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Sit down before reading the following: we have an offense.

at least the ceiling fan wasn't on
At least the ceiling fan wasn't on.

Saturday night, I hurt my hand on the ceiling. Stupid popcorn ceiling.  One could say that, given my love of football and my generally frightening level of excitement when my team scores, I should have known better than to move into this apartment.  “The ceiling looks dangerous,” I should have said.  “ What am I supposed to do this fall – wear gloves?  How will I eat ribs?”

Granted, you could forgive me for such lack of foresight, given the utter implosion that punctuated our Auburn tigers’ gradual collapse.  There was no way I could have anticipated such wild-eyed success.  This time, I get a by, Gus.  It won’t happen again.

hell freezes/refreezes/freezes harder:

These phrases (or something like them) were uttered by the Fox Sports South gameday team:

That was a spectacular drive led by Chris Todd and the Auburn offense.

…their great blocking tight end Tommy Trott…

Zachery and Adams, two pretty good receivers…

War Eagle, Gus Malzahn

It bears emphasizing:  Malzahn said that his offense would be formation-driven, run-first, and would flat wear a defender out.  Having not seen last week’s game, I had no idea how true all that was.

I was all ready to record a play-by-play, noting each set and formation, as I did for a few of our games last year – after all, Malzahn’s offense is simple plays run at ludicrous speed out of diverse formations – but there just isn’t any way to do justice.  First of all, these ain’t your daddy’s formations.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but since the invention of the I-formation, was there ever a game in which Auburn never lined up in the I-formation?  As in really, never, zero times?  Maybe last year at some point, but I don’t think so.  And the formations are downright weird, especially that one where the QB is four or five yards behind the LOS, with an H-back to one side and the tailback lined up a yard deep of the QB and directly behind the H-back.  Other than “three backs on the field somewhere” and “quarterback in some kind of shotgun,” I just don’t have access to the nomenclature.  And given that they are so important to Malzahn’s strategy, it’s just not worth describing the formations inadequately.  And I don’t think it’s just a matter of novelty – several times in the game, we’d meerkat, look to the sideline, and alter our backfield.  What was that all about? I found myself thinking, and I suspect the defense was just as confused, because we’d usually be pretty successful after that.  Either we completely changed the play at the line, or there is a reason why the coaches have insisted on so much precision in our formations.  Maybe it’s really so important that six inches away from your spot is the wrong spot.  I honestly don’t know how it works, but it sure does.

I have to admit that I was a little leery of our offensive success in that first game.  Even more important than the caliber of our opponent was the rushing total, which seemed eerily like our first game of 2008.  Tony Franklin’s offense tore through LA-Monroe for 321 rushing yards, but the ability and willingness to run the ball would turn out to be a phantom.  I was just the slightest bit skeptical that our running ability would hold up against more quality opponents.  And yet, we actually ran more.  Almost more than any other game in the history of the school, in fact. I’ve heard it, you’ve heard it, hear it again: Malzahn has done with Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb what Doug Barfield could not do with with James Brooks and Joe Cribbs, what Pat Dye could not do with Bo Jackson and Lionel James, or with Bo and Brent Fullwood, and what Borges could not do with Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown.  Back-to-back weeks with two 100-yard rushers.  And this is no gimmicky QB-draw-driven rushing total, this is a set of backs who take the rock and move the chains.

Still, my favorite part of the night was right at the end, when Auburn’s offense was driving hard and Bulldogs were dropping left and right.  Granted, I don’t like to see anyone hurt.  But when massive Kyle Love went down with a very obvious cramp, and then another Bulldog limped off the field at the start of our last drive, and then a cornerback tapped out after defending a long pass… and our boys looked far fresher… man, I was licking my chops.  Granted, Mississippi State is a bad program and a program in serious flux, but they had clearly had enough punishment.  That blisteringly fast tempo works.  I think there will be very few defenses with the depth and talent to hang with our offense for eighty-something plays.

This is to say nothing of all the fakery that routinely broke the cameraman’s ankles.  It’s a little irritating the already-limited field of vision would go the completely wrong direction, but it was pretty fun to see the screen zip up-field where we had gotten a nice gain.  Moreover, the plays where we started a receiver (or McCalebb) across the formation, snapped the ball with him running and had the option to give the ball on a dive, run the veer, run the reverse, or play-action off all that and throw the ball?  That play was an Al Borges staple in his heyday on the Plains.  Somewhere, Gorgeous Al is smiling.

And then the fact that we are either unable or unwilling to stop scoring.  God knows we have suffered through years of get-the-lead-and-cling-to-it-desperately, live-to-punt heart-breakers the past few seasons.  It is so good to see a Tiger offense that not only wants to score, but expects to every time they take the field.  What’s more, I don’t think there is any offense other than this one that could get Ben Tate, Onterio McCalebb, and some combination of Eric Smith, Mario Fannin and Kodi Burns on the field at the same time.  I honestly worried about how we could utilize our glut of running backs in a shotgun-based offense.  I was worried that Fannin and Burns would have to compete for Wildcat snaps.  Not anymore!  Can you imagine what we would have been like if, in 2003 and 2004, we’d run the Wildcat with Cadillac, Ronnie, and Brandon Jacobs?  Madness, sirs and madams, beautiful madness.

I was speechless at the end of the game, but now I can’t say enough.  As my Dad said, this offense is like having five hundred dollars in your pocket: there’s not much you can’t do.  We’re probably about 65% now with the execution of our game plan – what will we be capable of when we’re even at 80%?

I love it.  I want some more.

Tailback University

What can be said that hasn’t been said already?  Seven or eight yards a pop for each of two backs really speaks for itself.

big shoes, kid
Big shoes, kid.

