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Auburn again.

"I tell you, I do not know the team!" - John Magruder, November 2008 "Forgive me father, for I have sinned." - John Magruder, Septermber 2009
"I tell you, I do not know the team!" November 2008 "Forgive me father, for I have sinned." Septermber 2009

I have to make a confession:  I stopped believing in the 2008 Auburn Tigers.  Credit where due:  I was with them at least through the bewildering first half of the season.  I was even comfortable with the confusion prior to the LSU game – being that we had shown our lethality in a different phase of the game in each of the preceding tilts – and hopeful for our chances of beating the bengals even up to halftime.  That game left me stunned, picking over the bits of glass in the rubble for fingerprints.  Then Tennessee annihilated itself, offering no concrete answers to our multitude of questions.  And then, the seventh bowl overflowed just before it was tipped out:  Vanderbilt brutally exposed our deficiencies as only Vanderbilt can.  The experts conferred, and revealed that our team ran little-to-nothing of the offense our coordinator was hired to install, and almost in the same moment, he was sent packing.  Thanks for nothing, state of Tennessee.

From then on, the season was wreck and ruin, the likes of which have not visited the Plains in a long, long time.  A true humiliation at the hands of the Crimson Tide.  A ten-year head coach fired.  Assistants revealing their punt-to-win philosophy, or worse, casually describing a lack of desire to coach football, or – worst of all – defecting to a hated rival in a rat-jumps-ship maneuver that cuts to the heart of why Auburn is Auburn at all:  family.  We came to know later of the hidden depths of schism in our football team, born of the coaches’ inability to appoint a single competent leader of this team that thirsted for simple direction.  Our sole win after Tennessee’s hari-Crompton was over UT-Martin, a doppelganger wearing our uniforms and running a facsimile of our old offense.

It was bad.  Real bad.  I, you, we all wanted to know:  when would we be Auburn again?

Cut ahead to this season.  Fast-forward through our incredulity at the hiring of a 5-19 former assistant, and the subsequent re-crowning of a poorly-playing quarterback as the starter.  For the moment, leave behind our amazement at the offensively-driven walloping of two competent teams, at the explosion of rushing yards from a previously-hesitant tiger squad, at the records set, at the sheer joy of mere efficiency.  None of that matters right now.  These words matter, words neither you nor I nor any other Auburn Tiger has heard in quite a while:

Coach (Chizik) always talks about imposters during a game and we had to take them down with our will. We had to react to the situation as we always knew we could come back from the deficit.  – Chris Todd

I’m just proud that he’s got that sticktoitiveness to him.  – Coach Gene Chizik

We stayed together — even when they went up 14-0. They got off to an early jump, but we stayed together as a team. Nobody put their head down.  – Jake Ricks

(courtesy of Jay G.)

As much as it pains me to say, in 2008 the Auburn Tigers were more impostors than imposers-of-will.  The games we won against BCS-conference competition could very easily have been lost.  One field goal goes less awry in the Mississippi State game, a different Vol quarterback gets the nod (or a certain one gets a clue,) and we could have ended up 3-9 with wins over Louisiana Monroe, Southern Miss, and UT-Martin.  And we certainly weren’t a team to keep its head up in adversity – the strategy was more to get the lead (if we could get it at all) and turtle.  Once Tubby lost his riverboat gambler mojo for good and the daringness went out of our game planning, the only thing left was our defense and that defense flat gave out.  Who could blame them?  There was no sticktoitiveness to our team whatsoever.  We were the definition of a first-half team, the unit that couldn’t finish what it started.

And now, now… how long has it been since the plainsmen were confident they could recover from a lightning-quick two-touchdown deficit?  That’s a new phenomenon to me.  And yet, Auburn has rallied to win two games this year, after the first-half struggles against La-Tech and the rapid-succession shots to the jaw from West Virginia.  Much of the credit for that must go to the coaches’ strategies – our team has been better-conditioned this offseason than it has in a long time, and Roof and Malzahn seem to be making effective adjustments.  (Get a load of our fourth-quarter bald-faced bullrushing of some extremely fatigued WVU linemen.  I love every second of it.)  But I still put it all on the shoulders of these young men.  Men who ride with each other, no matter what.  Men who will walk back out onto the field that their previously-civil fans have booed them off of.  Even early in the game, when the offense sputtered and a jittery defense looked so porous, when the trick plays were executed poorly, when the crowd went quiet except for the pocket of mountaineer gold – these were all ripe opportunities to put our heads down and simply give up.  But this year’s Plainsmen aren’t going to be broken.  Not by you.  Not by me.  Not by Noel Devine.

