope: No. There is another. And that’s this, the other silver lining in the black cloud the Auburn offense created in Starkville: no one will expect Tommy Tuberville to win the game he’s coaching this Saturday. No one, save for a handful of Auburn diehards that, deep down, can never bear to think otherwise anyway.

After nearly 10 years of watching Tubby walk the Auburn sideline, I doubt I have to explain why no one expecting Tommy Tuberville to win a football game is reason to think he just might win it anyway. The question is whether the offensive coordinator he hired is going to give him enough support to pull it off regardless of what upset-minded rabbits he pulls out of his hat this time.


NewWarEagleDad said...

I can only recall seeing Mario Fannin on two plays...the reverse early in the game that went for a good gain and a play where he ran away from his block and allowed the defender a direct path to Todd.

Either he wasn't aware of his assignment or he is playing scared (shoulder) either way its not good.

Jerry Hinnen said...

He also had one reception out in the flat that went nowhere, but you're right, he hasn't looked exactly right. If he's not with the program, it would make sense he's not touching the ball.

On the other hand, the guy's got too much talent for the coaches to give up on him. They've got to find a way to get his head on straight at some point. We're going to need him, this year and the one after.