The news on Auburn’s injury front in the wake of the Ball St. game has actually been pretty encouraging so far — no word yet on Zach Clayton, but both Kodi Burns and FAST McCalebb sound like they’ll see the field against Tennessee. (McCalebb will bear watching, as obviously having his speed compromised would be a big blow even if he can take handoffs, but it could just as obviously be a lot worse).
But as good as the news here is, it’s nowhere near as damaging as the news about the “injury” that we were told had kept starting left guard Byron Isom out of the starting lineup. About that …
Byron Isom has been suspended indefinitely.
Uh-oh. If you had any doubts about the drop-off from Isom to his replacements–unheralded true freshman John Sullen got the start at right guard while Mike Berry switched to the left side–check the following sequence of five consecutive handoffs to Auburn tailbacks, spread over three Auburn possessions from the first quarter:
A 3-2 A46 Ben Tate rush up the middle for 1 yard to the AU47
A 4-1 A47 O. McCalebb rush around right end for loss of 1 yard to the AU46
A 1-10 A25 Ben Tate rush over right guard for no gain to the AU25
A 3-1 A34 Ben Tate rush over right guard for no gain to the AU34
A 1-10 B28 Ben Tate rush over right guard for no gain to the BSU28
Things picked up after that (I guess you can’t complain too much about line play when the final tally is 254 rushing yards on 7.5 a carry, not to mention zero sacks on 29 passes), but that’s back-to-back-to-back stuffs for Ball St. on 3rd- or 4th-and-short. One of the factors that’s made the start to Tate’s and McCalebb’s seasons so successful is that even when they haven’t been breaking things long, the line has been able to push forward enough to give them an easy 3, 4, or 5 yards. But last night, Hailstorm and Lightning (insert your favorite nickname as applicable) combined for nine runs of a yard or less. Against Ball St.
So while Sullen (and later replacements like Jared Cooper) could have struggled more than they did, Isom’s absence was clearly, obviously felt. Making matters worse is that if Sullen can only play on the right, that makes the guard-tackle pairing on that side the true freshman and Andrew McCain, the fifth-year senior who’s seeing the first serious playing time of his career. McCain has been perfectly solid to date, but on first viewing he had his shakiest outing of the season last night and probably isn’t ready to anchor that side of the line singlehandedly.
These sorts of things don’t matter much against Ball St., where even adequate offensive line play can still lead to points and yards in bunches. Against Monte Kiffin’s Vols, though? Adequate won’t cut it, not if we’re hoping for the same kind of offensive showing we’ve seen the first four weeks of the season, the kind of showing Auburn will almost certainly need up in Knoxville. Auburn will have to have the same good-to-outstanding performance up front they put together against Tech, State, and WVU, and without Isom their ability to do that is highly, highly questionable.
Of course, Isom’s status for this Saturday is is also highly, highly questionable. “Indefinitely” would seem to suggest that Isom won’t be back in the staff’s good graces until at least next week, but you know that if Chizik was willing to withhold the information that Isom was suspended for an advantage over Ball St., he’ll be perfectly happy to keep Tennessee guessing all week as to whether Isom will be available or not. Until kickoff Saturday, it’s all guesswork.
What we do know is that
1. Isom is in some kind of trouble
2. If he doesn’t play, Auburn is in trouble.
There’s no room for complaint when the Vols have lost their starting middle linebacker for the year and a good number of other SEC teams are dealing with assorted season-ending injuries or, ahem, a concussed starting quarterback. With Bates making suddenly making Mike McNeil’s health a luxury and Tim Hawthorne already back on the field, Auburn’s actually living on the lucky side when it comes to injuries KNOCK ON WOOD EIGHT TIMES RIGHT NOW. Isom’s potential absence won’t even begin to be an excuse.
But if Auburn’s health is awfully nice to have, it also makes having to test their offensive line depth for reasons that aren’t injury-related an even more bitter pill to swallow.