Thursday, July 09, 2009

Review of DEATH: Vanderbilt

The series that tries to look forward to what could go right by looking back at what went wrong.

What we expected: Well, after the second half against Tennessee I think "expectations" for the offense were well out the window. Anything could happen with that bunch. Sudden burst of explosiveness built on the steps taken against LSU? Sure. Regression to the futility of the Miss. St. and Tennessee games (or worse), even againbst a 'Dore defense that ranked dead last in the SEC coming into this game? Sure, that too. Some peculiar mish-mash in the middle where one thing (Burns QB draws?) works and everything else doesn't, and sometime towards the end of the third quarter a collection of armored knights riding ostriches emerge from the visitors' tunnel chased by a pterodactyl in the Vandy theater group's guerilla tribute to Joust? Everything was in play. Well, except for Auburn scoring more than, say, 24 points. That was out.

But the consensus? Auburn's D would choke enough life out of the erratic, turnover-fueled 'Dore offense to squeeze out a win, even if with Gameday on hand and a virtually certain bowl berth on the line, this was the biggest game for Vanderbilt in 20-plus years. The spread was Auburn -4, yours truly predicted a three-point scrape, and as much nervousness as there was about the haplessness of the offense, no one seemed comfortable predicting an Auburn loss to Vanderbilt just yet.

What happened: Vanderbilt 14, Auburn 13, a score that does nothing to suggest the unendurable frustration of the second half, in which Auburn's drive chart looked like this:

AU 3rd A09 15:00 Kickoff A17 13:18 Punt 3-8 1:42
AU 3rd A23 11:47 Missed FG A24 10:01 Punt 3-1 1:46
AU 3rd A32 07:09 Kickoff A35 05:56 Punt 3-3 1:13
AU 3rd A47 03:26 Missed FG V39 01:24 Punt 7-14 2:02
AU 4th A50 14:48 Punt A36 12:37 Punt 3--14 2:11
AU 4th A08 09:25 Punt A25 07:57 Punt 4-17 1:28
AU 4th A21 06:33 Punt A19 02:51 Punt 7--2 3:42
AU 4th A03 02:16 Punt A03 02:07 Interception 1-0 0:09

Take a look at the right column, and the number of plays per drive read like this: 3, 3, 3, 7, 3, 4, 7, 1. Not one of those drives covered more than 17 yards. One of them crossed midfield; stalled at the Vandy 39. I wrote in the game's wake--and if there was ever a game that deserved the fallout be dubbed a "wake," it was this one--that it was the most frustrated, the most angry I'd been watching an Auburn football game since Terry Bowden's final season, and nearly a year later, I stand by that. This was a game that would have been won with ease by any team with a halfway-competent offense, but Auburn's offense--featuring two quarterbacks, two-tight end sets, spreads, and everything in-between except success--was about 1/20th-competent. And despite giving up just 14 points and 263 yards and finishing dead-even in turnover margin, Auburn lost. I'm usually the type of fan who screams during or immediately after a big play but doesn't go ballistic at the final whistle in the event of a loss; this time I'd watched the game at a friend's house, stormed out as soon as it was finished, and swore a blue streak the whole drive home.

Looking back, I would call this game the low point of the decade for Auburn football and the Tuberville era. From 2000-2008, Auburn was a legitimate SEC contender. After this game, they weren't. It's kind of that simple.

One other note worth making here: the margin of victory here was provided by a missed extra point by Wes Byrum. If there's any single Auburn player who you might cruelly pick out as the Season of DEATH poster boy, it would have to be poor Foot Lauderdale, who went from Florida-beating savior to, well, missing game-deciding extra points in a one-point loss to Vandy.

The vibe when all was said and done: I think this FanPost at Track'Em pretty well summed it up. Plus, it gave the JCCW its nickname for the 2008 season and a title for this series, so, yeah, it's kind of a big deal.

More specifically, this is where Auburn fan support--or, rather, the lack thereof--for Franklin reached critical mass. After Tennessee, I think the general consensus was "Wow, this isn't working, but maybe it can get turned around somehow"; after Vandy, it became "this isn't going to work, and the plug should be pulled." In a recap of how Auburn's offense had come to such a state of disaster, even I said I would support Franklin's firing if he didn't improve against Arkansas.

