OK, so, what we’re doing here: last season I started charting Auburn games, watching each play as carefully as I could to assign pluses to Tiger players for good plays and minuses for bad plays, similar but simplified to the way (I understand) coaches grade film themselves. I doubt I’m very good at it, but I thought it helped open up a better understanding late last year about the few things Auburn did well (pass protection, deep coverage) and the many things they didn’t (run block, play linebacker). So I’m doing it again.
Before I get to the numbers I arrived at for the Tech game (and what I think they mean), four notes:
1. Unlike last year, I didn’t go to the effort of typing up the play-by-play, so you’ll have to trust me a bit that I’m not just making things up. Sorry. But I’m not.*
2. The system I’m using isn’t particularly fair to some players, notably wide receivers, who I ding for missing a block or for a drop, but usually don’t hand out a plus for a routine catch. I’m planning on fixing this next week. Also: defensive linemen get off easy compared to linebackers.
3. Rather than try to tease out which member of the secondary is really playing tight coverage on receivers we usually can’t even see, or try to hand out six or seven grades for five o-linemen and a couple of tight ends, I lump the effort made or not made in coverage into a “Cover” score and the offensive line’s success or failure into a “Line” score. Because coverage and return units are also so team-oriented, special teams also gets a single score.
4. I stopped charting after Auburn went up 37-13 and the backups came in.
With that out of the way …
Offense: “Line” +10, Todd +5, McCalebb +4, Fannin +2, Tate +2, Zachery +2, Trott +2, Adams 0, Benton -1, Blake -1, Douglas -2.
Defense: “Cover” +12, Coleman +6, Fairley +4, Bynes +4, Bates +3, Ricks +2, Goggans +2, McFadden +1, Etheridge +1, Ford 0, Lykes 0, Stevens -1, Herring -4.
Special teams: +3.
WHAT WE LEARNED
The Auburn secondary is stout. Quick, take a guess at how many downfield (i.e. 10 yards or further) completions Tech had. Then take a shot at how many went to a wide receiver.
The answers are one and zero. Oh, the Bulldogs had a few underneath completions that ended up going for yardage somewhere in the 10-15 range. But Jenkins never completed a pass longer than the first quarter 19-yard touchdown to his tight end. The long receptions for Tech receivers Livas, Tuminello, and Linwood covered 14, 12, and 5 yards respectively.
So yes, the coverage was that good. Take a bow, Messrs. McFadden, Thorpe, Etheridge, and Bates: you earned it.
The lines were dominant. That “+10” mark up there for the offensive line is way, way past anything I chalked up to the line last season, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate at all to say the offensive line was the strongest part of the offense. Consider how stunningly few negative plays Auburn suffered: zero sacks and three tackles for loss, one of which was the busted screen to Zachery down in the red zone. The other two TFLs accounted for a loss of … wait for it … two yards.
Much more often, the line simply shoved Tech back to the point where even if all that happened was that the tailback ran straight forward and fell over, Auburn still gained four or five yards. It was domination, and after a second watching I’m also happy to say I didn’t think Andrew McCain stood out as any kind of weak link; Ziemba seemed to be particularly productive, but Isom was the only one of the five that seemed to struggle at all relative to the other four.
On the other side of the ball, all four starters finished in the black, which seems appropriate for a night when Tech running backs carried 24 times for 70 yards (or 2.9 a carry). Coleman was a monster both in the pass rush and run support, and while Fairley was as active as advertised, Ricks made his share of plays as well. (Goggans got off to a hot start and then kind of disappeared, unfortunately.)
One minor complaint: Fairley and Ricks will have to do better in pass contain. Both of Jenkins’ big scrambles (and Fairley’s and Ricks’s only demerits) came on plays when both got shoved out of the middle of the field with the secondary in man coverage, leaving Jenkins acres of space.
Auburn’s hands have improved. Emory Blake got the only minus of the night for a dropped pass, and even that one–a high hard one at the goal-line–might have been a bit harsh. Benton needs to polish his route-running (as we know) and Adams picked up a couple of demerits for half-hearted blocking on the edge, but for the entire team to go without one legitimate stone-handed drop is quite the improvement on the Greg Knox era.
The running backs are back. One of the things that surprised me when I was charting last year was how few pluses the Auburn tailbacks ended up earning. No broken tackles, precious few successful jukes, not even reliable blitz pickups. If not for Tate’s fumble (and the accompanying -3) both backs would have finished at +4 or above. Both members of “Hailstorm and Lightning” grabbed their fair share of extra yards, Tate typically barreling forward and McCalebb repeatedly making a corner he had no business making. (For the record, not all of Tate’s positives came in those two de facto garbage drives, either. He had a better first quarter than I remembered, and his bull drive off the goal line to set up the bomb to Zachery was a huge play.)
The linebacking needs to improve. -1 is a little harsh on Stevens, who finished with eight tackles overall and whose strong night in blitz packages gave him 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Still: most of Stevens’s tackles came downfield, while the physical Bynes’s typically came at the line of scrimmage. Stevens was also more frequently exposed in coverage and run support. Still, like I said, I wouldn’t go so far as to say Stevens had a bad game.
I would go that far for Adam Herring. Look, I appreciate that the guy is healthy when no one else is, that he held up for so many snaps (and will likely have to again), and is generally making a go of it. I know it makes for a great story. But whenever a Tech runner actually got into the secondary and I wondered “Hey, where’s the linebacker?”, I’d rewind and find that some pulling guard had wiped Herring clean out of the play. It’s not just me: the box score gives Bynes and Stevens eight tackles each and Herring two, or one fewer than Mike Slade.
I hope I’m wrong, but I just didn’t see enough activity against a team like La. Tech to make me think Herring won’t be exposed against a West Virginia or an Arkansas. We need The Toro.
The death of the nickname? Well, maybe. Acid Reign noted the other day that he thought Tommy “Not a blocking tight end” Trott had actually had a good game blocking, and overall I’d agree: he made several good blocks on the edge to give McCalebb or Fannin some room to operate. (Not that Fannin always took advantage; he earned a minus or two for not attacking what appeared to be worthwhile holes on the outside.) But the one time I did see Trott line up along the line and try to hold the point of attack … nope. Didn’t work out. So maybe we’re both right.
Douglas was iffy. He made some nice blocks. He whiffed on a couple more, though.
OTHER RANDOM NOTES
— With Zach Clayton unavailable, Tracy Rocker’s preferred third-and-long package appeared to be Coleman and Dee Ford on the outside with Goggans shifted inside alongside Fairley. Ford made the most of those opportunities, finishing with two official QB hurries–though he also appeared to miss an assignment on one of the few running plays he participated in, a long run that helped kickstart Tech’s 90-yard second quarter drive.
— Speaking of that drive, Ford wasn’t the only second-stringer getting some time on the field at the start of that possession: Lykes and Chris Humphries also saw time before returning to the game in garbage time. (I didn’t see Mike Blanc before the fourth quarter, but it’s possible I missed him; DTs are tough to track.) In any case, don’t expect to see Cam Henderson any time soon: if a walk-on like Humphries has passed him on the depth chart, he’s got a long, long way to go.
— Speaking of walk-ons, Jay Wisner popped up to make a couple of solid first-half blocks from the tight end position.
— This post should appear earlier in the week next week.
*If there’s more than a few of you out there who miss the play-by-play, I might be willing to write up a bare bones version and post it for download as a Word file or something. Might be. Let me know if you’re such a person.