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The West Virginia recap, half the first

OK, so this recap’s a little more … involved than previous editions. But I thought the game deserved it. I’ll try to keep it snappy.

West-Virginia-Game-516
This is Mike Blanc. You do not want to anger Mike Blanc.

PRE-PREGAME

— It’s game time! Get fired up, TV-watching Auburn fans! Fired up for … uh, for what Mark Jones and Bob Davie explain (and ESPN’s cameras show) is a downpour worthy of Forrest Gump’s Vietnam. Kickoff is now most certainly TBA, there’s Flash Flood Warnings for the J-Hare concourse, and Pat Dye field is under so much water I think I saw a new kayak rental place open up on the visitor’s sideline. It’s going to be a while. The students looks like they’re having the proverbial ball, but for the rest of us, man, talk about your letdowns.

— Davie says that the comfy climes of Auburn’s home locker room will give them an advantage in the delay. I’m sure the first quarter will prove him correct.

PREGAME

— OK, it’s about an hour later, the teams are back on the field and the water is … gone? Where are the puddles? Where’s the mud? Where are the pools along the sidelines for players to humorously splash into in celebration? I don’t know who’s going to win this game (well, I do, but it‘s a lot more fun pretending otherwise), but whoever it is needs to save a game ball or two for the Auburn grounds crew.

— Jones praises the Auburn diehards while Davie calls the teams’ respective spreads “the next generation of offense” and says “You will not see a more innovative college football game, offensively, all year.” (When it comes to WVU and how well a lot of their second-half aerial “innovation“ ended up working, thank goodness that was true.)

FIRST QUARTER

— It’s a new week for Auburn’s much-maligned special teams! A new week in which Morgan Hull’s opening kickoff lands at the 15 and Devine returns it all the way to the 40! I can’t wait to see what they do next!

— First play from scrimmage: The Toro comes in unblocked on a blitz , but Brown calmly sidesteps him and glides away for eight. If this was a novel, we would call a play like this “foreshadowing.”

— 3rd-and-9 anyway after a huge bubble-screen stuff from McFadden and Etheridge, and since one of Auburn’s biggest problems in this game last year was safeties letting receivers free deep I’m sure Auburn’s been working on AAAAAAAUUUUUUUGGGGHHHH 58-YARD PASS PLAY TO THE 1. Don’t do this to me, Auburn. Please.

(On replay: holy hell is this an incredible pass from Brown. 60 yards in the air, on the run, right into Starks’s hands. NFL scouts the world over just started drooling for reasons they couldn’t explain. There can’t be a more than half-a-dozen QBs in D-I who can make that throw. Zac Etheridge: I ain’t mad atcha.)

— Two plays later Derrick Lykes gets pancaked in the middle of the line and Devine has an easy score. 7-0 ‘Eers. Blecch.

— ESPN has a slogan for their SEC coverage: “Every Week the Amazing Can Happen.” That’s close enough to another popular sports promotion slogan to make certain men in certain suits nervous already, I’d imagine, but Jones does the NBA the favor of going ahead and saying “Where Amazing Happens!” as the broadcast goes to commercial. Mr. Jones, that’s an angry ESPN lawyer on line two. It’s for you.

— Auburn nets one first down on their first drive (mostly on a Zachery reverse that starts by faking up the two-guard sweep that Auburn ran a ton last week; Malzahn, genius that he is, knows that WVU knows that play and is toying with their expectations already), but then: busted Wildcat play, McCalebb for -3, Berry gets toasted (and Todd throws it away), punt. Double blecch.

— OK, so another thing Auburn really struggled with vs. the ‘Eers in ‘08 was reading running plays and attacking the ball-carrier, so this year I’m expecting a lot more aggressiveness and surer tackling from AAAAAAUUUUUUUUUGGGHHHH GET HIM 71-YARD DEVINE TOUCHDOWN NOOOOOOOOOOOO.

— 14-0. 10:19 left in the first quarter. Shots of those WVU snots celebrating in our stadium. Make it stop, Auburn. Come on. Please. Make it stop.

