Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review of DEATH: Mississippi St.

What we expected: With the nerves over the Spread Eagle somewhat calmed by the competent performance against Southern Miss and Mississippi St. apparently back to their usual toothless ways after the season-opening implosion against Louisiana Tech, the attitude entering Auburn's trip to Starkville was "Look, it's an SEC game, they're at home, we know we could lose to these guys a second year in a row ... but seriously, there's no freaking way we're losing to these guys a second year in a row." Despite the potential for continued hiccups from the offense, after two weeks Auburn's defense looked impregnable enough--especially vs. the likes of the Bulldogs--to win the game all on their own. Yours truly wrote in Friday's preview:
Every time I try to imagine Mississippi State winning this game, I come back to the same question: are they really going to score on this Auburn defense? Like, at all? I don't mean to be insulting--again, not after last year--and I'm well aware that State has solid players ...But solid isn't enough against the Auburn defense I've seen the first two weeks.

... If the Bulldogs score one touchdown, it happens. If they score two, I'll be surprised. If they score three, I'll be flabbergasted. If they score four or more touchdowns against Auburn's defense, I'll start work on the bomb shelter.

That preview predicted a 29-9 Auburn win; the spread was nine. I don't think Auburn fans were dismissive. But none of us exactly expected a serious challenge, either.

What happened: Probably the most memorable single scoreline of my Auburn football lifetime: Auburn 3, Mississippi St. 2. There are an infinite number of possible college football scorelines in which both teams have scored , and out of all them, Auburn and Mississippi St. finished with the one with the very fewest total points out of all of them. No surprisingly, the game became an overnight sensation, much in that same overnight sensational fashion as luminaries like Miss Teen South Carolina and that "agony of defeat" skier from the Wide World of Sports intro.

It's not like the Auburn offense didn't deserve its share of national guffaws. 315 yards, three turnovers (including two unforced fumbles in a late-game effort to run out the clock), two missed field goals (one of them from 22 yards) most damningly a slew of penalties including the infamous hold in the end zone that handed Miss. St. its only points of the game. But all the chuckles at the offense's expense obscured a downright heroic (for football, of course) performance by the defense, which held the Bulldogs to only 116 total yards, 6 first downs, zero third-down conversions (out of 14 tries) and, of course, zero points. By game's end, for all Auburn's ineptness offensively, they'd still outgained the Bulldogs by nearly 200 yards.

On the other hand: if Adam Carlson doesn't miss a 38-yard Bulldog field goal following a Chris Todd fumble early in the third quarter, Auburn loses this game.

The vibe when all was said and done: Some Auburn fans were philosophical about the performance:

But the majority ... not so much. This more-or-less ends the dream of Tony Franklin's offense repeating the wonders of the bowl game win over Clemson, not least because despite the fact that Burns is on the bench and reportedly healthy and the offense isn't moving--at all--and he still doesn't get a snap. I think this is where Auburn fans settle in and try to prepare themselves for another season's worth of 14-10-type games.

But hey, that kind of season worked out all right in 2006, right? Despite the brain-melting frustration of the State game, there's still some optimism about the future, and later in the week certain Auburn fans--like me--are wondering if Tuberville is pulling a rope-and-dope and saving of his fragile offense's better tricks for better teams. The vibe is that things are not well, and that they won't be well for a while, if ever ... but that things are also not lost. Not quite yet.

The JCCW, looking prescient for once: From last summer's Cheese Puff Preview:
"There are reasons to be optimistic about State. Even after the post-spring departure of top OL Mike Brown, with Carroll providing some modicum of stability at quarterback and Dixon still around to stubbornly push the pile forward for three-and-a-half a carry, it seems impossible the Bulldog offense could still be so utterly anemic after five years of Croom's tutelage. Sure, DC Ellis Johnson is gone, but defense has never been the Bulldogs' issue under Croom and they return a whopping nine starters on that side of the ball. One of those is the terrifying Derek Pegues, liable to snap his fingers and put six points on the board at any time, whether he's picking off passes or returning kicks.

And for all of that, I can't ignore the avalanche of stats that say: They were the same old Bulldogs. Just luckier. Without Brown, top DE Titus Brown, and Johnson, I can't help but think that even given the across-the-board talent upgrades they're still going to be, more-or-less, the same old Bulldogs once again."
And so they were.

