Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday preview: Ole Miss

First things first--we should never forget the classics:

Second things second: this isn't going to live up to previous Friday previews. There just doesn't seem to be much point in a detailed breakdown of what Ole Miss brings to the table vs. what Auburn's bringing. We know, just as we knew against Arkansas and just as we knew against West Virginia, that they've got a much, much better offense than Auburn does and that Auburn's going to run a pretty substantial yardage deficit that without a boatload of turnovers and special teams play, Auburn won't be able to overcome. Third verse, same as the first.

But hey, a regular feature's a regular feature. So here we go.

At stake: For Ole Miss, the chance to take another big step in their climb to a potential New Year's Day bowl berth; win tomorrow and they're home victories over ULM and Miss. St. away from the Chick-Fil-A Bowl at worst. Plus, I suspect there's still more than a few folks in Oxford that would love to send Tubby's last-gasp at bowl eligibility home in a pine box.

Because, make no mistake, this is pretty much the last gasp for Auburn's postseason hopes. I will retain some measure of irrational hope heading into Amen Corner regardless, but if Auburn doesn't pull this one out tomorrow, it just doesn't stand to reason that a team whose most impressive win is "3-2 at Mississippi St." is going to rise up and dethrone Georgia or Alabama. There's hope, yes. But Auburn had best beat Ole Miss anyway. Juuuuuust in case.

When Ole Miss has the ball: Auburn will be facing the nation's 55th-ranked offense, better than Arkansas's, better than West Virginia's, despite having faced what Sagarin calls the nation's 11th-toughest schedule-to-date. Snead is a good quarterback, Bolden is a good running back, they have several receivers who would be Auburn's clearcut No. 1, blah blah blah. Unless the Auburn back seven has taken a magic Improvement Potion since last the previous Thursday or Rhoads has some sort of previously unseen anti-Rebel wizardry in store, they're going to get their yards.

Fortunately, Auburn has an excellent track record of stopping Houston Nutt's offenses in even years. Except by "excellent," I mean a 27-10 loss in 2006, a 38-20 loss in 2004, and a 38-17 loss in 2002. (Also a 42-17 loss in 2001. FWIW.)

The point: with no Thorpe, no Blackmon, Carter and Powers hobbled, and a half-dozen other nagging injuries, I don't see any reason the perfectly capable offense of Ole Miss won't do what the capable offenses of LSU, Arkansas, and WVU did. They do turn the ball over a lot; 105th in turnover margin as of this week, in fact. Unless they turn it over in Auburn's red zone a few times, I don't see that we keep them below, say, 28.

When Auburn has the ball: Well, Juco All-American wasn't lying to us: Ole Miss ranks 88th in passing defense and gave up 267 and 327 yards, respectively, to the not-so-sexy passing attacks of Wake Forest and South Carolina under Chris Smelley, so yes, the Rebels are vulnerable in the secondary.

Too bad Auburn is running an offense that in its last game only attempted three passes longer than 15 yards downfield. Too bad Auburn ranks 108th in the country in yards-per-passing attempt. Ole Miss's secondary troubles, it seems pretty likely, won't actually matter all that much.

Their rush defense, however--the one featuring line monsters like Jeria Perry, Greg Hardy, etc. and ranked 29th, 23 places above Auburn and 19 places above the one from West Virginia that seized the game by the throat in Morgantown ... that one will matter.

This is dire, dire stuff, my friends. Last week, this defense went into Fayetteville and held a Hog offense we all know is much, much better than Auburn's to 21 points; to hit that total, Auburn will need yet more lightning bolts from the return teams and opportunistic ballhawking defenders. Given Ole Miss's season-long generosity I think we can expect one short field to work with; past that, well, that's why I call 'em lightning bolts.

When special teams are on the field:
Auburn should still win punting and returns, to the extent that Ole Miss will have to punt at all. But placekicking ... I mean, who knows. I'd rather think about daffodils. And filet mignon. And daffodil-encrusted filet mignon. Mmmmm ... flowericious. Where was I?

Right, the preview about Auburn.

Intangible reason to worry: Everybody on this entire team knows the only thing this game might decide is whether the players "get" to tack an extra three weeks of work onto this bloodletting of a season in order to prepare for a game in f'ing Shreveport or Birmingham against the C-USA runner-up or something. The problem isn't the game--no one's going to quit in Oxford. The problem is preparation--how hard are Auburn's players going to continue working knowing the only practical carrot at the end of this week's stick is something they might voluntarily turn down? Pride and love for the game and love for coaches and teammates is all awesome and will do 90% of the trick, I'd imagine. But that last 10 percent, I suspect, is lost.

Intangible reason for confidence: Nutt's record as a home favorite thus far at Ole Miss is about like his record as a home favorite at Arkansas: delightfully spotty. Maybe the Rebels will come out delightfully unfocused and let Auburn take a quick 14-point lead, and the law of averages will finally dictate they hold onto this one. It's something.

Three wishes:
1. Burns continues looking competent and gets to chance to air it out a time or two 2. Bynes is much more active than he showed against WVU 3. Whoever the placekicker is hits everything shorter than 40 yards.

Your bottom line:
One of the great things about being an Auburn fan during the Tuberville era is that for every time his team plays at a level that genuinely disappoints you, there's a second time where they've surprised the hell out of you.

Until this season, where the ledger currently reads about five or six raging disappointments and zero pleasant surprises. I have to cling to the "there's a surprise coming one of these weeks! I know it!" hope to keep from becoming completely lost as a fan. But that's the thing about it being a surprise: you don't expect it. And I don't expect it this week.

And so, in one final attempt to ... you know what? Screw the prediction. Who wants to see a hot picture of British actress Lucy Griffiths?


Ziemba (etc.) FYI

Helpful JCCW reader Jason saw Tuberville speak at the Columbus Quarterback Club this week and e-mailed a few tidbits of information that I thought you might want to know about, assuming you well-connected Internet types don't already:

--Lee Ziemba is playing on a bum knee that will require surgery after the season. He had the option of having the surgery already and giving up the remainder of the season, but elected instead to play through the pain and wait. It's an admirable, gutsy decision that's especially appreciated when you consider that he's playing through said pain for an Auburn team that's going nowhere, and his play hasn't been all that bad, particularly in first halves. It definitely helps explain both why he's had so much trouble in pass protection this year and why it gets worse as the game progresses. Which raises the issue: since this team is going nowhere and by the time the third quarter rolls around there might be other players who could do almost as well and he's putting his long-term career at further risk ... should he have the surgery? It's of course quite obviously not my place to say, but I think it's worth wondering about.

--Tubby said that the "mental fatigue" (in Jason's words) inherent to the process of the offensive linemen getting set, getting unset, looking at the sideline, getting a call, getting re-set, then executing said call played a part in the line's spate of second-half penalties. On the one hand, I'm not so sure I buy this as an excuse; tons and tons and tons of successful teams use the same process, and it smacks a little of a need to scapegoat a certain former offensive coordinator. On the other, these other successful spread teams don't look over every play the way Auburn did through the first part of the year. Often, they would do this weird thing Auburn never did where they would run up to the line of scrimmage, get set, and then actually run the play. Combine Auburn's every-down meerkat routine with an unfamiliarity with the process and potentially less-than-optimal coaching for the given offense, and I can see how this might not be helpful.

--Tubby said Auburn had had "more injuries than the last four years combined." To be frank, I think this is a pretty rank exaggeration. Auburn has lost three probable starters: Ramsey, Savage, and now Blackmon. I know there's a truckload of guys who have nagging stuff or have missed a couple of games. But around nine guys who started on offense vs. ULM will start on offense and around nine more on defense. Lots of other teams have it worse.

Just so's you know. Abbreviated Ole Miss preview soon.

The Works, problem solved!-style

Graph of Auburn's percentage chances of winning as they move into the second half.

Good to know. Hey, remember when Tubby said this about Auburn's weekly second-half collapse, plunges so spectacular I hear Nestea's now in talks to become the team's official sponsor (obsolete 90's ad campaign ZING!):
“We’ve got to find some answers there,” Tuberville said Friday in a teleconference. “They’ve got to be there somewhere.”
It's been a week now. Coach, you're a highly paid professional who's had that time to go back to the drawing board and discover the "answers" that have "got to be there somewhere." Want to tell us what they are?
We might go scrimmage at halftime. No, I don't know. There's really no answer to it other than the fact we need something good to happen to us when we first go out there ... There's no miracle formula. We've just got to go out and play better and play for four quarters and coach better and coach for four quarters.
Ah. The solution is to just play better. Got it. Translation: we're boned. (Not that we didn't know this already; as I pointed out in the previous edition of the Works, the entire first half-second half dichotomy is a bit of a red herring.)

The stakes are high. Scout's Barrett Sallee on the LIFE OR DEATH import of the Ole Miss game:
With only nine seniors on the two-deep depth chart, Auburn desperately needs a bowl game – of any kind. If, for no other reason, to capitalize on bowl practices. At this point, a bowl game itself would be secondary to improving the roster for the next season ... (F)or the Tigers to salvage anything out of this season, they need to forget the disaster that has been the first two months of this season, and play November for what it is - a fight for the right to practice in December.
All together now: You gotta FIGHT ... for your RIGHT ... to practice in DeceeeeeeeeeeeeemBER! There's two sad things about Sallee's statement here:

1. He's not being ironic in any fashion.
2. I completely agree with him.

Ca$h Rules Everything Around Me. Tubby's Magic 8-ball says signs pointing to another year say yes:
Tuberville's buyout contains two key provisions.