But still:  Onterio McCalebb is 170 pounds of powers-of-flight.  I don’t know if you noticed, but watch that 48-yard touchdown dash again.  When he gets going, McCalebb is taking about two steps every ten yards – that’s a fifteen-foot stride in pads.  And when he’s standing still, surrounded by defenders hungrily closing in, he can still burst ahead for a good four yards before he’s tackled.  The guy is a laser on wings, he catches squirrels with his bare hands.  Can you do that?  I certainly can’t do that.  Give this Tiger a gap and he is gone like Keyser Söze.

Last week Ben Tate said even if McCalebb is “lightning,” he’s not sure he’s exactly “thunder.”  I may agree with him there.  I used to think he was a plodder, a faster-than-a-fullback type of pounder who would crack helmets for three yards and come back for more.  He’ll sure crack a helmet or two but it turns out he’s also really fast, and if he gets a seam he can be downright lethal.  Now that we don’t deploy him in poorly-blocked and poorly-called stretch runs, he looks more and more like the marquee back we’ve been missing.  So calling him “Thunder” is really calling him half of a tailback.  Ben Tate is the complete package.

this is what leadership looks like

So at one point, I was nervous that Kodi would get what Tristan Davis got, forever relegated to that certain position for players who are never put to use on the field despite their extreme physical talent:

Three rushing touchdowns and one gorgeous play-action pass to Lutzenkirchen later, consider that fear assuaged.  Kodi Burns and the Wildcat owned the red zone to the tune of 28 points.  Kodi runs, he throws, he even goes over the top!  The implications of this are dire for opposing teams, as the spread in general (and Malzahn’s offense in specific) suffers one glaring weakness: red zone efficiency.  Once the pass coverage gets compressed by the shortened field and there is nothing left to spread, the receiver routes don’t interact properly and the backs can’t find running lanes, and the offense stalls.  The Kodi Burns WildTiger could be the answer to that problem, as evidenced by our delirious success last Saturday.  This thing is hot.

Chris Todd did a hell of a job.  Yes, there were multiple points at which he looked inaccurate, and yes, he did not have the most statistically incredible performance.  But he wasn’t really asked to throw the ball much, and when he did, our receivers weren’t exactly helping him out.  What he did was deliver excellent fakes, get rid of the ball when he needed to, refuse to give up a sack, and throw zero interceptions.  These are things that we could not get our quarterback – any of the three of them – to do at any single point last season.  The quarterback’s first and most important job is to make good decisions with the ball.  Todd did that job pretty well, and it showed.  Auburn has starved in the wilderness for want of a leader taking snaps.  Welcome back.

The really interesting twist is that the “two QB = none” trope may be untrue for the Tigers.  If we have the one guy who can successfully guide our offense the length of the field and the other guy who is like a whirlwind in the red zone, we’re in really good shape.  Looks like we have found just those guys.

Now, this changes the nature of our team’s starting quarterback position, which, unless our receivers start doing their jobs, will be pretty thankless.  Seems like our game plan is to mostly rush and sometimes throw our way steadily towards the endzone, taking occasional shots downfield, and switch to the Wildcat once we’re in the red zone.  Doesn’t seem to be much room for the less-than-athletic pocket-passing decision-maker to score touchdowns.  You could see it on his face, that one time they zoomed in on Chris Todd, Wildcat wideout.  He probably won’t see the ball on that kind of play, unless he gets a crazy-like-a-fox pass from that other quarterback.  This may be a tough campaign for him.

Here’s hoping we find a way to open up Todd’s stat sheet, too.  He’s earned it and is re-earning it, every time you see #12 come across the formation in pre-snap motion.

room for improvement in the general level of demonic-ness

This wasn’t the absolute best outing for our defense – no soul-crushing demolition of the opponent, no huge resounding hits, no complete denial of some phase of the game.  There were three drives on which they looked purely mortal, when earlier Auburn squads may have forced their opponents into one-dimensional games.

But we knew that there would be problems when Dixon started lumbering down field.  We knew this was a young and thin squad.  And this is no longer a Croom-coached bulldog football team, it’s one headed by Dan Mullen who is head and shoulders better than any offensive coordinator at MSU in recent memory.  And aside from those three scoring drives, the Tigers gave up four first downs on nine drives.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this defense – there isn’t much to take from that game IMHO and quite frankly, I’m just praying that they stay healthy.  But I will say that as long as they kept their balance, they had the Bulldogs firmly on the ropes.  Perhaps we won’t be an unending chain of demons, perhaps not a mad swarm of grizzly bears, but we are gonna be tough.

Oh, and you’ve just gotta love this guy:

I have the feeling that as long as we have Coleman, we’re in business.

Special Teams
whoever let Clinton Durst get blown up should run stadium steps until he hears me say stop

Seriously – pick up some cinder blocks and get moving.  Fundamentals, guys, fundamentals.  Such as “block that guy.”  I thought the blocking in all phases of our special teams was atrocious.  It’s hard to know how to pick a punt returner when there are eight or ten white jerseys on him as soon as he catches (or doesn’t catch) the ball.  Not a stellar performance.

What lies ahead

This season looks ever more like a series of challenges.  First was the opener against a strong underdog.  The next step was the mediocre-yet-still-SEC team.  And now, we have the talented and hungry out-of-conference team.  Meanwhile, our SEC opponents have looked vulnerable against lesser competition.  We’ve played better in the second half of each game so far and we look like a squad that is ready to hit, won’t hesitate to strike, and is hungry for the endzone.  It’s still too early to drink deep from the chalice of Kool-Aid, but if we can beat West Virginia convincingly, the whole season might open up before us.  Assuming we can block for our punter, that is.

Photo by TWER's Kevin Strickland.

Ever onward, ever higher, Tigers.  War Damn Eagle.

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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