— Ziemba starts Auburn’s drive with a false start. Of course he does. For good measure, he misses a cut block on the following play that turns what ought to be a five- or six-yard Todd keeper into a gain of 2. Second down results in the first sack of the year when Todd has time but no one comes open. 3rd-and-16 now, and already the abyss yawning before us.

— SMITH! Todd finds him downfield and damn I didn’t know Smith could make this kind of catch–arms at full stretch, running full speed, in light traffic over the middle, and he hauls it in without even breaking stride. Gain of 28. No wonder Chizik only suspended him for a game!

(I’m kidding. Geez.)

— Todd hits Zachery for 15 two plays later, but the offense still looks plenty hiccupy as the next three plays go Tate for 1, incompletion, incompletion. After initially lining up to go for it on 4th-and-10–and sending my heart into conniptions, never a good sign this early in the game–Chizik calls timeout and brings on Byrum for a kick he has to make. And in iffy conditions, too. Let’s go, Foot Lauderdale.

— Right down College Street. 14-3.

Hey! Video of Burns’s talk to the team! “The bottom line is it’s about Auburn. It’s not about one guy,” he says. “It’s not about the quarterback position. It’s about winning games … We’re a team. And whatever happens, I’m going to ride with each and every one of y’all. I just want y’all to know that.”

Man alive. There better be a plaque-maker somewhere hard at work, that’s all I’m going to say.

— Brown drops back on WVU’s first down (after another kickoff return to freaking midfield) but no one’s open … Blanc! FUMBLE! Auburn ball! Yessssssss. Even after the field goal: good heavens did we need that.

— Burns enters and runs for a first down on 3rd-and-2, and Jones responds by calling him “Todd” five consecutive times without realizing his mistake. I’m not even joking.

— DAMMIT KODI. Malzahn makes the perfect call–Tate gives a little reverse flip to Burns, who pulls up to throw, and Zachery’s open by a mile and a half … only for Burns’s (completely unpressured) pass to sail well out of bounds. An easy, certain six points, off the board.

You know what? Stop production on that plaque! Stop it right now!

— Fortunately, Todd and Adams say “Screw it, we’ll do it the hard way”–they connect for 19 yards to the WVU 16, then for 16 yards to the goalline, and when Adams whips the ball over the pylon it’s an Auburn TOUCHDOWN! (Jones’s call: “Touchdown, Tigers! Zachery!” Which would be more excusable if No. 89 hadn’t just caught a pass on the previous freaking play.) 14-10, and somehow, someway, Auburn’s right back in this thing.

— Well … they kind of are. Sort of. Not really, if the defense doesn’t wake the hell up, because WVU’s ensuing drive goes like this: Devine for 14, Brown for 5, pass for 10, incomplete, Brown for 9, fullback for 4, pass for 26, swing pass for 6 = Touchdown. 8 plays, 74 yards, just one third-down conversion for WVU to make and that one was 3rd-and-1. It could not possibly have been easier.

That’s 21 ‘Eer points and three ‘Eer drives of 60 yards or longer, and we’re not even out of the first quarter.

— Auburn’s next possession: incompletion (terrible throw by Todd on a wide-open Fannin swing pass), incompletion, incompletion (Trott drop), punt. Time off the clock: 28 seconds. Auburn’s defense is going to need the quarter break like nobody’s business.

And here it is!

SECOND QUARTER

— See, it helped: Auburn’s secondary blankets WVU’s receivers on a 3rd-and-5 and eventually Bates forces Brown into sliding down short of the first. A West Virginia punt! I didn’t think we’d see one of those tonight.

— Goodness gracious. Burns (it appears to me) sticks the ball in Fannin’s shoulder pads (rather than his gut) on a handoff, and the WVU tackle is all over the resulting fumble. Fortunately, the fumble-recovery demons that have plagued Auburn the last couple of years have apparently been transmuted into guardian fumble angels–the ball improbably, impossibly squirts back to Burns.

