To the casual observer there was very little difference between Auburn’s 2008 season opener and the 2009 debut.
In both season openers, the Tigers subdued an inferior opponent from the state of Louisiana with a strong second half showing. In 2008, Auburn clubbed Louisiana Monroe 34-0. Last Saturday night, the Tigers devoured Louisiana Tech 37-13.
In both games, Auburn scored in low double figures in the first half. Against the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks, Auburn posted 17 first half points. The Tigers managed 13 against the Bulldogs of Louisiana Tech last week.
In both cases Auburn put up impressive offensive totals. Auburn racked up 406 yards against the Warhawks and piled on 556 against the Bulldogs.
Both offenses were paced by a punishing rushing attack. Auburn chewed up 321 yards on the ground against Louisiana Monroe while churning for 301 against Louisiana Tech.
Ben Tate topped the 100-yard mark against both the Warhawks and Bulldogs, gaining 115 yards in 2008 and 117 last Saturday.
That is where the similarities end.
Despite last year’s score and the grind-it-out ground game that provided the final margin, even the most ardent Auburn fan had reservations about the ability of the offense to execute. Regardless of the final score, it was readily apparent that Tony Franklin’s offensive system was rife with flaws. It was a disaster in the making.
Auburn ended the 2008 season 5-7 as the problems first glimpsed against Louisiana Monroe snowballed into a season and career-wrecking avalanche.
Instead of deficiencies and concerns, the 2009 debut provided buoyed confidence and illuminated a number of positives that could herald better things in store for this season’s edition of the Tigers.
Auburn did not score an offensive touchdown against Louisiana Monroe until the third quarter. First half scores came on a punt return and a fumble recovery. Four of Auburn’s first half drives in 2008 consisted of four or fewer plays. Only one in seven possessions gained more than 24 yards.
Compare that to Saturday’s first half against Louisiana Tech: five first-half possessions, only one of which covered fewer than 26 yards. There were no three-and-out possessions. Two possessions gained more than 60 yards each covered 10-plus plays and both resulted in points.
Franklin refused to name a starter in 2008 and eventually flip-flopped between Chris Todd and Kodi Burns in last year’s opener, a situation which did neither any favors. Both were ineffective.
New Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzhan turned the reins over to Todd and the positive results were obvious.
A year ago, Todd was a woeful 9 of 18 for 70 yards. He threw one interception and one TD pass.
On Saturday, Todd was 17 of 26. He did not throw a pick. He threw two touchdown passes. One to Terrell Zachery covered 93 yards and was the longest in school history. An 87-yard strike from Jason Campbell to Silas Daniels in 2004 was the previous longest. It came against Louisiana Tech in a 52-7 Tiger win.
Todd’s rehabilitated shoulder allowed him to make throws that proved problematic a season ago, but the greater improvement came in him not having to look over his shoulder and worry about making a mistake.
When a quarterback understands that a single errant throw is not going to bring out the hook, it allows him to settle into the game. There is no question Todd’s confidence grew over the course of the win. He was a better quarterback at the end of the game than he was at the opening kick.
His best throw of the night was not the 93-yarder, but a 17-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to Darvin Adams that gave Auburn a 30-13 lead and sealed the win. The third-and-16 lob showed his confidence as well as confirmed the positive results of his shoulder rehab. It was a throw that Todd likely would not have been able to execute a year ago.
The coaching staff did not neglect Burns. The former starting quarterback was given ample opportunity to shine in his new role as a situational receiver and ball carrier in the ballyhooed Wildcat formation.
Burns came through, converting several critical possessions with elusive runs and scoring the Tigers’ first touchdown.
In addition to Tate’s 100-plus yard rushing night, freshman Onterrio McCalebb broke the 100-yard plateau, gaining 148 yards. He is only the second freshman in Auburn history to gain more than 100 yards in a season opener.
The last to do so? Bo Jackson, who rolled up 123 against Wake Forest in 1982.
McCalebb’s quickness is an excellent contrast to Tate’s more direct, bruising style and gives Auburn a potent offensive weapon.
Auburn also seemed to have added spark from the receiving corps, a weak spot for the Tigers in 2008. While heralded freshman DeAngelo Benton was shut out, Todd did spread the wealth among Mario Fannin, Adams, Zachery and Tate.
Auburn also exhibited a willingness to take calculated risks reminiscent of former coach Tommy Tuberville’s early “Riverboat Gambler” persona.
Auburn took possession at its own 39 with just 23 seconds remaining in the first half. Tech had just kicked a field goal to tie the game at 10-all. Instead of standing pat, Auburn attacked. McCalebb rumbled for nine yards on first down. Todd rifled a pass for 20 yards across the middle to Fannin on second down. On the last play of the half, Wes Byrum nailed a 49-yard field goal.
Instead of a 10-10 tie and questions, Auburn carried a 13-10 lead and momentum to the locker room.
The series was perfectly executed and showed moxie on the part of the coaching staff.
At the conclusion of the 2008 season opener, the general feeling was one of unease and concern. The win over Louisiana Monroe was so loaded with warning signs and red flags that only the most oblivious could have missed them.
There was no unease after Saturday’s debut. New head coach Gene Chizik and his staff put together a solid game plan that maximized the team’s strengths, allowed its quarterback to grow into his role, and provided a solid win that has set the tone.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses.
The Tigers had a handful of defensive breakdowns, particularly in costly penalties that must be avoided as the season progresses. A series of facemask penalties extended a Louisiana Tech drive and helped lead to its only touchdown of the night.
Two fumbles also prevented potential scoring opportunities. One, a Tate fumble inside the Bulldog 10 in the first half almost certainly took points off the board. The second, on Auburn’s first drive of the third, gave momentum to Louisiana Tech and had the Bulldogs knocking at the door.
Freshman Darren Bates quelled that threat with an interception at the Tiger 2-yard line. Two plays later Todd hit Zachery on an out-and-up and Auburn was in control.
That’s the difference a year makes.
A year ago, the fumble would likely have eroded Auburn’s confidence and led to a mental breakdown.
This year, in this game at least, a moment of adversity did not become a tsunami.
Kevin Strickland serves as the sports editor for the Pickens County Herald, a weekly newspaper in West Alabama where he has covered high school and college sports for the past 15 years. In his career as a sportswriter, he has covered 12 state championship teams; followed the careers of three local football players who starred at college and played in the NFL and covered two local baseball players who played in the majors. He has won numerous Alabama Press Association writing awards including being named the state’s Best Sports Column in 2004.