My reaction to the result itself:
If there's any tiny, insignificant shred of silver lining in the freaking funnel cloud that blew through the Auburn football teams last Saturday, it's that there aren't any more illusions about the defense winning the SEC West title singlehandedly or sneaking some sort of backdoor BCS at-large bid. There's no expectations any more; I for one don't feel like there's any pressure on the team outside of the demand they don't completely embarrass themselves again between now and the Iron Bowl.

Because--as with 2007 after the LSU loss--that's the only game that matters now. Oh, a win over Georgia would be swell, don't get me wrong. But Auburn 2008 is now a one-game season, with every other contest between now and November 29 a glorified exhibition in order to get the Tigers prepared for Tuscaloosa and the Tide. It's not the way I'd like it, but that's the way it is.
I'm not sure every Auburn fan would have signed off on those sentiments, but in any case, the preseason expectation of SEC West titles and national acclaim--already on life support after the UT game--had finally had the stake driven through its feeble heart.

The JCCW, looking prescient for once: From the Friday preview:
Boy oh boy, doesn't it feel like everything's perfectly in place for Vandy? They've had a week off, the place is sold out, they just need this one win to get over the hump, and it's all playing out in front of a national spotlight the likes of which Vandy has never seen. Remember a couple of years ago when Rutgers was in the middle of the same kind of "We've finally arrived!" streak, hosted Louisville in the big Thursday nighter in front of more fans than those players had ever seen, and won when the Cardinals jumped offside on a field goal try for no reason? Remember last year, when Mississippi St. needed one more miracle to wrap up a winning season, all looked lost, and Ole Miss handed them the ball at midfield for no reason--there's one TD--before Pegues returned a punt for the second score and the win? Weird things happen with these kinds of teams, man, weird things.
Yes, I think Byrum missing an extra point, the goal-line stand for Vandy to start the game, and the wave of Auburn penalties all wound up in the category of "weird things." Even last year, I still think Auburn beats the 'Dores more times than not.

The JCCW, looking foolish as usual: The very next paragraph from that same post:
Three times this season Auburn has come out and looked thoroughly lost on offense. The first two times, they came back the following week and performed, if not brilliantly, at least competently. It seems only logical the seesaw would once again tilt in the opposite direction after the horrorshow last week.
Not quite.

What we learned about 2008: That whether the end came that week, in two weeks, or at the end of the season, Tony Franklin's Auburn career was finished, broken beyond repair. It wasn't that what Auburn was doing wasn't working--it's that Auburn wasn't even doing anything in particular. Betwene the quarterback controversy, the various new formations, the tug-of-war between Tubby and Franklin, the tug-of-war between Franklin and his assistants, the public calling-out of Franklin's play-calling by a handful of players after the Vandy game ... I mean, I'm not sure I've ever seen an offense anywhere being so obviously pulled in so many different directions. There was no there there. And so when the ax fell later that week, yeah, as I said at the time, it was probably the only move tubby could make. The offense would be in the hands of incompetents, but at least it would know whose hands it was in.

What we learned about 2009: First of all: we need the old Wes Byrum back. Please. I don't know if any team with Gus Malzahn as its offensive coordinator will ever find itself mired in a series of 14-12, 14-13 slugfests, but it doesn't change the fact that at multiple times this year Auburn will find itself in the kind of tense, tight game where an extra point or chip-shot field goal. And with all due respect to Dr. YellaShoes, I'd love to be able to rely on the guy whose been through those mental wars before and who we've seen win them at one time. Get ya head right, Wes.

Second, that Malzahn can't second-guess himself and start installing things that aren't what he'd usually install. (And, of course, Chizik can't order him to do so.) Yes, it was awesome when Auburn opened in the two-TE set and drove the ball down Vandy's throat for a quarter. But refining that set to the point where Auburn could put it on the field came at a cost: the offensive players lost whatever last bits of belief they had in the spread, lost some of their comfort within those sets, became even more divided mentally than they had been already.

Malzahn seems too smart to undermine his own offseason efforts halfway through the season, and hopefully Chizik's too smart to do the undermining for him. But even if the coaching staff is all on the same page, the page shouldn't get turned just because the offense is sputtering. Based on the results from the Vandy game (and the Tennessee game and Arkansas game, of course), the long-term answer is probably to get better at what the team has already learned rather than trying to learn something new on the midseason fly. Seems obvious, but if the Spread Eagle 2.0 limps along as badly as its predecessor did the first couple of weeks, you know there's goign to be plenty of calls from fans and in the media for Malzahn to start moving towards traditional sets.

We tried that last year. It didn't work.

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