— Hey, look at that, it doesn’t even matter! The line lets two of WVU’s three rushers (or, if you prefer, 66 percent of rushers) clean through, Todd doesn’t see the linebacker waiting on him in the zone, and the result is an easy ’Eer pick. Sigh. First down WVU on the Auburn 19, and judging by the obligatory shots of Eeyore-faced Auburn fans who see the game slipping away, I think we’re all in agreement that a touchdown here pretty much puts the nail in the coffin.

— But Auburn, as the saying goes, ain’t goin’ out like that. Coleman and Fairley combine to tackle Devine for a six-yard loss on first down, and that’s an even more important play than it looks, because on 2nd-and-16 Brown gets greedy and gets PICKED! Thorpe! He returns it out to the 32 and Auburn is breathing again.

— Tate gets nothing on first down. His stat line across the top of the screen: 4 carries, 7 yards. I’d say that “2 rushers going over 100 yards” streak is in a bit of jeopardy, wouldn’t you?

— Just as Jones gets finished saying Todd has missed five straight passes, Todd shows off why that’s about as long a streak as he’s going to suffer this year: he sidesteps a strong WVU rush, keeps his eyes downfield in the process, and hits Smith (in stride) on the wheel route for 37 yards. Terrific play.

— False start, Ziemba. Jones tries to make the “it’s a complicated offense” excuse for him, but you don’t see any of the other four guys false-starting, do you? (Davies then takes the “It’s complicated” baton and runs with it in the direction of “Tony Franklin laid the groundwork for this year’s spread with last year’s,” comparing Auburn’s situation to Michigan’s. Listen, Bob, first of all, if you think Franklin laid any kind of foundation in his time on the Plains other the one for Tubby’s departure, you obviously didn’t actually watch any of Franklin’s horrorshows, all right? Second, I watched a lot of that Michigan team, and however little Franklin had to work with, it was still twice what RichRod had going for him in 2008. In sum: you should stop talking now. Thanks.)

— Jones twice calls McCalebb “Calleb,” short a, no “Mc.” (He’ll do it a third time later this half.) Jones is having about as good a game as the Auburn defense had a first quarter. Not that the ESPN production team is any better: on 3rd-and-5 Hawthorne goes over the middle and looks for all the world like he’s interfered with–the crowd boos, Todd and Hawthorne both ask for flags, even Davies thinks WVU “got away with one”–but do we see a replay? No, we do not.

— 4th down, and Byrum’s on for a 42-yarder …

Still money. 21-13, and the Thorpe pick results in a 10-point swing. That’s your defining play of the first half, folks.

— Hey, WVU has a lady Mountaineer?!? She’s got the Leatherstocking getup and the musket and everything! They’ve gone that far, they should just go ahead and give her the beard, too.

— Let’s be honest: to come back 14 down against an offense as potent at WVU’s, you need some luck, and Auburn gets it from the ‘Eer receivers on this West Virginia drive. First one of them commits a useless block-in-the-back on McFadden to negate a long Brown run to midfield, then another grabs Washington by the jersey and takes him down WWE-style to erase a huge 3rd-and-15 conversion from Devine. Washington eventually sacks Brown on that endless third-down whirling dervish play I’m sure you all remember–why Washington decides to take off after Brown after starting the play in coverage, I don’t know, but bully for him–and WVU has to punt. Good work, ‘Eers!

— And all of sudden, the Auburn offense from the first two weeks shows up–Burns on a swing pass for 8. Three straight McCalebb rushes for 6 yards each. Burns rolls out and finds Wisner for 16. Tate for 6, then 10, then 7. 3rd-and-goal from the WVU 3, and Todd throws to the back of the end zone … TOUCHDOWN! Tremendous here by Adams (again)–he seems to stab it with one hand and grab it with both even as he’s tucking his feet just inside the endline.

Incredible drive, incredible score: 21-20, WVU. I can’t believe it.

— The ‘Eers kind of make a half-hearted push to get into field goal range, but with no timeouts and the ball kept mostly on the ground, it never looks too threatening. Enjoy your padded stats, gentlemen.

— Say this for the Chizik regime: we were promised exciting, and Lord have mercy have we gotten exciting. More happened in this first half than three or four of 2008’s games put together.

Second half later.

Photo by Kevin Strickland.

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