The first is well-known. If Auburn fires Tuberville this year, it owes him $6 million. Conversely, if Tuberville leaves Auburn for another job this year, Tuberville - or his new employer - owes Auburn $6 million.

The seldom-discussed provision is just when exactly the side that files for divorce has to fork over the money ... the total amount is due and payable with two big checks within one short year.

If Auburn fires Tuberville, Auburn has to pay him one $3 million check within 30 days of his termination and another $3 million check on the one-year anniversary of his dismissal.
So not only are we talking about Darth Lowder scraping up 6 million dollars from the cushions of his couch (on the jet), we're talking about him scraping up the entire amount in the space of a year, in the middle of what might wind up the worst economy of our lifetime. I shouldn't put it past him, but I think I might anyway.

If you think all the pregame stuff is cool, wait 'til you see the actual game. Via TWER comes quite possibly the sweetest Auburn Youtube of the season, the BBC's Stephen Fry getting his Iron Bowl on:

It's official: the JCCW's alternative nickname for the Iron Bowl is the Dixie Derby. (Yes, the Brit term for "rivalry" Fry pronounces "darby" is spelled "derby." As Wilde once said, the Yanks and the Brits are truly two people divided by a common language.)

What on earth? This would indeed be the strangest Auburn stat I would ever remember seeing:
If Swinton doesn't catch another pass this season, he will leave Auburn with a bizarre and frustrating box score--exactly one reception in each of his four seasons.
Seriously, what are the odds? Though there's not much question you couldn't ask for a better emblem of Swinton's remarkable ability to avoid improving over the course of his Auburn career than "one catch every year for four years."

You've gotta be kidding me. Next year, I'm going to campaign that I should be given Tommy Hicks's Harris Poll ballot, because clearly it shouldn't be in the hands of someone who's willing to vote like this:
-- 12. Missouri -- 13. Oklahoma State
Dude, no exaggeration, there really are sea urchins who could tell you that ranking a team with two losses one spot ahead of a team with one loss that freaking beat the first team head-to-head and lost to the same third team the first team lost to by 20 fewer points is the sign of a diseased mind. Unacceptable.

Damn fairness. After praising Tubby for his Nall-hoppin' exuberance this week, and specifically calling out the Tide's coachbot as the sort who could never allow himself to experience that kind of hu-man emotion, I suppose I should note that Saban did, in fact, chest-bump one of his players during the Tennessee win. As TSIB points out, if Saban has indeed learned to mimic or possibly even experience actual feelings, this is indeed a dark day for humanity. Thanks goodness Ian Rapaport had the gall to ask the coachbot about it. The response:
It's not the first time I've time I've been excited and jumped up in the air, and I'm NOT going to evaluate how I act on the sidelines. (Getting louder) I'm an emotional guy. Sometimes, I chew 'em out, too. You're NOT going to get an explanation for that, either.
Whew. Everything's right with the world again.

FWIW, I agree. I've gone this entire post without making any Halloween-related puns or eferences, haven't I? Well let's take this opportunity to point out how downright spooky it is that not one but two different Dawg bloggers have spent their Florida Hate Week ... defending Tim Tebow? It's true. Michael unleashed his fiskin' hammer on Mark Bradley for daring to suggest Stafford was the better QB at this year's Cocktail Party, and holy hell no one's going to accuse Doug Gillett of pandering to his audience anytime soon after this must-read man-crush love letter to the Tebow Child.

It's all enough to make me damn glad I'm not a Dawg blogger this week. Because I'd have to admit to my readers I pretty much agree with everything they've got to say; Tebow might not deserve all the hype, but he deserves a lot of it, and my reaction after watching him in the press conference following the Ole Miss defeat--when he not only swore that he'd work as hard as he possibly could to keep Florida from losing another game but said with his words, his voice, his posture, his whole damn being that that was exactly what he was going to go out and do--was "Man, I wish he played for us."

WVU recap, fourth quarter

Let's get this over with. Previous entries here and here.

1. 2nd-12 on WVU's 46, Auburn in the spread. Burns keeps and moves outside, but Bosley (line -) can't keep his man sealed inside and he slides and tackles after three yards.

2. 3rd-9, Auburn's best drive of the second half--big play here. Spread. WVU stunts and it seems to confuse the interior of Auburn's line (-) --Bosley and Green are double-teaming one WVU tackle and he still knifes through to dive at Burns's feet as he throws. It's nowhere near Trott. Time for a 44-yard FG attempt from Byrum. Hold your breath.

3. You can let your breath out now. He missed. Hooked it left. Byrum (--) just doesn't have it this year.

4. WVU takes over on their own 27. White carries right on the QB draw, where McKenzie and Blanc (+) have stunted and Blanc has broken free of his blocker, forcing White to take a step inside and too close to McKenzie; he tackles for a loss of 1.

5. Same principals, vastly different result. Devine takes the ZR handoff and as he hits the hole, McKenzie (-) wriggles free and has the chance to turn and tackle him; Devine runs through it. Blanc should be in the hole, it appears, but he's taken one step too far outside and ends up grasping at air. Bynes had been cut, Johnson pushed too far outside, and Devine is free to bolt for 35 yards.

6. ZR handoff to Devine again, but for the first time all game Marks (+) has shoved his way into the backfield, forcing Devine to come center and allowing Bynes and Johnson to wrap up for a gain of 1.

7. A third straight ZR handoff to Devine, and this time Bynes and Johnson are blitzing; unfortunately they seem to be blitzing through the same gap, causing Johnson to slow up for Bynes. Stevens (-) still has a shot at him two yards downfield; he misses, and it's up to the trailing Coleman to tackle after seven yards.

8. 3rd-and-a-long-2, and Auburn brings the same six-man blitz with Stevens rushing on a delay, and once again the ball is long gone before any Tiger gets close to White. He throws to Dorrell Jalloh on a crossing pattern, who's being man-covered by Etheridge. Etheridge was picked as he came across the middle, giving Jalloh an easy catch, and that I can live with. Powers (-) and Etheridge (-) converging before allowing Jalloh to juke and then power his way past both of them, however, I can't. McFadden has a half-chance to tackle at the 5, but he was clearly expecting Jalloh to be down already and can't react in time. Ugly, ugly, ugly touchdown. 27-17, and if you think this team can make up a 10-point deficit in the space of a quarter, you have a very interesting method of football analysis you will have to share with me some time. This game is over.

9. Ah, but the charting shall continue. KO returned to the 24.

10. Spread on first down, indicating Auburn's desperation at this point. Burns tosses a screen to Tate and it looks like it might go for big yards, but Bosley's a little late getting out and Berry misses his block on the first defender anyway. Tate's slowed and swarmed. Gain of 1. (Line -)

11. Spread. Tate takes the ZR handoff and Pugh and the pulling Green give him two good blocks for a lane. Bosley and Berry miss theirs, though, and the pursuit holds it to a four-yard gain.

12. Spread. Burns back to pass, Ziemba gets absolutely torched and holds (line -). FWIW Bosley and Berry cap a completely mediocre three-play sequence by letting a WVU rusher past them on a double-team, forcing an incompletion from Burns.

13. 39-yard net for Durst this time. I'll take it.

14. Part of the reason Auburn's DTs have been so quiet this game is because with an unblocked DE on all of these ZEs, WVU can afford to double-team Marks, Doolittle, etc. This time Doolittle (+) is single-covered, though and he makes the most of it, shoving his man into the backfield and forcing Devine to swing around them into the path of the well-positioned Evans. It should be a loss, but Devine jukes his way around Evans for a yard.

15. WVU runs the little play where Sanders goes in motion and takes the handoff as he dashes past White, but not this time--they botch the handoff, and Goggans comes awfully close--and maybe should do more than just coming close--to recovering.

16. 3rd-12 and Auburn obviously has to get a stop for any prayer of winning this game. White keeps on the draw and gets tackled after two yards by the unblocked Stevens (+). Give-up-and-punt call.

17. Speaking of punts, this is WVU's first and there's a little over 8 minutes left in the game. Sigh.

18. Spread of desperation. Last gasp, here we go. ZR, handoff to Tate over the right side. There's a tiny crease out there, but Pugh's cut-block has only slowed rather than stopped his guy and Tate (-) rather curiously decides not to try and power past the guy but plows straight into Hawthorne and the corner he's blocking. Look, I know the guy's a decent back, but I just don't understand why he's taking carries away from Lester and Fannin. I'm not seeing it.

19. Spread. No one's open, Burns takes off, makes six yards. Auburn has still managed to go the entire game without throwing a single downfield pass over the middle of the field.

20. Spread, 3rd-4. Burns stands in and finds Hawthorne on an out. Hawthorne (--) drops it--there's no other way to say it--like it's hot. Thus ends any pretext to this game ending in anything other than a WVU victory.

21. Punt. Now, of course, Durst cranks the 54-yarder.

22. WVU lines up with both backs alongside White. He hands to Sanders, who trips over his tackle's legs as he tries to cut up the middle.

23. 2-back set. They run the lead-blocker ZR for Devine, and this is how this night has gone for Auburn's defense: Blanc (+) has shoved his way into the designed hole, forcing Devine to pull up and try to reverse field, where the closing Goggans is waiting on him. Of course, Goggans (-) misses the tackle completely and Devine has nothing but space in front of him on the far side. 29 more yards.

