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Sunday Knee-jerk: Promises kept

Walking like a Tiger.
Walking like a Tiger.

In the offseason between the 2007 and 2008 seasons, we were told many things by our head coach, our new offensive coordinator, and even our players about the new offense Auburn would be running. They were all lies.

In this past offseason, we were once again told many things by our head coach, our new offensive coordinator, and our players about the new offense Auburn would be running. We were told:

That Auburn would run the ball and be successful. Auburn took the opening kickoff and ran the ball six consecutive times, moving from their own 23 to the La. Tech 41 and gaining two first downs. After a (questionable) third-down penalty against the Bulldogs, Auburn would run the ball five more times out of six plays and move the ball to the Tech 8-yard line. Totals for the drive: 10 rushes to 2 passes, 49 rushing yards, and a three-point lead.

And unlike a certain other SEC team, our new offensive coordinator never forgot that success. So your totals for the game52 rushing attempts for 301 yards, an average of 5.8 yards a carry. Yes, Virginia, this team is going to run the ball.

That Chris Todd was healthy and ready to lead the team. With Auburn up 23-13 early in the fourth quarter, the Tigers faced 3rd-and-16 on the Tech 17. Another field goal would leave the Bulldogs within two possessions and potentially demoralize a team that had been able to move the ball with near-impunity, but thanks to fumbles and penalties didn’t have as many points to show for it as they should have. A touchdown would finish the game.

Tech dialed up a six-man blitz, and from Todd’s blind left side a corner came in untouched. Sensing the pressure (how?), Todd took the slightest of half-steps, then stood the way quarterbacks stand and just before getting belted, lofted a pass to the back pylon that fell into his receiver’s hands like Todd had dropped it from a tiny blimp hovering over the back of the end zone. Touchdown. Game over. Questions: put to bed, at least until such time as Todd’s arm looks nothing like the one he showed off last night.

That Mario Fannin would touch the ball. 8 receptions, 82 yards, and another handful of balls thrown in his direction. Yes, that qualifies as “involved.”

That Auburn would throw the ball downfield. Does the longest touchdown play in Auburn history count? How about the 20-yard completion over the middle to Fannin to set up the huge field goal right before the half? What about the 28-yarder to Adams that set up that clinching touchdown?

Like the other three or four bombs that fell incomplete and helped to loosen up Auburn’s running lanes even as they hit the ground, I think they all count.

That the offensive line would be physical and sound. The occasional penalties were a drag, but still: Zero sacks. 5.8 rushing yards a carry. Against a veteran Tech line that by the fourth quarter clearly wanted no part of Ziemba, Pugh, Berry and Co. any longer. Welcome back, guys.

That Onterio “Fast” McCalebb was fast. Maybe my favorite play of the night (you can see it here just after the 45 second mark): McCalebb takes an end-around coming left. Adams and H-back John Douglas are tasked with sealing off the edge against two Tech defenders, but Adams takes only a half-hearted swipe at his man and Douglas basically just whiffs on his. McCalebb beats both Bulldogs to the corner anyway–beats them with ease, in fact–and turns upfield for 14 yards and a first down.

It’s been five years since I’ve seen an Auburn running back turn the corner that quickly, and if we weren’t talking about Auburn, I bet it would be a lot longer time ago than that.

We were told all those things, and all of those things were the truth.

Now, here come the necessary caveats: it was just one game. It came against a WAC team. Todd’s arm may not hold up. McCalebb might not withstand 22 carries a game. The red zone issues that Malzahn occasionally ran into at Tulsa may have followed him.

But this much we can say for certain: whether Auburn’s 2009 offense proves as potent as it appeared to be last night or not, it will not be the 2008 offense. It will not be the milk-the-clock, button-down affairs of ’06, ’07, and ’08. It will be something new, something thrilling, and, quite possibly, something downright grand.

We were promised by Chizik and Malzahn that the specters of those toothless, mind-numbing offenses were dead and buried; that promise has been kept.

Other Random Observations

— Not sure how I feel about Auburn’s night defensively. On the one hand, allowing first-half scoring drives of 72 and 90 yards to a Tech team not exactly overflowing with offensive game-changers is a little troubling. On the other, Jenkins was on fire to start the game and both of those drives were greatly aided by penalties both imaginary (that pass interference call, you know the one) and unlucky (the facemasks). And when all was said and done, Tech had only scored 13 points and gained 245 yards. Not bad, but there’s definitely some room for improvement, particularly on third downs.