The JCCW, looking as foolish as usual: Oh goodness. You'll want to sit down for this one; it's an absolute howler. From a post examining the Auburn offense in greater detail in the wake of the debacle:
"When you look at the Auburn defense and the scorched-earth, leave-none-alive policies its adopted in spite of the protocols laid out by the Geneva Convention, it's just plain silly to say the Tigers can't win the big games on their schedule with their current offensive scheme. During Week 2 of last year the offense was, without question, an even larger train wreck than it was Saturday: five turnovers, 290 yards, 4.1 a play. Three games later they were beating Florida in the Swamp. It can be done ...

With a softer schedule, one close call already safely notched in the win column, and what I'm just about ready to already declare the best defense of Tubby's Auburn tenure, I think it's perfectly safe to say that not only is the Mississippi State game not a sign of impending season disaster, but that Auburn is on track to raise themselves back up onto the 10-win plateau.

But alas and alack, with this defense available, I'm not sure if even 10 wins is going to feel genuinely outright satisfying. (Depends on the Iron Bowl.)"
Surely, surely, I didn't think this. Remember when I had that guest blogger for a few days? This was him. Or her. (Remind me to just go back and delete my archives before the next entry in this series. No one will miss them.)

What we learned about 2008: Well, as the above indicates, yours truly didn't learn much. For most of us, though, the handwriting for Franklin's offense had appeared on the wall--not only was it not going to deliver the explosiveness we'd been promised, not only were those early stutters against UL-Monroe not behind us, the Spread Eagle wasn't even in good enough shape to approach competence, much less become "dangeorus." Even the optimistic projections for the LSU game were of the 10-9 variety.

We also learned that Byrum was going to be a liability; after the 22-yard choke job, the halcyon days of 2007 when we could all feel perfect faith in his ability to get the job done was finished.

Lastly, we also--somewhat erroneously--learned that our defense could do anything we asked them to. If the Southern Miss game was the high-water mark for the Spread Eagle, this game was the same for an Auburn defense that would never look quite this sharp again.

What we learned about 2009: No game aside from Furman is a gimme, no matter the record, no matter the talent, no matter what happened last year, no matter how well one side of the ball is playing if the other side isn't matching it. If there's fumbles and penalties and missed field goals, there's going to be a close game no matter who's on the other sideline. Furman included, really.

There's another lesson here I think Malzahn might want to take note of. Tulsa didn't have much of a problem with red zone conversions, but still, if that issue rears its ugly head at Auburn again, he shouldn't follow Franklin's example and continue to ignore the issue in favor of whatever's come before. If the regular offense isn't getting it done in the red zone, try a different one.

Oh, and one other thing: just because your team's defense looks like it could keep the 1998 St. Louis Rams under wraps while facing a Sylvester Croom-coached offense doesn't mean your team is still capable of winning 10 games. (Consider that a lesson I've learned, at the least.)


easyedwin said...

I am learning to read the "scabs", and it is now a bit less painful. It reminds me of a time when my dad had a bad year. He worked all the overtime that was available at the mill and painted houses after work and on weekends. We ate a lot of "white meat" (fat back) that year and no one was getting seconds at the supper table. We only got cokes when we were sick and steak was a dream. But hey, things got better, we got air condetioning the next year and Auburn beat SoCal in a bowl game. WOUNDS HEALED

jrsuicide said...

3-2...PUNT4VICTORY. Never Forget.

that game was the Deathiest.

§teve From Columbia said...

I think you are right that our defense last year may have been the best under Tuberville. If our offense had been anywhere near close to average we would have won 10 games. Five of the games we lost were very close. Neither you nor I could have foreseen the level of suck that last year's squad was able to produce. Even more hilarious is the fact that Burns finally become the starter was the signal for the death of a season.

Sullivan013 said...

Watching Auburn's offense last year was like eating in an Army field kitchen.

The Army buys the best food that defense dollars can buy, provides some of the most ingenious equipment possible to cook home cooked food in any environment imaginable and sends it's cooks to school for six months..... teach them how to ruin it.

I can't tell you how many times I looked down at a piece of pre-frozen rock-hard breaded veal that was burnt on one size and still frozen on the other next to a pile of polka dotted mashed whiteness that looked anything like the potatoes it came from. "Is it pepper?" I ask hopefully. 'No sir. We had trouble keeping the gnats out of it..."

That's what came to mind when I saw Mario Fannin catch two passes per game for nine yards. Or watched Ben Tate run into two or more linebackers at the line of scrimmage who anticipated the play before the linemen were set. It's what I saw when Burns was given the same two run plays every time he went in (that were stuffed at the line) and then had the inevitable pass broken up when they dropped nine into zone on 3rd and long.

Gnats and burnt veal. That's what I think of every time I see a picture of Tony Franklin.


Philip Arnold said...