What we do here. Better late than never, right?
Offense: “Line” +6, Todd +4, Adams +4, Fannin +2, Wisner +2, Hawthorne +1, Zachery +1, Trott +1, Tate +1, McCalebb -1, Burns -2.
Hands report: “routine” 9/11, “could be caught” 6/8, “difficult” 2/2.
Defense: “Cover” +7, Thorpe +4, Coleman +4, Fairley +3, Ricks +2, Blanc +2, Washington +2, Stevens +1, Bynes +1, McFadden +1, Goggans +1, Ford +1, Lykes 0, Herring 0, Bell -1, Bates -2, Clayton -3, Freeman -3.
Trooper Taylor deserves some kind of medal. Of the 21 passes from Todd that you wouldn’t describe as “uncatchable,” Auburn caught all but four of them. Two of those four misses came on passes over the middle in which the Auburn receiver appeared to be being interfered with, with the two “routine” drops belonging to Tate on a dump-off and Trott. Six times Adams had a chance to make a reception; he made the reception all six times. Zachery and Wisner both made the catches they had to and even Trott redeemed himself with the critical third-down scoop on that last field-flipping drive.
You might want to sit down for this, but: if Hawthorne is going to come back to what Taylor claimed he could be before the injury, Auburn’s wide receiving corps is going to be an actual strength. It’s true. (That corps includes Trott and Wisner, by the way; Auburn’s “tight ends” very rarely line up at the end of the line and put a hand on the ground. Even if they’re mostly concerned with blocking for Auburn’s variety of outside runs and swing passes, they’re still more wideouts than TEs.)
While we’re on the subject of hands, a special mention of Eric Smith. You may have noticed Chizik telling reporters earlier this week that none of Smith’s big receptions were routine plays; this was true. He had three potential catches of at least medium difficulty, made all three, and turned all three into huge, huge plays. His blocking out of that H-back role still leaves a little to be desired, but he hasn’t left much doubt that Malzahn has yet another weapon to work with.
Auburn has to get better at the underneath stuff. The only thing really holding Auburn’s offense back these first few weeks has been the short stuff. Todd hasn’t looked comfortable at all getting the swings out to Fannin and has picked up several minuses the last two weeks on those missed opportunities; Tate now has multiple drops to his name on what should have been easy 4, 5, 6-yard gains on the check-down; and although it wasn’t nearly as much of an issue this week, the blocking from the wideouts could have been better vs. State and Tech.
The exception that was the long Fannin touchdown only proves the rule about how badly Auburn needs to get this section of their offense in gear. Todd and the receivers already have the downfield stuff down as pat as it’s going to get (take out Fannin’s monster play, and Auburn still averages nearly 14 yards a completion) and against most opponents (see next item) the running game should be fine. If Todd can find a way to consistently get Fannin the ball out there on the edge, the receivers can consistently block for him, and Tate and Smith can hold onto the ball as an outlet when the deep stuff isn’t there … what vulnerabilities will this offense have?
This was just a bad match-up for McCalebb. In the end, the straight-ahead, Tate-driven portion of the Auburn running game was fine. 75 yards on 16 carries isn’t great, but when the passing game is working as well as it was, it’s plenty.
The problem was with the FAST portion of the Auburn backfield and running game. WVU’s 3-3-5 might have one less defensive lineman to control the run, but it also brings an extra safety into the box. You can shove it around (as Auburn did in the first half of the ’08 meeting) but spreading out and running against it isn’t as effective when there’s that much agility on the field and in the box. McCalebb found this out the hard way–multiple times he headed towards the corner in the same way he had against Tech and State, and multiple times that eighth WVU defender came up and tackled with a quickness. Against that defense, the room to the outside just wasn’t there, and with Todd humming along and the line still getting the occasional push for Tate in the middle, there wasn’t any need to force the issue.
OK, so Malzahn didn’t find a way to get the big home-run plays for McCalebb against the 3-3-5. Here’s the good news: no one else on the schedule plays a base 3-3-5. After this game I’m expecting to see it as a change-of-pace if McCalebb starts going nuts again, but FAST getting 8 carries for 20 yards strikes me as much more likely to be a one-time thing than a trend.
The running backs need to improve at thingsthat are not running the ball. I’ve mentioned Smith’s blocking and Tate’s dropsies; Tate and McCalebb also missed on blitz pickups to gift-wrap a handful of ‘Eer hurries and sacks. There’s still room for improvement on becoming one of those “complete” backs the TV guys like to talk about.