24. Screen to Jalloh, Stevens (-) is out there but tries to beat his blocker to the inside shoulder rather than forcing Jalloh back towards pursuit, giving up the corner. Jalloh obliges by picking up 15.

25. Jake Ricks (+) burrows into the backfield on a ZR, allowing Marks and Goggans to tackle for no gain.

25. ZRO, handoff to Sanders up the middle. F'ing infuriating, man: this doesn't really look like it's going anywhere, but Sanders sort of hides out behind the line as they slowly shove Marks and Ricks (-) especially a few yards downfield. Bynes flies past and then Sanders pops out for, somehow, a nine-yard gain before Coleman tackles from behind.

26. ZRO, 3rd-1, Devine just plunges into the line for the first.

27. ZRO, Blanc (+) deftly avoids a cut block and tackles Devine after minimal gain.

28. Whoops. Straight handoff to Devine up the middle, where thanks to 1) Bynes blitzing directly into the center 2) Pybus trying maybe a little too hard to cover the outside 3) a double on Blanc that shoves him far enough back that it takes out Evans as well 4) Etheridge lining up outside in man coverage, there is absolutely no one in white. Devine breezes 30 yards for the final embarrassing score. There should be minuses on this play, I'm sure, but I don't know who it would go to; seems like they caught Auburn in a bad look.

29. KO, whatever. Wait, not whatever: Fannin's banged up. Excellent.

30. Spread from here on out. Burns does a nice job on first down of finding some room to run when--stop me if I've told you this one before--no one gets open. 15 yards. Yay.

31. False start on Ziemba.

32. Burns connects with R. Smith for 10.

33. 3-yard pass complete to Trott.

34. Ziemba (line -) flambeed again by the WVU DE; sack. Ziemba held up well in the running game, but man, he's had a terrible time of it in the second half on pass protection.

35. Burns's Hail Mary is picked off and returned for, oh, 25 yards or so before this guy gets tackled. It's a good thing he is, because otherwise I would have done something horrible to him. Like, find his e-mail address and sign him up for, like, online physics and astronomy newsletters. That'd show him.

Plus/minus: The JCCW's first plus/minus tabulations follow. The philosophy has been to add pluses for noticeably good plays and minuses for noticeably negative plays, leaving out neutral and/or routine plays where, say, things went poorly/well because of positioning or playcalls or just plain good/bad work by WVU. (I also went back and assigned a handful of plus/minuses I clearly should have added before, as on the awful last play of the third quarter.) Your results are as follows:

Offense: Burns +6, Davis +2, "Line" +1, Trott +1, Billings +1, Lester 0, R. Smith 0, Hawthorne -1, E. Smith -1, Tate -2, V. Smith -3.

Defense: Blanc +3, McFadden +2, Marks +2, Coleman +2, Doolittle +1, Bynes +1, Clayton +1, Ricks 0, Powers -1, McNeil -1, Goggans -1, Stevens -2, Johnson -2, McKenzie -2, Carter -1, Evans -1, Etheridge -4.

Kickers: Byrum -2, Durst -2.

Final verdicts: There's obviously a ton of tweaks that need to be made to this plus-minus thing--for instance, when six guys rush the passer and none of them beat their man, none of them stand out enough to earn a minus, even though the play as a whole is a failure. Certain individuals aren't being portrayed accurately, either; there's no way Bynes should have a positive rating when he made the one excellent play on the interception and spent the rest of the game getting shoved around, albeit not in such obvious ways that he ever picked up more than one demerit.

Still, I think between this and the overall review, we can make some safe assumptions:

1. The biggest problems for the offense after the hot start weren't the spread or play-calling, but WVU adjusting and Auburn's deteriorating line play.
The "Line" reading finished at +7 for the first half; it finished at -6 in the second half as there was no push against WVU's four-man fronts and the pass protection collapsed. As mentioned at the end of the 2nd/3rd quarter review, Ensminger generally stuck with the ace and I formations on running downs until Auburn fell behind by 10 points. With the line flailing and possibly tiring--could that 20-play drive have taken more out of them than WVU?--the heavy formations just weren't as effective.

That's not to say the spread was any great shakes, but on passing downs, there won't be any element of surprise and I'd just assume give Burns as much room to improvise as possible. Speaking of which ...

2. Burns was the best thing the offense had going. Strange, but true, at least excluding the power-running stuff as executed in the first quarter. Burns was accurate; Burns made things happen with his legs; Burns never made the killer mistake. Consider: on Auburn's only drive of the second half, the one that ended in Byrum's miss, the offense picked up four first downs and all four of them came either via a Burns run or an accurate Burns pass. True, his YPA (5.3) kind of blew, but it's hard to do much yardage-wise when you never even have the chance to complete a pass downfield. Which brings me to my next point ...

3. Auburn never tested WVU's run-obsessed safeties. Not once. Auburn's longest completion of the night was the 22-yard wheel route to Davis; the next-longest was the TD screen to Lester. The longest completion of the game to a WR or TE was a 14-yarder to Trott. Burns's only attempts to complete a pass longer than that to a WR or TE was the near-miss to Hawthorne along the sideline and the last-play Hail Mary. It's not hard to see why the ground game suffered in the second half; if the defense knows they don't have to keep anyone further than 10 yards downfield, it just doesn't leave a lot of room for an offense to operate.

Why was this the case? Take your pick: Ensminger never called for downfield passes. The receivers never got open on downfield passes. Burns could have thrown downfield passes but never did. Or, your most likely cause: all of the above. In any case, it's hard to see an offense this stunningly low-fi having much success against any team with a pulse in its front seven.

4. The tailbacks just aren't that special. I suggest you go back and count the number of times in this entire recap I write that an Auburn running back "broke a tackle." Nevermind, I'll do it for you: zero. I realize they're all banged-up except for the true freshman, but still, not one of them did anything beyond the minimum we'd expect of them and I thought Tate was simply subpar. If Davis is healthy, I would like to see him given a chance, please.

5. Auburn's linebacking blew. There's a reason every LB who saw serious time ended up in the negatives save Bynes, who I've already said should have: they just didn't make any plays. It says something when the backup defensive tackle finishes with more solo tackles than the starting middle linebacker.

6. Neither the d-line nor the secondary were much better. Coleman had a good game, Blanc made an impact in his limited time, and WVU mostly avoided McFadden; they're excused. Everyone else? Thumbs down. This includes Sen'Derrick Marks, who has too much talent to go an entire game making only two noticeable plays, double-teams or no. Note that Auburn's safeties finished at a combined -5, and McNeil's -1 is probably generous.

So what now? Offensively, we hope Ensimger finds some way of stretching the field--Ole Miss's secondary will give us some opportunity to, apparently--and that the line finds a way to keep things intact in the second half. Defensively, who knows. Getting Powers and Thorpe healthy again would be nice--I trust the true freshman in man coverage more than I would Etheridge, who struggled terribly with it last week--but who knows if that's going to happen. Otherwise? The defense and their coaching staff will just have to sack up and find a way to get it done.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Special Guest Enemy: the Red Solo Cup

Auburn's hopes and dreams may be grinding to a miserable halt, but that doesn't mean that "Special Guest Enemy" can't march on. This week, we're hosting Juco All-American from the delightfully acid-tongued Ole Miss blog the Red Solo Cup, haters of all things cowbell and delusionally Razorback. My A's to their Q's are available here; their A's (in quotes) to my Q's (in bold) follow below. Enjoy.

1. So 4-4 with a win in Gainesville and a great chance at going 7-5 (or even 8-4) is obviously a massive improvement over the Orgeron era, but the Rebels have outgained their opponent in three of those four losses and are a bounce or two away from being 6-2, in the top 15 or so, and in the race for Atlanta. Exactly how pleased or not pleased are Rebel fans with how this season has played out so far?

"Well, I think it's safe to say that had it not been for the last four years, many of us would be upset about our record so far this season. Sure, we lost at the last second to Wake, turned the ball over seven times against Vandy, lost by four to Alabama and let go of a 14-3 lead against South Carolina. Still, the fact that we haven't lost by more than a touchdown in this whole season is a testament to where Nutt has taken this team. We're in every game, and we've come away with some victories. When it comes down to it, most Ole Miss fans predicted going 6-6 or 7-5 this season. That's still probably going to happen.

"At the same time, it's a big shame that we haven't been able to capitalize more in the games we have lost. With a fantastic defensive line led by senior DT Peria Jerry (who is incredible), a passing attack that includes LT Michael Oher blocking for Jevan's blind side, Jevan's bevy of excellent wide receivers, and a linebacking corps with great speed, I expected to beat Vanderbilt and South Carolina."

2. As you know, I am an Auburn fan. Please give me some sort of shred of false hope my team might crack the mythical 300 total yards/20-point offensive barrier. I will take whatever you can give me.

"Chris Smelley passed for over 300 yards against Ole Miss. Against Kentucky, he passed for 105. If that doesn't tell you something about the state of our secondary, I've got some land in Starkville to sell you.

"Start Chris Todd. He will have a career day. Pass on every down. Go for it on every fourth down. You will win the game. (Against WVU our longest two completions of the night covered 22 and 16 yards and both were thrown to running backs. We do not have the tools to test your secondary, Chris Todd and Chris Todd's Magic Shoulder of Rainbows included. This is a valiant effort and I thank you for it, but I remain very, very low on hope.--ed.)