And not by each other.  The rifts that existed in our team last year, between player and player, between player and coach, between coach and coach, they all seem to be healed.  The Tigers settled each other down and capitalized on every single opportunity.  We steadily built points until Brown, Sanders and Devine had no more answers.  I’m proud of these guys.  They’ve become a real honest-to-God unit, a solid force that believes in itself again.  We knew they had it in ‘em.  And so did Chizik – I have no doubt that his insistence on the Auburn Creed was his way of saying that.  I know who you are, Auburn tigers:  a sound mind, a sound body, a spirit that is not afraid.

The bottom line for me remains that I am more happy to see the 2009 Auburn tigers struggle than I was to see the 2008 Auburn Tigers win.  And I’m even happier to see these plainsmen win – we count only on what we earn and we are earning it, because the biggest hurdle of all has been cleared.  We are not just Auburn tigers, we are the Auburn Tigers. These guys are family again.  Which is to say, Auburn again.

War Damn Eagle.

The Offense
I’ll be first in line for the “renounce your doubting of Chris Todd” booth.

The Auburn Tigers have lacked an awful lot in the past few years, but nothing more than a dependable quarterback.  An efficient, non-evil, reasonable-ranged and decently-accurate quarterback – we have had most if not all of these things, but never all of them at once in a single player.  And now, we have that man in Chris Todd.  I was worried about him after the first two games, during which he was a thirty-to-thirty handoff-bot game-manager that occasionally made a nice throw, while allowing the wildcatter to be our red zone touchdown demon.  What a pyrrhic victory, improbably to be named starting QB and then to enjoy all the stat-sheet glitz of an offensive guard.  But when WVU clamped down on the running game – and clamped down hard – it was all up to Todd to make it happen.  And damn did he ever!  Four touchdowns, multiple third-down conversions, key plays when key plays were needed.  Chris Todd showed that when everything else is hurting – the backfield, the wildcat – he can stand and deliver and his team stands with him.  Whatever niggling doubts that remained after our double-helping of run-snockered bulldogs are gone.  This man is a quarterback.  I think that’s equal parts orthopedic surgery and Malzahnian development.  After all, Todd showed that he was made of sterner stuff during the LSU game last year but the zip on the ball wasn’t anything a defense had to respect.  Now that he’s status post a shoulder tune-up and is actually being effectively coached, we can genuinely expect good things from our triggerman.  When was the last time that happened?  At least in my opinion, Campbell’s post-LSU play in 2004.

It is a little strange to see two or three bona fide receivers getting catches.  Over three games, Adams has caught 15, Zachery 6, Wisner 2, Trott 2, Lutzenkirchen 1 and Bell 1, for a total of 27.  Or, averaging 9 catches per game by wide receivers of some stripe.  However, this belies the fact that 28 balls have been caught by running backs, the bulk of which have gone to Super Mario.  Honestly, I think this is by design.  Malzahn’s offense is designed such that (ideally) a two-back pro set can be run on one play, a three-wide ace set the next play, and a two by three empty set the next play all without changing personnel.  If Adams and Zachery are the only receivers catching balls, it’s because they’re usually the only two receivers on the field, and Malzahn isn’t likely to put four receivers out there unless Blake and Benton can be counted on to take a handoff, lead-block or pick up a blitzer.  I think we’ll continue to see Smith and Fannin catching balls.  If they can be as efficient and effective in future games as they were last Saturday, I don’t think we’ll miss that third or fourth wideout one bit.

One big area of disappointment was in the run game.  Granted, the mountaineers were dead-set on taking away Tate and McCalebb and mathematically speaking, any defense can put enough men in the box to kill the ground game.  Moreover, that 3-3-5 stack defense they run can be hell on greased wheels when it’s clicking.  But I would have hoped that a defense missing its star defensive end and first-string mike linebacker could be exploited somehow.  I would have hoped that Ziemba and co. could have blown them off the ball a little easier, that the Ben Tate express would have been chugging forward far earlier than we saw.  Why that is I can’t tell, but honestly, I don’t really know if there are meaningful lessons to draw from the ineffectiveness of the running game.  Thirty-four offensive points in a game in which we seemed to struggle somewhat versus a defense we aren’t likely ever to see again (at least not with that level of talent) that is used to defending the spread and in particular lightning-quick quarkbacks like McCalebb… beats me what kind of meaningful lessons we can take from that.