The offensive line was as expected. Not the domination we saw against Tech and State, but Todd (mostly) had time to throw and Tate (mostly) had enough room to run. They won their battle.
The defense wasn’t as bad as you might think. 500-plus yards is a ton, no doubt about it. But there’s no doubt about this, either: we’re not going to see a trio of skill-position players like Brown, Devine, and Jock Sanders again anytime soon, thank everything holy. Certainly, Auburn could have tackled better, but those guys are as tough to tackle as guys get. The Sanders touchdown (on the little six-yard swing) is a perfect example of why you have to look at a play twice to see what’s going on: first viewing, I was furious because Bynes misses a tackle and Sanders then somehow emerges from a rugby scrum to fall over Bates into the end zone. On replay, both Bynes and Blanc react quickly as storm out towards Sanders while his linemen are still getting into position. But Sanders pulls off an absolute ankle-breaker of a juke and both Bynes and Blanc go tumbling by without touching him; from there, Sanders expertly hides behind his wall of blockers and just tiptoes forward where most guys would try to break out towards the end zone as quickly as possible. No one else really had a shot at him.
The point: on plays like this, the Brown throw I discussed in the first-half recap, and a handful more involving Brown or Devine, it’s not really bad defense from Auburn–it’s just outstanding offensive talent doing what it does. Auburn is not by any stretch of the imagination an elite defense, but nine points given up over those final three quarters is nine points given up over those final three quarters, and outside of the long Devine touchdown the ‘Eers averaged just 3.5 yards a carry. I’ll argue that the front seven held their own as well they could be expected to against the likes of WVU.
Weakside linebacker is killing Auburn right now. We’ll see what happens this week and, more importantly, the week after, but on the basis of this game The Toro is nowhere close to matching his hype. Number of tackles made at (or even anywhere near) the line of scrimmage: zero. He’s awarded one in the box score (not even one assist?), and that came eight yards downfield when he chased Brown out-of-bounds. I’ll maintain there were flashes in the State game, but they weren’t there Saturday, and in fact Herring outplayed him by virtue of making a single solid play on Devine near the sideline. To be fair, Freeman didn’t see nearly as much of the field as Stevens and Bynes–he came off in the nickel and of course gave way toHerring a lot of the time–but a single downfield tackle is just not enough production from the starting weakside LB. It’s just not. The two tackles combined from the position? Just as bad, if not worse.
The DTs are men. Another sore spot is the end position opposite Coleman (who rebounded from an iffy performance vs. State to wind up all over the place vs. WVU)–Clayton got abused a few times in limited PT and Goggans is still outstanding for one or two plays and then invisible for the next 10.
But Auburns defensive line will be OK, in part because Coleman is Coleman, but just as much because Auburn has an extremely productive three-man rotation at defensive tackle right now. All three finished well in the black in my charting process (and would have done even better if not for missed tackles you could excuse if you were being generous, given the competition), all three were consistenly productive throughout the game, and all three fare very well in the box score. 7 combined tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 INT, and 5 QB hurries? That’s a hell of a night for a set of DTs.
The secondary: still terrific. They weren’t quite as lockdown as they were against the Bulldogs (both sets), but still: that’s a solid set of receivers WVU has and a rocket-armed QB, and if you remove the flukish (or at least unrepeatable) 58-yard bomb at the game’s start, WVU finished at 6.1 yards a passing attempt … not horrible, but not great, either, and a lot of those yards came on swings to Sanders, the trick play double-pass, etc. Between the two picks and that +6 up above, trust me, the firm of Thorpe/McFadden/Etheridge/Bates were plenty solid enough.
Credit where it’s due. Auburn was more than a little lucky Brown insisted on throwing the two hideous downfield picks and botched the screens to Devine, but we’ve all seen stone-handed defenders throw away opportunities like those plenty of times. Brown gave Auburn four chances to pick him off, and Auburn took advantage of all four.
Put it all together, and if Auburn can just stop sucking like the cold black vacuum of outer space on third down, we’ll be getting somewhere. Honest. That’s a big if, seeing as how it’s been the defense’s No. 1 Problem for three weeks running now, but my impression is that Auburn’s closer to being a legitimately good defense than the scores and stats would indicate.