"Other than that, stay away from our defensive line and linebackers. They're mean and fast. If you can get it past them, you will score touchdowns."

3. The clearcut No. 1 weakness for the Rebel offense seems to be Snead's and McCluster's wanton disregard for hanging on to the ball. Is that the case, and assuming it is, are there any other weak spots the Auburn defense could try to attack?

"Obviously, those two are very turnover-prone. Jevan has improved in that field, but McCluster has not. Rip the ball from his hands.

As far as other ways to attack our offense, assume 4.3 speed WR Mike Wallace will run a fade on every play. He will. Run the 3-4 against the Wild Rebel. Alabama did it, and the formation was atrocious. Blitz heavy and often. When Jevan gets rattled, he makes significant mistakes. When he's not rattled, he'll pick you apart. Also, if you devote eight players to coverage and only send three, Jevan will walk around in the pocket as long as it takes your defensive linemen to get to him. He will hold onto the ball, and he will get sacked. Pray to God/Allah/Yahweh that Shay Hodge isn't feeling aggressive. If he is, Jevan can put the ball 20 feet away, and Shay will figure out how to catch it."

4. Auburn is obviously going through something we might charitably call "a bit of a rough patch" and the Rebels should be fairly prohibitive favorites on Saturday. Of course, Nutt's teams have long had a tendency to play down to their competition and the Rebels' two most damaging losses of the year (to Vandy and SC) came at home. Any worry about a letdown after the big Nutt Comes Home game last week? What's the single biggest key to the game for Ole Miss to prevent that from happening?

"To answer your first question, yes. Personally, I'm not worried. I feel confident that we're going to win, but there are still plenty of jaded Ole Miss fans (including a lot of bloggers at our site) who think that we're going to figure out a way to lose to you. You're right that we should have beaten South Carolina and Vanderbilt, but I like to pretend like our team is past that.

"The way for us to prevent Auburn from winning is to avoid more than one turnover. If we can do that, we will win the game. Our offense is very creative in finding ways to score points. Your offense is not. If we can continue that trend, we've got nothing to worry about."

5. The RSC recently posted that the "Orgeron recruited a ton of great talent" meme (and/or Arkansas straw man as employed by the anti-Nutt faction) is a bit overplayed. Assuming that's the case, is there anything you miss about the Coach O era as opposed to what Nutt seems to be offering?

"In short, no. I guess that there's a portion of me that missed the drama that was recruiting under Ed Orgeron. It was at least a little fun to see all those stars in our recruiting classes that you knew probably wouldn't qualify. Nutt, on the other hand, does this pesky thing where he only takes a few grade concerns in order to ensure that he gets 25 players into school. Imagine that. A school with 53 scholarship players assuring that it will have 78 in the following season. Crazy.

"Nutt = Ed Orgeron + coaching ability - a little bit of recruiting prowess - micromanaging personality + crazy (which is saying a lot)."

That is. Thanks again to Juco All-American and I do heartily recommend the RSC for all the Ole Miss-based humor you can handle.

West Virginia recap, 2nd & 3rd quarters

The plan was to finish the damn thing, but, you know, only so much of this I can take at a time, I'm afraid. We're picking up where we left off here.

It saddens me greatly, sir, to live with the knowledge that our paths must cross again.

Second quarter

1. Auburn opens the second quarter 1st-10 on the WVU 16 and in the ace set with Tommy Trott in his standard little H-back position. He goes in motion and Auburn runs Eric Smith behind him and the left side of the line (+) gets a solid push. Smith darts for 5. Nice to see Auburn pick up right where they left off in the first quarter.

2. Same formation, same play run to the weakside behind freshman Vance "Not a Blocking Tight End Quite Yet, Believe You Me" Smith (-) who gets shoved backwards two yards and slows E. Smith enough for the 'backers to converge and drop him for a loss.

3. 3rd-5, Spread, trips left ... delay of game. &%*@.

4. 3rd-10, spread, trips left ... screen to Lester. With the receivers vacating the left side of the field, WVU has four players who can stop the play. One is a lineman who reads it but gets walled off by Ziemba; two are linebackers, one of which gets slowed by Bosley peeling back and one of which is stopped by an athletic diving cut block by Berry; and one is a corner who Green absolutely pancakes. Lester walks in. TOUCHDOWN, AUBURN! 10-0, hells to the yeah. (Line ++)

5. Byrum's kickoff lands at the 11, is dropped, is frantically picked up, and is still returned to the 27. This unit has to get better.

6. This is the play chronicled Friday, where Johnson (who I'm giving the -) and McKenzie both cover White on the zone read option and leave Devine open for 36 yards' worth of free terrain. Bleccch.

7. Starting now I'm going to start abbreviating WVU's use of the zone read "ZR" and the zone read option--where White has an available handoff up the middle before running the option outsid, as on the previous play--"ZRO," because let me tell you, WVU uses these jokers a lot. This play is a ZR with Devine carrying to the same side, and this time 1. McKenzie (-) has taken a step inside and is easily sealed off 2. neither Bynes nor Johnson can get off their downfield blocks 3. Etheridge makes the tackle via horse-collar (albeit with the complication that Devine is stiff-arming him in the facemask, which ought to be a penalty every time and never has been in the history of the world). The result? WVU has moved from their own 27 to Auburn's 8 in two plays.

8. 8 in the box for Auburn and six blitz, prompting White to throw an inaccurate corner fade to the great big lanky WR covered one-on-one by McFadden. Probably the right read, lacking execution.

9. Auburn reverts to their usual 4-3 and Stevens (+) saves a touchdown on a straight option, playing heavily to an otherwise uncovered pitchman and then diving to snag White by the ankles. Still a four-yard gain because, as you will learn, Auburn is basically incapable of stopping White for less than that on the option.

10. 3rd-goal from the 4. Good call from Rhoads here as he blitzes six against a QB draw, a six that includes Johnson, who arrives squarely in the hole in the center of the line White had been planning to use. White tries to bounce it outside but Coleman (+) has contain and buries him for a loss of 2. WVU FG is good, 10-3 Auburn. I'll take it.

11. Fannin fields the kick in his own end zone, gets a great series of blocks from the three-man wedge (E. Smith, Adam Herring, and McKenzie), gets one more from Terrell Zachery, and he's off! WVU finally gang tackles him at their 31. (uh ... random special teamers collective +?)

12. I-formation, two WRs, and it's the patented Al Borges play-action wheel route to the fullback, in this case Davis. Burns (+) hits him perfectly in stride for 22 yards. I hope Davis dedicated that catch to Carl Stewart.

13. We have a John Douglas sighting, ladies and gents, as the redshirt freshman fullback is lined up at--you guessed it--fullback for Davis in the I. Auburn runs the waggle and this time WVU buys it hook, line, sinker, pole, etc., giving Burns the option of either hitting Trott for the TD or taking the honors himself. He chooses the latter (probably wisely) and thanks to a bit of a block from Carr glides into the end zone untouched. TOUCHDOWN! 17-3! Go go go new offense GO!

14. Byrum with the ONSIDES KICK! ONSIDES KICK! He's got it! Wow, Byrum (++) executed that as well as it could possibly be executed. Tap, 10 yards, fall on it. WVU didn't have anyone close. Great call by Tubby and crew.

15. Spread. Burns hands to Tate, who takes it right and flips to Billings on the reverse. Burns makes a block and there's a ton of space on that side of the field if Ziemba can just see the hard-charging safety. Ziemba, who is looking to seal someone inside as the safety goes by him outside, unfortunately does not see the hard-charging safety. (Line -) Loss of 7, and that, sadly, was Auburn's high-water mark for this game. (Will called this playcall "idiotic" and it certainly didn't fit in with the buttoned-down philosophy that had worked so well for Auburn to this point ... but I gotta say I've seen worse. If Ziemba makes that block, it's 10-15 yards minimum.)

16. I. Burns takes a five-step drop and has excellent protection (line +), but no one's open. He checks down to Tate for a yard.

17. Spread, 3rd-16. A ZR for Auburn and Burns keeps going right. Believe it or not he's into the secondary with a good chance of picking up the first if Trott (-) holds his block. Trott knows it, too; he does the single-angry-clap-of-anger after the play.

18. I'm hoping Durst (-) was told not to let the returner touch it, because a punt that goes out-of-bounds at the WVU 22 for a 34-yarder is otherwise an out-and-out shank. We discover here that WVU's punt returner (Ellis Lankster) is from Whistler, Alabama, and I'm disappointed in myself because I cannot for the life of me remember where the heck "Whistler" is. (As it's not even incorporated yet, I've since forgiven myself.)

19. Devine carries on the ZR right on WVU's 1st-10, and Auburn has it pretty well snuffed out. But Bynes has overpursued by just a tad and Devine's able to cut back nicely for 6.

20. Sanders goes in motion for WVU left to right and takes the speedy end-around handoff. With Auburn's LB's shifted to the opposite side of the field, it's up to Zach Clayton--seeing time at DE and clearly a tad hesitant for reasons I suspect are OMHGWhitesofast related--to turn and tackle Sanders as he races by. It's a gain of 8, but given Auburn's alignment I think it could be worse.

21. ZRO handoff goes to Devine up the middle, where Doolittle (-) has been blasted out of the hole with the kind of ease that lets the tackle move to the next level and smother Bynes. 20 more easy yards.

