Photo by TWER’s Kevin Strickland.
I spent much of last night and all this morning–through the two cups of coffee, the glass of orange juice, the bowl of shredded wheat that always tastes a thousand times better the day after a win like this one–trying to come up with the best single word to describe Auburn’s performance against West Virginia.
The first one to come to mind–as it was for a lot of people, I suspect–was resilient. Trailing 14-0 or 21-10 or even 27-20 when your halftime defensive adjustments appear to have made jack-all difference in your ability to stop your immensely talented opponents, it would have been very easy for Auburn to have lost focus, start screwing up the little things in the sea of “uh-oh”s, and let the game slip away from them. They didn’t.
But resilience has nothing to do with Todd threading a pass through two defenders to Adams for a 17-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-8. Resilience has nothing to do with Stevens reaching out an instinctive hand on the deciding WVU possession and batting the ball to himself like he’d practiced that every day of his life. That’s skill, precision, talent made manifest. But I don’t think resilience plays any role there.
You could also say Auburn was lucky. And they were: you don’t wind up with a +5 turnover margin without some help from the opponent. When Burns and Fannin conspire to leave the ball lying motionless on the ground directly in front of a falling WVU lineman and Auburn still ends up with 2nd-and-16 and nothing worse, yes, that’s luck.
But lots of defensive backs and looked gift-horse picks in the mouth and dropped them; that neither Thorpe nor McFadden did isn’t luck. That Auburn had three red zone possessions and that Chris Todd and Darvin Adams turned all three of them into touchdowns wasn’t luck. Byrum connecting on two 40-yarders while WVU’s freshman honked an extra point wasn’t luck.
So resilient or lucky don’t quite do the trick. How about versatile? Auburn made their offensive hay the first two games with Tate and McCalebb, then saw them held to 3.5 yards an attempt and turned to Todd to save the day. Which he did. Auburn never did find a way to force West Virginia into punts, so they had to force turnovers to make their stops. Which they did. How about opportunistic? As big as the ‘Eers first-quarter explosions were, Auburn would match them by the end of the game with Fannin’s burst and the Ricks/Stevens picks.
In the end, though, I think you just have to call them good, right? 3-0 (and 4-0 soon enough, barring disaster), with wins over a 2008 bowl team, a newly .500 SEC team, and a potential Big East champion, all of them by double-digits (and all of them covering the spread). As mentioned last Sunday and again on Friday, we believed this to be a team with an outstanding offense and a defense that would make just as many plays as that offense would need to win the game.
Big plays given up or not, WVU gifts or not, resilient, lucky, versatile, opportunistic, or not–or, rather, all of those things–Auburn gave us even more reasons to believe in them last night. We are Auburn, and we are good again. We’ll worry about everything else later.
Other random observations
— Look, you and I both know that giving up 509 yards and 6.4 yards per-play is not a strong defensive performance, to say the least. But to say WVU outgained Auburn by 100-plus yards and the full yard per-play isn’t entirely accurate when the ‘Eers gained 49 yards on the final play of each half, when in both cases Auburn was sitting back and playing to prevent a sudden TD and nothing else. Take those two plays out, and the stats–460 total yards to 400, 5.9 per-play to 5.4–look a little bit more palatable … and emphasize the fact that when you account for turnovers and red zone performance, Auburn’s offense was every bit as good as WVU’s. Yeah, I said it.
— Speaking of WVU, can I toot my own horn a bit? From the Friday preview:
Offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen has been chomping at the bit to get the team out of RichRod’s run-first-run-second shadow, and with Brown playing as well as he is and the potential trouble along the line in the run game, expect a heavy dose of the ‘Eer passing game.
I would argue that this is exactly what Auburn would want …
Result: 41 passing attempts for the ‘Eer QBs (for a decent average of 7.4 yards an attempt, but with the 5 picks and 3 sacks) while Noel Devine ran 15 times for 128 yards (8.5 a carry) and 3 TDs. Thanks, Jeff!
— That said, even Mullen won’t be able to keep a team with beasts like Brown and Devine from winning 9 games (at least) this year. Cincinnati has to be the Big East favorite at the moment and the Bearcats host WVU, but there’s probably not another game on the ‘Eers slate they won’t be favored in. This is a win that should pay big dividends down the road.
— Here we go again: Mario Fannin carried the ball once and caught one pass, and on those two touches he accounted for 82 yards and a touchdown. I know Todd targeted Fannin a handful of other times and couldn’t quite connect with him, but geez, Eric Smith caught three balls himself. Malzahn and Todd have to find a way to get Fannin more touches, and if that means moving Fannin to tailback for a series here and there at Tate’s and McCalebb’s expense, well, I’m OK with that.
— Going back to the Tech game (and Tate’s fumble inside the 10), Auburn has now scored touchdowns on 10 consecutive red zone possessions. I think of all the “this isn’t 2008 anymore!” statistics–and there are, of course, a metric ton of those–that’s probably the most “this isn’t 1008 anymore!” of them all.
— Turns out the replacement we needed for Tommy Trott was Tommy Trott. That third-down still-good-on-replay shoestring catch on the field-flipping drive was almost as big as any of Adams’ touchdowns. (Almost.)
— No way around this: one solo tackle was not the impact I was hoping for from The Toro. He and Herring combined for … wait for it … two solo tackles on the evening. When all three of your defensive tackles (Blanc, Ricks, and Fairley) equal the output from your weakside linebacker, you’ve got problems. (Not at defensive tackle, mind.)
— I said at some point during the preseason that you just couldn’t expect much from Auburn’s coverage and return units when there’s so few scholarship players for Boulware to work with, and I think it’s about time to face up to the fact that that’s the case. Kickoff coverage was a major thorn in Auburn’s side all night, and if the punt return team finally showed some kind of pulse (Anthony Gulley, if you catch the ball and run upfield without dancing, just the way you did last night, the job will be yours forever), Auburn’s next kickoff return that looks even remotely threatening will be the first. Thank heavens our specialists are Wes Byrum and Clinton Durst again.
— It bears repeating: after the first quarter, WVU scored 9 points on 10 drives. I still don’t really know how Auburn did it, but the results are the results, aren’t they?
Wes Byrum. Foot Lauderdale has taken four field goals from beyond 40 yards this season, and he’s buried all four of them. Now we just need to have him attempt a game-winner and we’ll be on our way back to All-SECville.
Darvin Adams. Seriously, give it up: 6 receptions, 80 yards, those 3 massive TD catches. He’s on pace for the biggest year from an Auburn receiver in years and years, and if that was always going to happen to someone in this offense, Adams has made himself the someone it’s happening to.
Chris Todd. Completed passes for third-down conversions of 16, 4, 5, 4, 8, 4, and 8. Two of those were for touchdowns and two more were on the final drive off of the 3 when the defense was at its most desperate for rest. Fantastic, fantastic stuff. I’m sorry I ever doubted, Chris.
Three areas for improvement
First down. As I covered at halftime last night, Auburn just kept putting itself in holes and Todd and Co.–for the most part–just kept digging themselves out. Still, five punts is a few too many.
Opponent’s third downs. WVU converted 10-of-15. 10-of-15. No wonder the defense looked so freaking exhausted. Better get better against Ball St.
Your bottom line
We all knew Auburn would have to (in all likelihood) sweep these first four home games to hit the seven-win mark and make this a truly successful season.
And the first three–and the three most difficult–of those games are all behind us, and they are all wins. We expected yesterday’s game to go a long way towards defining Auburn’s season. It looks likely to have done just that.