If burying Mississippi St. under an avalanche of yards and points was like devouring a perfectly-cooked and -seasoned steak, Auburn’s defensive performance was like that one tiny piece of gristle left over between your teeth. It’s not that big a deal, it doesn’t change how good the meal you just had was … but goshamighty, when it’s still there the entire drive home from the restaurant and you just keep thinking about it and thinking about it, it’s still more than a minor annoyance.
It was that way for me, I bet it was that way for a lot of you, and we know it was that way–or, rather, something a little more intense– for Track’Em writer WarDamnZach. I won’t rehash the entirety of his post (titled “Defense Wins Championships”), but I’ll sum it up for you: This Auburn defense hasn’t been good enough.
Again, I won’t blame any Auburn fan for being disappointed in how our defense has played to date. Hell, even the post game text from the Official Mother of WBE took a moment to gripe about the D between the “War Eagle”‘s and “Wow”‘s. The defenses of the Tuberville era were terrifying things that regularly strangled the life out of their opponents. The 2009 version has yet to meet those wonderfully high standards, giving up two long first-half scoring drives to a La. Tech offense that would put up fewer points the following week against Navy. Last Saturday, a Miss. St. offense that was utterly moribund a year ago and features few players that would start for any other offense in the SEC gained an average of five yards per-snap and put 17 points on the board. Auburn is already 36th in the country in yards allowed per-play, with all of 2009’s biggest defensive challenges still ahead of them. Destroyers of Worlds, they probably are not.
Which couldn’t be more OK. It’s going to be hard for Auburn fans to adjust to it, after 10 years of Tubby (and the decade’s worth of Dye before him) asking his defense and special teams to win the game and the offense not to just screw it up, but those teams are gone and past. This Auburn team is going to have to win the game with offense and ask the defense and special teams not to screw it up.
With Mad Dr. Gustav at the helm, Auburn doesn’t have any other choice. It’s just a fact: if you’re going with the Malzahn no-huddle, your defense is going to suffer. It’s a trade-off the Chiznick has been willing to make, and thus far he’s been a genius for making it.
Not only because it was always going to take a savant like Malzahn to turn Auburn’s collection of offensive “talent” into a unit worth fearing, but because this defense was always going to struggle trying to carry the team. By now, we know the litany by heart: new defensive tackles. Zero linebacking depth. Starting true freshman safety. Brand-new JUCO starters at nickelback and linebacker. And it’s not like last year’s unit was quite the ’85 Bears; 29th in total defense, but having suffered shred jobs at the hands of West Virginia, Arkansas, the Tide, etc.
It’s a point I was trying to make in Sunday’s knee-jerk post and never quite spelled out as cleanly as I wanted: Auburn’s not going to be the sort of team that wins any (meaningful) games 24-3 this year. It’s going to be 37-13 and 49-24 in the laughers, 33-30 or 42-38 in the close ones. It’s going to be exhilarating and scary and more than a little just-plain-weird to see Auburn playing the kind of game we’re used to seeing from the WAC (or from, uh, Georgia and South Carolina), but as long as we win, am I going to care in the tiniest bit?
Well … not exactly. Zach’s probably right that that kind of team isn’t going to be winning a championship in the SEC. (Probably.) But this year isn’t about championships. It’s about undoing the damage of 2008, about becoming Auburn again.
Well, Auburn in terms of the win column, even if the scoreboard and yardage totals are as un-Auburn as defined by the Tubby era as possible. For that first kind of Auburn, we don’t need a top-10 defense. We just need a defense that plays with pride and effort and focus and gets just enough stops that the offense can do its thing.
So no, the defense hasn’t been quite as stout as we’d like. But it’s been more than stout enough for this Auburn team, and the guess here is that we’ll see it be stout enough again tomorrow.