22. WVU takes a timeout, giving ESPN's overlords an opportunity to force May and Holtz to go into an interminably long and detailed breakdown of the next NASCAR race (exclusively on ESPN!). The devil now has Lou Holtz discussing Jimmy Johnthon's engine for 45 solid seconds on permanent loop in the bowels of hell, I promise you. The play, when it mercifully arrives, really, really, sucks: White drops back after a waggle of his own and even though Carter (-) isn't fooled, he is successfully single-blocked by WVU's scrawny TE. It gives White enough time to fire a bomb downfield to a wide open receiver at the goal line, touchdown, 17-10. Why so wide open? Because Mike McNeil (--) did not appear to see said receiver and when White cocked to throw, he bolted at the well-covered receiver in front of him. *grits teeth*

23. KO, TB.

24. I, twins to the strong side. Lester carries behind Ziemba for a ho-hum three yards.

25. Same formation, this time they run further outside on the weakside, and for the first time on the evening Davis (-) kind of misses on his block and Lester has to run through an arm tackle to pick up a tough two yards. I also have no idea what Trott is doing on this play; he starts to pull from his TE position and then just runs aimlessly forward behind the center of the line like one of those magnetic football players that hasn't been programmed quite properly.

26. Spread on 3rd-5. Burns (+) keeps on the QB draw, with Lester as the lead blocker, but almost gets hit at the line by a WVU lineman who's stunted into the hole. Ziemba pushes him inside as Burns skips outside, though, and Lester and Green hold their blocks just long enough for Burns to pick up the first. (As he will do a couple of times this game, Burns slides down awfully quickly whereas staying upright might get him another 2-3 yards. I wouldn't think this offense would be in the position to give up free yardage when it can get it, but then again it's definitely not in the position to recover from an injury to Burns, so maybe it's OK.)

27. Ace. Tate (-) takes the handoff right, and though the right side of the line (+) has opened up a hole for him a) he's just not fast enough hitting it b) he gets completely stood up and driven backwards by the WVU safety. Gain of 1.

28. I, no TE/3 WRs. Play-action and Burns hits an open Derek Winter on the out. Winter tries to juke his way back into the middle of the field and doesn't look especially fluid at it, getting cut down immediately for a gain of 4.

29. Spread, 3rd-5. The MO by this point is pretty firmly established: I or ace on first and second down, spread on third. WVU sends the house, once again leaving Trott free to just release a few yards downfield and Burns (+) once again makes the right read and finds him for the first. Auburn has been stunningly good on third downs to this point.

30. I. Tate tries the left side and though it's not blocked badly, the safety has stormed forward as soon as Burns even looked in Tate's direction and he tackles at the line-of-scrimmage. Auburn pretty clearly needs to test the deep middle of the field on play action to give these guys something to think about. Will Ensminger make the necessary adjustment? (Feel free to make a guess about this based on your knowledge of how the rest of this game progresses.)

31. Spread, a down early. Burns rolls right and gets good protection (line +), then finds Carr on a comeback route along the sideline. Throw is just a hair low, forcing Carr to his knees to make the catch, but it's a solid eight yards and brings up 3rd-2.

32. Spread. QB draw again, and this time WVU's more ready for it--four-man front instead of three, LBs closer to the LOS. Tate doesn't whiff his lead block but doesn't exactly plow his guy backwards, either, and Burns decides he likes his chances better cutting back to the opposite side of the line. I don't think this is the right decision, as the play's not being blocked that way and he's surrounded and dropped a yard short. Hard to second-guess too much when this play has had success tonight, but so--obviously--have the heavy sets with Lester or Fannin behind them.

33. After the previous play WVU had two timeouts and there was 1:20 left on the lock. Bill Stewart, in all his infinite wisdom, elects not to use either of said timeouts and instead just merrily watches the clock tick down to the 38-second mark. This "decision" looks all the wiser when Durst (-) launches his punt straight up the chimney, so vertical that when it lands and bounces upfield, he ends up downing his own punt. That's a 15-yarder, folks, and Saturn V is officially not having a good night.

34. White rolls to his left and hits an open receiver on a downfield comeback route just in front of McFadden. Not sure what--other than pressure, maybe--can be done about this if White's going to be accurate on the throw.

35. Great coverage from the secondary this time and White is forced to throw it away.

36. Did I say something about pressure? Clayton (+) comes in free after a stunt and gets down quickly to trip White up a bit. White keeps his feet, but Clayton regains his footing as well and makes the sack, ending the half.

Halftime interview break: Tubby tells Erin Andrews that "neither defense is playing real good," meaning you can cover your "misuse of adjective 'good' vs. adverb 'well'" square, and when he adds that Auburn's offense will have to open things up and "do a better job in the second half" that should probably give you Tubby Interview BINGO!, right?

Stats at the half show that Burns is 8-9 for 76 yards, a TD, and a rushing TD. Keep your redshirt, Barrett.

Third quarter

37. WVU kicks off, and it's a touchback. Remember when we had a kicker who could pull that off consistently? Man, those were the days.

38. Ace, twins to one side. Lester takes the handoff over the strong side and a pulling Berry (line -) completely misses his block, ruining what otherwise looked like a well-blocked play.

39. I, no TE, 2nd-10. Lester tries the other side this time, and while neither lead blockers Davis or Ziemba make good contact, basically no one makes a block on this play. Lester's swarmed under after a gain of a yard.

40. Spread on 3rd-9. Hawthorne has come all the way across the field, L to R, on a deep crossing route towards the WVU sideline. He's blanketed, but Burns lays a nice arced pass in there and Hawthorne nearly picks up the first anyway--he makes the grab only for his toes to hit the sideline as he does it. Incomplete, fourth down, but it's hard to fault anyone on this play. Sometimes even good execution doesn't quite work out.

41. Better punt from Durst this time, and Robert Shiver of all people is the first to arrive in coverage and rakes the ball out of Lankster's hands. E. Smith is next on the scene and pops Lankster as he attempts to recover, spinning the ball free. If anyone else from Auburn is around this is Tiger ball, but the first man there is from WVU and he recovers easily. Dammit.

42. ZR handoff to Sanders and again it looks like Bynes (-) doesn't quite have his pursuit angles down, giving Sanders a cutback lane for 5.

43. ZRO handoff to Devine up the middle, and this time Marks (+) has fought off his block and slows Devine down enough for Goggans and Bynes to arrive and tackle. Still 3 yards, though.

44. 3rd-2. Auburn blitzes six into ZRO and Evans appears to have a bead on White, one-on-one. Unfortunately, as White is an outstanding football player, he makes a nifty hop-step to Evans's left and falls forwards for the first. Not much Auburn could have done about that.

45. Once again, the secondary is playing way off the LOS and when White flips the ball to Sanders on the long handoff, Stevens is the closest guy to him. Stevens is not fast enough to catch Jock Sanders from behind while being blocked, unfortunately, and Sanders is seven yards downfield before anyone touches him. At least that someone is McFadden, who tackles.

46. Auburn still playing off, for reasons I don't fathom. White says thankyouverymuch and throws a wide-slap-open bubble screen that's going to go for 10 yards at least ... if he doesn't throw it three yards in front of his target, incomplete. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

47. 3rd-4, and curiously, White sees man-to-man and lofts the fly route towards Tall Wideout again. McFadden's in good coverage, the ball is borderline uncatchable, and they flag him for PI anyway. My initial reaction is to curse the official into oblivion, but on replay McFadden makes his initial bump, then backs off for a half-second, then clearly re-bumps a good 10-15 yards downfield without making an effort to look for the ball until afterwards. The flags still a little on the soft side, but McFadden (-) makes obvious, intentional contact with the receiver while the ball's in the air. No complaints here.

48. WVU's in the I for the first time in the game, and Auburn winds up suitably confused--Etheridge (-) has let Sanders get behind him and an accurate lofted ball by White is a sure touchdown ... right up until the moment Sanders drops it. Auburn very, very fortunate again here.

49. ZRO, and with Evans covering the pitchman White keeps and gets wrapped up on a cat-quick play by Coleman (+) as he crosses the LOS. Again, though: Auburn played that just about as well as they could have and White gets three yards anyway. This is all Rodriguez's stuff--why in the name of God's green earth did WVU ever make any noise about changing this offense?

50. 3rd-7 and White goes back to the one-on-one well vs. McFadden, but the pass has no chance. Holtz is arguing that WVU has no business passing when they're running the ball as well as they have (at least, that's if I'm interpreting "lisp lisp lisp lisp LISP LISP!" correctly), but geez, the first pass on that set of downs should have gone for a TD and the one before that drew a PI flag for 15 easy yards. FG's good, 17-13. Lead has been cut by 10 and this already feels all too depressingly familiar.

51. Davis field the kickoff and THERE HE GOES! 62 yards! Oh man, it's so, so so good to have you back, Tristan (+). Great blocks here by E. Smith and Herring in the return, among others.

52. C'mon Auburn. 1st-10 on their 38. Do something with it. They open in the spread and roll Burns right. It's good protection (line +), but Burns doesn't see anyone open and tries to cut back into what appears to be loads of open field on the left. Unfortunately he doesn't see the two WVU linemen half-arsing it around behind the Auburn line; because they're not being blocked (as the Auburn sensibly line waits for them to rush) they have little problem tackling Burns as soon as he crosses the LOS.

