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Sunday Knee-jerk: WYSIWYG

Photo by TWER's Kevin Strickland.

Over these first two games, there’s been a few “Wow … this is really happening … I think it’s happening … I don’t think I’m hallucinating … better have my blood checked anyway” moments with Auburn’s offense. But maybe the biggest one from last night was when the broadcast showed the score-by-quarters entering the fourth, and Auburn had scored two touchdowns–14 points–in all three quarters to date. Auburn was taking on an SEC defense, they’d hung 42 points on the Jordan-Hare scoreboard, and there was still an entire quarter to go. I missed which looking glass we’d passed through, but clearly it was out there somewhere. (Probably tinted blue with an orange-wood frame and an eagle engraved above it. That’s my guess.)

But as giddy as I was seeing that trio of 14’s on the screen and the same fourth quarter that a year ago had been an exercise in hammer-to-forehead frustration reduced to 15 full minutes of garbage time, it didn’t entirely erase that brief sense of dread from the second quarter.

Did it? Todd had “led” five drives and had been mostly ass for four of those, all of them ending in punts. (That’s right: it took five possessions to double last week’s punt total.) Speaking of, the punt teams should have come onto the field in a clown car–fumbled returns, botched protection, even a 27-yard shank from Durst. And for the second straight week, the defense watched an offense it had been dominating peel off back-to-back scoring drives, one of them a double-digit play long march that sucked the air out of the stadium.

Of course, by the end of the third quarter, just as by the end of the third quarter the previous Saturday, none of those things mattered the tiniest lick where the final result was concerned. This has been the beauty of these first two victories, the beauty of–we can say this with confidence now–this Auburn team.

Some of the problems we expected Auburn to have, they have. Yes, the defense can look tired and vulnerable, and prone to the occasional lapse. Yes, the quarterbacking can be erratic. Yes, the wide receiving corps still looks paper-thin. Yes, there are still plenty of the missteps that come with a new coaching staff and a team so dependent on freshmen and walk-ons. Yes, Auburn is the sort of team that’s going to fall behind Mississippi St. 17-14, or find itself tied 10-10 with Louisiana Tech.

But more importantly, Auburn has shown themselves to be the sort of team where none of that matters. Not with an offense this well-coached, this successful on the ground, this committed to making the most out of every single possession. Not with a defense still as likely–more likely–to come up with a period of dominance as a period of softness.

This is Auburn this season: still flawed, oh, sure. But nowhere near flawed enough to lose to the likes of Tech or State, and probably not flawed enough to avoid beating several more teams this season. Hope you’ve enjoyed these 30 and 40-point outbursts and 20-point wins, Auburn fans. There’s more where they’ve come from.

Other Random Observations

— All that said: Todd’s got to be better than he was last night. 10-of-23 without a touchdown won’t be good enough this coming Saturday, I don’t think, and that first-quarter bomb down the sideline to Zachery wasn’t an entirely reassuring sign about his arm strength. Hopefully it’s just a one-week step back, but it’s a step back nonetheless.

— That said, Todd’s 8.1 yards an attempt still isn’t shabby, and we’re now 49 attempts into the season without a pick.

— On top of that, Todd’s not getting a ton of help from his receivers. We’re two weeks into the year and total receptions for all wideouts not named Adams or Zachery still equal … wait for it … zero. (And who had Tommy Trott pegged for the same number of catches after two games?) Malzahn and Taylor need to find a way to get the ball to the rest of the unit or risk a blanket getting thrown over Adams and Zachery for the rest of the year.

390 yards rushing. I said Friday that Auburn wouldn’t average 5.8 yards a carry the way they had against Tech. I was right; Auburn averaged 6.6. Particularly encouraging: a week after Tate sat around for most of the second and third quarters and the same week he sat around for the first quarter, he ran for 157 yards and 7.8 a carry anyway. He’s not going anywhere.

— Neither is this offensive line, obviously. It’s not just the rushing yardage or the Wildcat’s thus-far deadly efficiency in the red zone, either: they have yet to give up a sack. Like everyone I’d really, really like Ziemba to cut out the ill-timed false starts, but if that’s the largest line-related problem Auburn fans have to complain about, we’re doing pretty well for ourselves.

— 28.8 yards a punt, average net 17.4. That’s going to put a serious dent in the Saturn V All-SEC campaign.

— It’s terrific to see Kodi Burns get the headlines that come from putting four touchdowns on the board, but it’s more encouraging to see the Wildcat look like the weapon it’s supposed to look like. (And yeah, it’s quite the advantage having a guy run it who can put the ball in the air where it needs to be put, right?)

— Facemask penalties that go around come around.

— 83 offensive plays. It’s a brave new world.

Three Stars

Onterio McCalebb. Tate had the better night overall, but it was McCalebb’s touchdown that got the offense back in gear … and with all due respect to Tate’s speed, it’s the kind of TD that Auburn’s only going to get from the freshman.

Zac Etheridge. He’s led the team in tackles for two straight weeks while heading up a secondary that’s allowing 5.2 yards a completion. I’d say that’s a pretty strong start.

Antonio Coleman. No sacks or tackles for loss, but returning an interception for a touchdown isn’t a bad way to make up for it.

Three Areas for Improvement

Underneath coverage. Some of it is facing tricky players like Phillip Livas and tricky coaches like Dan Mullen, but  swing passes and yards-after-catch have been the weakest links in an otherwise fairly sound defensive game plan from Roof.

Kickoff coverage. After a strong start vs. Tech, some regression vs. State: 26.6 yards a return given up, and that’s with Hull blasting multiple kicks into the end zone and State lacking a real threat at the returning position. Just not a solid night for the Auburn special teams overall.

Not having our running back who’s missed a ton of practice run behind the center as he’s snapping the ball, resulting in a major loss and killing the drive. Obvs.

Your bottom line

Consider me more than a little amused that Auburn and Gene Chizik “served notice” yesterday when their Week 1 opponent was quite likely stronger their Week 2 opponent and that their Week 1 performance was stronger, top-to-bottom, than the one we saw last night. Week 1 had a better outing from Todd, no punts blocked for touchdown, much better run defense, and smoother operation in general out of the offense. Auburn showed nothing last night they didn’t show against Louisiana Tech.

But that’s kind of the point: it’s one thing to show it once. It’s another to show it twice. As expected (’round here, anyway), there was nothing fluky about the Tech win save for the facemask penalties and the fumbles. Auburn cut those out–mostly–last night. Cut out the hopefully-just-as-fluky punting mishaps and Eric Smith-blocks-the-snap kind of wobbles, and there really won’t be a team on the schedule Auburn can’t compete with.

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