No, scratch that – I’d take the win and wish the mountaineers a safe – and immediate – trip home.

The Defense

I’m not convinced that Ted Roof’s run-through-the-ball-carrier tackling won’t mean more tiger ankles broken, what with the problems with poor angles.  It’s good to be fearless, good to thirst for that big hit, but it’s much worse to miss the tackle and get juked for a 71-yard touchdown.  It also really, really sucks to give up all those third-and-tens.  When the defense does its job so well for two whole downs and then coughs it all up on third, that’s devastating.  Moreover, unless we’re playing Tennessee – ha! – I don’t think we can count on such a barrage of turnovers.  Plus-five on the turnover margin is simply not going to happen again.  We need honest stops.

But even given all of that, you can’t argue with this little gem, dug up by xaff on auburnundercover.com:

Noel Devine:

First quarter. 90 yards on 4 carries. .. 22.5 yards / carry.

quarter 2, 3 and 4: 38 yards on 11 carries. 3.5 yards / carry.
Jarrett Brown

First quarter: 41 yards on 5 carries .. 8 yards / carry.

quarter 2, 3, 4: 25 yards on 14 carries .. 1.8 yards / carry.

Hot DAMN.  It bears pointing out that outside of his 71-yard dash, Noel Devine averaged a respectable but not-so-hideous 4.07 yards a carry over the course of the game.  If we get rid of the useless yards WVU gained at the end of each half and look at the Auburn defense once it had settled out of its first-quarter jitters, one could make the case that Auburn’s offense wasn’t merely lucky but was genuinely better and more consistent than WVU’s.  And that Roof coaches him one hell of a defense.  Not too shabby, all things considered.

It’s hard to get down to brass tacks about coverages that, for the most part, TV viewers never get to see.  I honestly don’t know what Auburn’s secondary was doing.  But once Auburn switched from “get to Brown with their speed” to “contain Brown with their speed,” he was forced to make the play with his arm.  Four picks later, it’s safe to assume that our coverages are pretty freakin’ awesome.

Also, Jake Ricks is my hero.

Special Teams

It’s nice to see that the kicking game is back in good form.  Byrum looks steady, and Saturn V looked like Saturn V.  Neither was really handed any pressure situations, and both did their job.  Hull needs to get better at booting the ball into the endzone, though, so we don’t have depend very heavily on kickoff coverage.  I don’t really hold that penalty (the kickoff that rolled out of bounds) against him.  That seems like dumb luck and a well-coached WVU kick returner.  Again, had the ball hit the ground in the endzone, we wouldn’t have this problem…

Like Jerry points out, the kick coverage is awful because we can’t put the starters in harm’s way.  Whatever improvement may come, it’s all going to have to come from Boulware.  Here’s hoping he’s up to the task.  What’s encouraging is that there seem to be one or two novel and bizarre special teams plays every game.  Sometimes it works and McCalebb shoots around the edge for a huge fourth down conversion.  Sometimes, we call a good play but don’t execute and turn the ball over on downs.  But that willingness to experiment is something I missed more and more from Tubby every season, and it is going to pay dividends later on in 2009.  I expect (hope) that Boulware will hit on something that gives us an edge.

The Bottom Line

If we played all four quarters like we played the final three, we’d have absolutely crushed the mountaineers.  The good news is that three quarters worth of Auburn-is-Auburn-again meant that we merely won against the spread for the third week in a row, the kind of win that really opens up our season.

Bonus:  Commentating
hilariously atrocious

Seriously, how bad of a commentator do you have to be to mix up the white, slow quarterback and the black, running quarterback?  To leave the Mc- off of McCalebb?  To call the same receiver by two different names on two consecutive plays?  There’s some intern out there named Lance, whose job it was to get that stuff right.  At this moment, Lance is probably enjoying all those free gorditas that come with his new job at Taco Bell.  Chow down, Lance.  You earned this one.

Photograph of the confessional at Old St. Ferdinand Shrine in Florissant, Mississippi found at romeofthewest.com.
Edgar Bruegel’s “The Blind Leading the Blind” can be found on the Wikimedia commons.
Photo of the Saturn V rocket at the Johnson Space Center found at artmeliana.blogspot.com.
All game day photos courtesy are by TWER’s Kevin Strickland.

About John

John Magruder has been going to Auburn games since before he was born, and when Bo went over the top, he was at Legion Field. Some mothers play Mozart to their developing progeny. John was raised on the roars of the Tiger faithful.

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