53. Ace, twins. Tate carries around right end and WVU has blitzed the corner on that side directly into him, stopping him for a loss of a yard. Good defensive call, good execution (the blitzer didn't show until just before the snap), not sure Auburn could do anything different here.

54. Spread, 3rd-9. Good pocket once again (line +), but Burns (-) can't find anyone and throws his checkdown to Trott at his feet. Incomplete. I didn't see anyone open, but it looks like Tubby did--he reads Burns the riot act as he comes off the field. To boot, that missed completion to Trott was more important than it looked--it wouldn't have given Auburn a first down, but it would have set up a makeable 4th-3 on the 33. Now? Puntin' time.

55. Durst finally gets one inside the 20, downed at the 13. No minus, but no plus, either--at this distance it's not too far-fetched to get it inside the 10. Which Auburn sort of does by getting handed a stupid block-in-the-back penalty. WVU will start at the 7.

56. WVU lines up two backs alongside White and run what's essentially a ZR with a lead blocker. Coleman gets sealed, Johnson (-) is driven completely out of the play by the mighty-mite Sanders, and Devine picks up a quick 13.

57. With the corners still playing off WVU goes right back to the open bubble screen that White screwed up earlier. This time he completes it, and sure enough, 10 simple yards with 15 tacked on when Powers--though, again, getting his own facemask grabbed--gets a hold of Sanders's facemask. (Holt, to his credit, questions why the offensive player is never flagged for facemasking. Lisp Lisp LISP ("Thank you"), Lou.)

58. Same lead-blocker ZR that started the drive, this time to the opposite side of the field and handed to some new guy named Rodgers ... who breaks a Coleman tackle behind the line and scoots for 14 more. May gives it to Coleman for the missed tackle, but Rodgers got badly slowed up ... where the hell are our linebackers? Turns out Bynes and Evans are busy getting blocked and Stevens (-) is just plain too slow to react. It's taken WVU three plays to go from their 7 to Auburn's 41. Ugh.

59. Well-timed six-man blitz gets Bynes in unblocked and Coleman cleans up. We needed that.

60. WVU hurries to the line and Auburn's not settled. Evans (- for general ineffectiveness), Blanc, and Coleman all get blown up, opening up the right side for Sanders to take the ZR for 15 yards. 2nd-17 now 3rd-2. We have now answers. We are going to lose.

61. Auburn stands Johnson up at right end to create a 5-2 look which, hey, better try something. And it sort of works, as Bynes blitzes around to cover the pitchman on a straight option play and Johnson tackles White as he cuts inside, holding WVU to a gain of three. Then again, it's still a first down and White still has 2-3 yards anytime he wants them.

62. Same 5-2 look. ZR give to Devine, Coleman disengages and tackles. Good play by Auburn, still four yards. The beat goes on.

63. 5-2, six-man blitz and eventually seven when Stevens comes on the delay. None of them get anywhere near White and he's got an easy pitch-and-catch for four yards with Etheridge a step behind in man-to-man. Nice tackle keeps the gain down.

64. Big 3rd-2 and WVU comes out in the I. Blanc and Coleman (-) get pushed back as the right side collapses and Sanders gets the first without too much trouble.

65. 1st-10 on the Auburn 18. Auburn's in 4-3 and blitz seven again, giving White yet another simple throw to the slant route for 16 painless yards. Powers is on the coverage and after the play looks gimpy as all get out. The linebacker to this slant's side is Stevens, who might have had a play on it if he'd dropped back but instead comes on the delayed blitz (the one, I believe, where he's spying one of the RBs and comes if they're in pass protection) that doesn't even get him to the line of scrimmage before the ball is gone. I know we need pressure, but this seems to be asking a hell of a lot out of Powers in his current state.

66. 1st-goal, 2. Same blitz, receiver completely uncovered in end zone, touchdown. Replay shows Auburn in man and Etheridge (--) let his guy go for reasons unknown. 20-17.

67. KO, Davis stopped at the 22 this time.

68. Ace. Burns (+) steps back and fires a nice throw to R. Smith along the left sideline, gain of 11.

69. This looks like the spread, but it's not: Burns is lined up in the shotgun alongside the RB, but Trott is in his ace-set H-back position, the line are all in three-point stances, and the two receivers are in a twins set to the right. This is the ace, just with Burns in the gun. They sue it to run our own ZR and Burns keeps, picking up five and possibly more if R. Smith doesn't miss a block.

70. Ace-shotgun. ZR again and this time Burns hands to Lester, who plugs up into the line for 3. Not a bad play, but Burns should keep this--the LBS were aligned away from him and the DE on his side had been well-blocked by Trott.

71. 3rd-2, ace-shotgun. QB draw, and Pugh (line -) gets shucked aside and tackles Burns as he gets to the line. Little bit of a push from Burns and, frankly, a generous spot give Auburn the first.

72. This is the actual spread. Burns is looking for Smith running an out-and-up but he's bracketed by two WVU defenders and it's probably a good thing the pass sails well out-of-bounds. Not a good read by Burns (-), who had time.

73. Ace-shotgun, this time with Trott on the line. Fannin carries on the sweep right, and the line (+) and a good block from Billings open up a nice seam for 7 yards.

74. Spread, 3rd-3. Burns drops back. Berry whiffs on his block, but Fannin is there to help--too bad he whiffs, too. In maybe his best-looking play of the season, Burns (++) calmly leans to one side and lets the guy fly by him, then throws a dart to Trott (+), open underneath, for 10 yards and a first-down on WVU's 40. Sharp.

75. Regular ace set. Waggle. The DE to that side isn't fooled, but it doesn't matter--Burns (+) eludes him nicely and dashes for 13.

76. Ace-shotgun. Hideous play: it's a pull sweep to the left with E. Smith, but a) Green flubs his block at the point of attack b) Smith hasn't waited for the pulling Berry to follow him c) when he pauses to deal with the guy Green missed, Berry runs him over. Two-yard loss.

End third quarter

Verdicts: The notion that Auburn started failing on offense because they moved away from the heavy sets into the spread is--to this point, at least--bunk. Of the four successive stalls entering the fourth, one was due to the cock-up on the reverse and the next three all followed a give to the tailback out of the ace or I that went for minimal yardage. And plays out of the ace-shotgun like the one above--in which Burns is in the shotgun, yes, but also in which two TEs help pulling the linemen who start the play in three-point stances--are not being run out of the spread. The problem, to this point, is simply that Auburn's execution has slipped a bit and that West Virginia has adjusted; they've largely abandoned their usual three-man front for a 4-3 and have safeties playing run-first-run-second with impunity, since Auburn has completed precisely one pass downfield--the wheel to Davis in the first half--all game. The spread is not the villain here.

Defensively, Auburn's a shambles. The blitzes miss more often than they hit and leave the likes of Powers on an island. Then again, straight defense results in Devine gashing us for 20 yards a pop. WVU has a good matchup here: their ZRs and ZROs effectively take Auburn's DTs completely out of the game and put all the onus on the linebackers and DEs. Coleman has held up OK; no one else has.

Fourth quarter coming ... oh, hopefully early this evening.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reading material placeholder

I'm about to spend the rest of the afternoon polishing off the WVU recap, but I didn't want to leave you hanging as far as post-lunch reading material goes, so check out ...

1. This post from yours truly at Team Speed Kills on the SEC's bowl-eligibility plight. SPOILERS: No, I don't think Auburn's going to make it. No, for reasons glossed over in the post, I don't like our chances on Saturday. I guess that's a SPOILER for this week's Friday preview, too, huh?

2. At Mr. SEC you can spend a brief amount of time reading what Phillip Lutzenkirchen, Auburn commitment, had to say about his visit to Florida. Suffice it to say that Signing Day might not be quite the joyful holiday we'd like to be for Auburn if Tubby can't find an offensive coordinator we've heard of.

3. Yes, I think the "When SEC trash talking goes wrong" title of this Sporting News post is probably appropriate.

4. The JCCW isn't going to discuss potential Auburn head coaching candidates until the current Auburn head coach is no longer head coach, but those longing for Butch Davis can--unsurprisingly--stop longing. That K-Scar column isn't fun reading, but with Florida St. seemingly down for the count as long as Bowden stays entrenched, Miami too cash-strapped to compete at a BCS level any more, and Virginia Tech's best Beamerball days apparently well behind it, of course ACC jobs are more appealing at the moment. Just one more reason Tubby should get his mulligan.

5. It's a double-blast of K-Scar as today he talks with Paul Spina, president pro tem of the Auburn board of trustees,, who says he'll "fight for (Tubby) to have that opportunity to remain the head football coach at Auburn University." That's the good news. The bad news is that Spina is expecting a fight, one that seems inevitable if K-Scar's claims that boosters are silently holding a "Buy Out Tubby"-a-thon are accurate.

The Works, tale of two similar halves-style

The official dairy product of your 2008 Auburn Tigers!

It's not really quite like that. When your team has held the lead at halftime in every game they've played and every loss your .500 team has suffered has come after said team has held a double-digit first-half lead, yes, Virginia, this is how your head coach sounds:
How can a team that has looked so good in most of its eight first halves look so bad in the final 30 minutes?

The head coach will have to get back to you on that one.