–Speaking of third downs, lost in the eye-popping yardage numbers (seriously, 556 total yards? Auburn? I kept loading up the box score during the ‘Bama and LSU games just to gawp at it) was the fact that Auburn went 8-of-13 on third down conversions. Amazing what happens when your first- and second-down runs actually go places, huh?

–I said this week that I expected the defensive line to be the best unit on the team, and while I’m not entirely sure they lived up to that billing on a night when the offense was as good as it was, they were damn good. Coleman was every bit the terror he was supposed to be: 2.5 tackles-for-loss, 1 sack, another couple of hurries and big hits. Blanc, Ricks, and Fairley combined for 13 tackles, 3 QB hurries, 1.5 TFLs, a fumble recovery, and a sack. For a set of tackles, that’s beyond solid; Fairley’s debut, beyond encouraging. And your cherry on top: a team returning all five offensive lineman averaged just 2.6 yards a carry. Well done, gents. Now if Goggans will get noticed for something other than grabbing a facemask …

–Nice grab, Daren Bates. Also, dude, when everyone said you’d spent all summer working out, they weren’t lying, were they?

–Ben Tate might have had about as unhappy a night as a running back can have while gaining 118 yards. He gets the start but takes a definitive back seat to McCalebb for the second and third quarters; he reenters just long enough to fumble on the Tech 6; and then he disappears until the game is long decided, coming back in just long enough to put his team in position for a late touchdown … which he comes out again just in time to watch McCalebb score.

Saturn V watch: yeah, just the two punts, but neither was returned, one was downed inside the 20, and the net average for the night was 41.0. Not shabby at all.

–Auburn ran 79 plays to Tech’s 70 but still held the ball for almost three fewer minutes. Ladies and gentlemen, Gus Malzahn!

–I couldn’t help but think, over and over again last night, that this was the way the offense was supposed to look last season. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Tubby had the right idea. He just hired the wrong guy.

Three Stars

Wes Byrum. Great to have you back, Foot Lauderdale. And hey, as sweet as going 3-for-3 with makes from 47 and 49 was, don’t think we didn’t notice that excellently-done squib kick that died on the Tech 15. Just save one of those for when we’re ahead of LSU with two minutes to play, please and thanks. (Unless that was Hull, in which case, could you pass the message on to him? Thanks.)

Darvin Adams. Zachery caught the lightning bolt, but it was Adams’ four receptions for 65 yards and the killer TD that made him Auburn’s most consistent wideout last night. The early leader for the “go-to” designation.

Ted Roof. Malzahn will get the lion’s share of coordinating credit (and not without reason), but Roof’s blitz packages worked to perfection on multiple occasions, and the four consecutive Tech three-and-outs to start the third quarter suggest whatever halftime adjustments he made were golden.

Three Areas for Improvement

The Wildcat. Watching Burns score the season’s first TD was fun, but he still averaged less than 3 yards a carry for the game and missed on his only pass. Might just be me, but I didn’t feel like he was vision or aggressiveness as a ball-carrier was quite all there yet. (Ditto for Fannin, who I thought did a little too much dancing and not enough of the shoving-his-way-forward I know he’s perfectly capable of.)

Mental errors. The facemask penalties I’m not all that bothered by–you reach out to grab hold of a guy, sometimes what you grab is the facemask. But the fumbles, the offensive line penalties, and the repeated “I’m going to fall on top of the tackled Tech ballcarrier knee-first” plays that would have been called by, say, the Okie St.-UGA officials … not that I’m offering any great insight here, but those sorts of things aren’t going to be shrugged off against teams better than La. Tech.

Attendance. As announced: 81,143. For a season opener. With a new head coach. Just sad.

Your bottom line

It’s true that Tech is, finally, just a WAC team and after watching the game, perhaps a little bit of an overrated one at that. (It was kind of the announcers to repeatedly mention that Tech had won a bowl game, and never once point out it came by seven points at home against a mid-level MAC team.) Still: no one’s doubting Derek Dooley’s coaching chops, every Bulldog player on both lines had at least a year of starting experience, and this was Auburn’s first game under this coaching staff and running this coaching staff’s schemes.

In other words: this wasn’t a redux of beating UL-Monroe 34-0 on the back of fumble and punt returns while the offense punts on the season’s first six possessions. This was a good performance. By a good team. And though we’ll have to wait at least another week (or two) before making any guarantees, from here it looked good enough that this season’s modest goals–winning season, bowl berth, the 2008 morass left utterly behind–are now every bit as within reach as we could have hoped.

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