“We’ve got to find some answers there,” Tuberville said Friday in a teleconference. “They’ve got to be there somewhere.”
Of course, part of the reason the answer is such a mystery is that Auburn isn't actually performing all that differently from one half to the next, particularly defensively. Rhoads isn't wrong when he says Auburn's tackling got worse after the break Thursday night, but it's not like Auburn's defense had exactly been the '85 Bears until then: aside from the drive ended prematurely by McFadden's pick, the 'Eers other possessions resulted in a 48-yard drive ended by interception, a 67-yard drive ending in a field goal, and a 78-yard drive ending in a touchdown. Three of Arkansas's first four drives covered 71, 67, and 80 yards. Against Vandy the defense allowed seven first-half points and seven second-half points. And I don't think I have to tell you the D was better in the second half against Tennessee than in the first. You'd have to go all the way back to LSU to find a game where Auburn's defense was demonstrably worse down-to-down, drive-to-drive, than they were in the first half.

As for the offense, well, yes, they've been better in the first half. No question. But it's not that dramatic a difference when you consider how much help they've gotten from lightning-bolt plays by the special teams and opportunistic defense. Their two TD drives in Morgantown covered 27 and 31 yards after the McFadden pick and Fannin's kickoff return. Their two first-half scoring drives against Arkansas covered (you'll love this) -3 and 0 yards. Vs. Vandy? 49 and 27. Certainly, those drives (well, the WVU and Vandy ones) and the Long March against the 'Eers are better than anything the offense accomplished after halftime and against Tennessee, too, the best drive of the game came early. Nonetheless, most of Auburn's first-half points are a result of opportunism rather than actual offensive competence, and in half of Auburn's losses--Arkansas and LSU--the offense was better in the second half than the first.

The point is this: the question really shouldn't be "What's wrong with Auburn in the second half?" It's "What's wrong with Auburn?", period. Er, question mark.

Which means that's not it, either. If we're taking Evan Woodberry's word for it, Dye told Finebaum this week that Auburn might have quit against WVU. As the above would suggest: don't see it, sir. Don't see it at all. And frankly, I'm a bit bothered if one of Auburn's former coaches did indeed take such a damaging swipe at Auburn's current one. As we say here on the Interwebs, don't feed the trolls, Pat.

Mmmmm, the salty cured flavor of failure to meet expectations. This is about a succinct a summary as you'll find for the cavernous yawning gap between Auburn's perceived 2008 abilities and their results:
Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville hasn't beaten the line since opening night. That's seven straight losses after coming into the season having beaten the line in nine of his previous 12 games.

Backtrack. Bosley--as you know if you paid close attention in the recent first quarter breakdown--is back at center now that he doesn't have to snap into the shotgun as often. And after steadily shrinking for the first nine weeks of the year the playbook apparently ate from the other side of the mushroom* and is expanding again. These are probably positive developments. They are also developments that remind us exactly how much Auburn's offense has been chasing its own tail this season.

And speaking of depressingly-necessary reappearances ...
Correcting mistakes, Byrum said, is more difficult than it seems. Simply adjusting the location of his plant foot solves one problem, but can create an over-awareness that undermines other elements of his kicking motion.

That's why he's seeking guidance from someone who has felt the anxiety.

J**n V****n, who served as the Tigers' top field-goal kicker from 2003 through 2006, is back on campus to complete coursework for a degree.

Byrum said he has held private work sessions with V****n recently.
Yay. (As an aside, the same wonderfully frank Jay G. Tate that wrote that piece also wrote the following in an ostensible straight news story about the second half thing: "Ensminger is a receivers coach by trade and may not be capable of making intuitive adjustments as games progress." Tell us how you really feel, Jay.)

BlAUggery. The usual must-reads: Acid casts a critical eye on the lacking "command structure" of the team, J.M. wraps up his Raymond Cotton report, and the Auburner argues against the firing of Tuberville with the help of the following graph of awesomeness:


Dude, you can't. Just can't. As in, have a Student Union building at Auburn that's named something other than the Foy Student Union. Here's to hoping whoever ponies up the cash for the naming rights is an Auburn person who exercises their right to name it "Foy."

The answer's "B." There's probably no way for this not to come across as sour grapes, but when Dr. Saturday asks if West Virginia's return to explosive form is a mirage--that it "could be, of course, that Auburn is just that bad"--I'm forced to answer "yes." The 'Eers looked quite good on Thursday, no doubt about it. But they always look good against SEC teams; just last year they completely shredded the same Miss. St. defense that was busy choking the life out of Auburn, Kentucky, Alabama, etc. in SEC play. They're just two weeks removed from beating Syracuse 17-6. And they've taken home losses

Was there a waitlist? Tubby was inducted into the Southern Arkansas University Sports Hall of Fame a few days ago, so that's cool, I guess. Tubby was a free safety for the Muleriders and apparently learned the foundations of his coaching philosophies there. It does raise two questions: 1. "Muleriders"? Seriously, how awesome are the nicknames for Arkansas's GSC schools? 2. Why did it take SAU this long to stick Tubby in its Sports Hall of Fame? Are there that many athletically-successful SAU graduates? Was Tubby really in line behind 22 years' worth of more-qualified Southern Arkansas University Sports Hall of Fame candidates? Color me bemused.

Etc. When not being inducted into Halls of Fame, Tubby (or someone in his office) wants elementary school students to "strive for excellence" so badly he makes the point twice ... Coleman says he couldn't care less about his SEC-leading sack and TFL numbers, and coming a year after Groves went gallivanting around in pursuit of that sack record it's refreshing to hear ... and forgive me for being a little envious that an Auburn graduate is busy being the best offensive line coach in the country for one of Auburn's biggest rivals ... this week's SEC Power Poll is up.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Two Tubby thoughts

1. Remember this picture?

It was taken after last year's Iron Bowl, and is the best possible argument to the idea (left in my comments recently) that Tubby only pretends to care about beating Alabama as much as Auburn's fans do because it's the easiest way for him to win over the rabble. It's possible (if unlikely, in my opinion) he'd celebrate by holding up his fingers just to please the crowd. It's not possible, however, he would leap on to his offensive line coach's back with a look of unbridled, boyish joy to please the crowd. The crowd isn't involved here. This is between Tubby, and Hugh Nall, and the Iron Bowl, and when I think about the impossibility of ever seeing the coachbot on the far side of the state caught in a snapshot like this, it makes me more hopeful than ever Tommy Tuberville's tenure at Auburn won't end in this season's cataclysm of frustration and defeat.

But this picture is about more than Tubby's joy in beating Alabama, of course. It's about sharing that joy with his friend. Yep, "friend": as if the countless anecdotes and years upon years spent coaching side-by-side weren't enough to convince you, it's right here in all its unmistakable living color glory. If you are the head football coach of a major Division I college football team, after a major, season-ending victory it would be reasonable to shake the hands of your assistants for a job well done, or pat them on the pack, or even offer a warm hug. But forgive me for being pretty gosh-darned certain you don't take a flying leap onto his back like a 15-year-old whose high school baseball team just won Districts unless the ties run a little bit deeper than head coach/assistant coach.

The question before Auburn fans as we ponder a potentially bowl less offseason and the changes it would demand is this: are those ties too deep? It's a little sad that so many Auburn fans have savaged Tubby in recent weeks for showing the all-too-human qualities of loyalty, trust, commitment, etc. towards his long-time assistants. Yes, true, an offensive staff and a head coach that together earn the colloquialism of "barbecue buddies" risk the head coach becoming unable to evaluate the staff's efforts clearly or act in the program's best interests where their roles are concerned. But barbecue buddies are more likely to have each other's back, more likely to "hold the rope" and keep the entire team afloat for their buddies' sake, more likely to see recruiting trips and yet another two-a-day practice in the August sun and a late-night film session as a chance to work together with people they like and trust, rather than some lonely drudgery. Tubby's friendship with his staff is not, in and of itself, the problem.

The problem arrives, of course, when that friendship comes before the team. And I don't have many qualms about saying it did this offseason. Dumb jerk or misunderstood savant or whatever, Tony Franklin should have been able to bring in his own assistants. Expecting position coaches who have never worked in a spread environment to fully and successfully teach spread techniques (and at the behest of a coordinator who has since made no secret of his willingness to be abrasive when it suits him) seems, in retrospect, like the sort of idea that was doomed to folly from the beginning. It's only logical to expect a change as dramatic as shifting from Al Borges' I to Franklin's spread to require an equally dramatic change in the approach of the staff. And now, after 2008, it's quite safe to label offensive ineptitude the norm for Tubby's Auburn tenure rather than the exception. If the need for a top-to-bottom overhaul of Auburn's entire offensive approach wasn't obvious after 2007, it is now. The downward spiral has to be reversed. All the stops have to be pulled out.

Will Collier has never pulled any punches when it comes to those stops equaling the termination of Nall, Steve Ensminger, and Greg Knox, and unsurprisingly, he didn't pull any after the West Virginia game, either:
For whatever it's worth, I do think Tommy Tuberville has earned a mulligan and ought to get a chance to repair all the damage done this year, but I would instantly reverse that statement if he were to once again insist on retaining Hugh Nall, Steve Ensminger, or Greg Knox on staff after Thanksgiving weekend. They have failed, repeatedly, and they've got to go. Period. It's time to have some actual professionals in those slots instead of guys who are still collecting high-dollar checks purely because of their personal friendships with the head coach.
I can't bring myself to feeling comfortable calling for firings, but I don't have a problem saying this: whoever Auburn's next offensive coordinator happens to be, he should have the right to put together whatever offensive staff he likes. If he wants to keep Eddie Gran, great. If he wants to keep Nall, I'd be surprised, but I could live with that. (If he wants to keep Ensminger and Knox, I'd pretty much just be confused, to be perfectly honest with you.) But that should be up to him. No demands from Tubby. The cleanest slate possible, because that slate is where Auburn's offense has to start after this year's disaster. If that means that this offensive staff moves on, so be it.

And finally, this is the far-and-away biggest reason I wonder if we really might be watching the final games of the Tommy Tuberville era at Auburn. Despite the I'm-not-going-anywhere stump speech, if after a 5-7 or 6-6 season Tubby is forced to choose--as he should be--between 1. a make-or-break season under Bobby Lowder's microscope battling it out against Saban, Miles, Richt, etc. alongside unfamiliar offensive faces operating in unfamiliar offensive ways or 2. a well-cushioned bought-out landing at the 9,000-square foot house where he can host all the barbecues he wants and never have to face telling the same guy whose back he once nearly hopped clear over he no longer has a place on Auburn's football team ... I would still expect him to take option No. 1. He is, as they say, a competitor, and he won't like the idea of leaving on this note any better than I do. But if he did elect to walk out of door No. 2, well, I'll be disappointed. But I'll have had bigger shocks before.


Does it really matter if TSIB's report that Fulmer is already toast is accurate or not? Whether he's lost his job now or he loses it at season's end, he's lost it. 6-6 with the season's highlight victory coming at South Carolina is the best-case scenario, and even that's on the rosy side. And it's not enough. He's done.

Which is another reason why it doesn't make a lot of sense for Auburn to part ways with Tubby now unless, as Will suggests, his loyalty to his assistants forces the issue. Yes, there are some good coaching candidates out there. But there will be next year, too. There always are. Trying to outmneuver and outbid two Southeastern programs of approximately equal stature to Auburn for this particular year's crop when in 2009 there's no Bowden-Fulmer wobblers and Jacobs might very well have his pick of the coaching litter--noting here I sincerely, obviously hope it doesn't come to that--seems the acme of foolishness.

There's all sorts of reasons now isn't the time to fire Tommy Tuberville. This is just one more.

SECond Look links it up

Lots of good SEC-related stuff out there on the bloggitysphere since Saturday, so before we get to the ballot, let's look at some of it.

Time to write the concession speech? I'll stick with my Friday assertion that there's neither conclusive evidence nor any rush to declare a winner in Conference Wars 2008, but yeah, when your conference is kinda fortunate to have that fourth team ranked, is chasing the benighted ACC in the Sagarin ratings, and watches the team still No. 2 with a bullet in its stronger division go down in flames at home to Duke ... yeah, a banner year for the league this isn't. That's quite, quite the safe assumption to make at this point. As Orspencerson Shwallindle put it:
The SEC is Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and then mediocrity down the stacks, a fact reinforced by Vandy’s loss to Duke, Auburn’s loss to West Virginia, and Mississippi State’s loss to Georgia Tech earlier this season. Add in Tennessee’s loss to UCLA, and even devalue Georgia’s victory over an overrated (at the time) Arizona State team, and as a whole the conference is down in terms of any measures of objective quality wins to justify the “ESS--EEE--SEE” chants of rabid fans.

Aside from the Big Three, the conference’s teams are either rebuilding, retreading or regressing (see Tennessee.) There may be a time for hootenanny SEC chest-thumping, but to speak in the vernacular: this year ain’t it.
Yes, I think "Pathos" is the word. In what's probably the SEC Factoid of the Year, the 'Dores have now built on this pre-Georgia tidbit to have lost 16 consecutive games with bowl eligibility on the line. That's not just a monkey on Vandy's back, it's not just an 800-pound gorilla, it's not even Kong--it's more like some sort of mutant space ape the size of all downtown Nashville. It's why I can almost understand why PhillipVU94 is throwing in the towel as a method of preserving his sanity:
I must say, in the annals of Vanderbilt Football Teases, this year’s team proves that it really hasn’t all been done before. I mean, starting 4-0 and going on to finish with five wins is old hat now. But 5-0? Dragging me in with 4th-quarter performances like Ole Miss and Auburn? I didn’t see that coming. That’s the point of Vanderbilt football. You never see the wins coming, but they’re necessary to drag you in, to make you believe that one day things will be different. And then ...

[...]If I can maintain self-discipline, this will be my last post about Vanderbilt football in 2008. (Hopefully my co-authors will pick up the slack, bless their hearts, because they’re stronger people than I am and can handle this mess.) If I can maintain self-discipline, I just won’t care about a Vanderbilt football game until that game is a bowl. Maybe that means I won’t care about Vanderbilt football until 2025, or indeed, ever.
Now, this is what I don't understand: any sort of frustration with Bobby Johnson. Yes, that's 16 straight losses with Vandy stuck on "5" in the win column, a trend Johnson hasn't broken quite yet. But this is Vandy's 26th season since the last bowl trip, and Johnson's been at the helm for 7 of those. In the first 19 of those seasons, Vandy had nine of those sixth-win opportunities; Johnson has handed the 'Dores seven of them the last two seasons alone and would hypothetically equal that 19-season total if Vandy (heaven forfend) fails to get it done against Florida or Kentucky. It seems stunningly shortsighted of 'Dores fans to say the first word against Johnson when more than one expert was calling for an 0-8 SEC season in the summer and when 2009 was the bowl-eligibility target date all along. There's just no pleasing some people, I guess.

We know about that. Michael at Braves and Birds offers some worthwhile analysis of LSU:
As I was trying to figure what exactly has happened to the LSU defense, it occurred to me that Les Miles did not do a very good job of replacing Bo Pelini. I like Les enough to have created an entire category of posts entitled "LesCrush" last year when it looked like he was going to be the next coach at Michigan (and even afterwards when he delivered that phenomenal "have a nice day" oration), but he is a CEO coach and CEO coaches are dependent on having top-shelf coordinators. The risk that CEO coaches run is that their coordinators are good enough to get head coaching gigs and then they're hard to replace. Or, as Tommy Tuberville is illustrating this year, their coordinators aren't the same when put into new surroundings ... The risk with a coach like Miles who is not an expert on either side of the ball is that the risk is doubled. He needs to have two good coordinators. There are two chances for a disastrous replacement instead of one.
Here's to hoping that five years from now, when Miles has had to replace a hired-away Crowton and another couple of coordinators haven't worked out, people are giving him the same grief they've given Tubby for the turnover.

Yes, I saw this coming. At what point of either of the last two seasons did you ever think you'd see this written with a straight face about John Parker Wilson?
Despite some pressure early, John Parker Wilson turned in one of his typical solid-but-not-spectacular performances, going 17-for-24 for 188 yards
Emphasis added because, hey, typical? But yeah, that's what it is. JPW is now, typically, solid. There's hope for us all.

On with the ballot.

1. Alabama.
Funny how Tide fans weren't exactly doing backflips over the tight wins over Kentucky and Ole Miss, but if the Tide run the table those two will have to be seen as their two greatest risks for the season-ruining stunner. They'll have made the Tide's season.

2. Florida. I know Kentucky was suiting up bottled water vendors by the end of the game, but still, the 2007 Florida defense doesn't hold the 'Cats without a touchdown.

3. Georgia. Garbage time or not, giving up 497 total yards and 38 points to Jarrett Lee is not a good sign the week before you play Tim Tebow.




4. LSU. Maybe the Tigers knew what they were doing after all by scheduling Appalachian St., Troy, North Texas, and Tulane outside of conference, huh?

5. South Carolina. Second-half offensive collapse at home vs. LSU suddenly looking even less explicable. Fortunately, Garcia's got two weeks to tune up before going in search of the 'Cocks season-definer in Gainesville.

6. Ole Miss. Two-point squeaker on the road over improving 'Hogs more impressive than, well, "two-point squeaker" implies. With Auburn, Louisiana-Monroe, and Miss. St. all still left on the schedule, odds are pretty heavily stacked in 7-5's favor--at least.




7. Vanderbilt. If the 'Dores somehow collapse all the way to 5-7--an outcome I still doubt given the 'Cats and Vols equally wicked offensive struggles--I think the Guinness record for "Cruelest Football Season" will have a new owner.

8. Kentucky. Exhibit No. 564 that the concept of week-to-week "momentum" is a complete canard: Week 8: Kentucky 21, Arkansas 20; Week 9: Florida 63, Kentucky 5.

9. Arkansas.
Hey, at least the Hogs are willing to give you bang for your ticket buck: their five games against teams not currently ranked No. 1, No. 2, and No. 5 in the country have been decided by a combined 11 points.

10. Auburn. 260-yard EXPLOSION in Morgantown helps Tigers hold steady at No. 109 in the total offense rankings. In your face, No. 114 Vols! You guys suck!

11. Tennessee. Maybe Dave Clawson can join Tony Franklin on the road when he goes back to selling The System out of his trunk. Maybe they'll even have some wacky adventures! It'll be like Blues Brothers, but with disgraced former one-season SEC offensive coordinators whose reigns helped bring about the end of a decade-long streak of prosperity for their respective programs instead of musicians.

12. Mississippi St.
Hey, they came within a point of covering the spread against Middle Tennessee. Not a bad day's work for these guys.