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Sunday knee-jerk: The little things

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Let’s be up front about this: Auburn is a capital-B, capital-P, Big-Play team.

That goes for both sides of the ball: on offense, Auburn’s had its share of three-and-outs (even against Ball St.), but has made up for it with 93-yard bombs to Zachery and 80-yard swing passes to Fannin and 50-plus yard option plays to McCalebb. On defense, I don’t think I have to explain how important the bevy of fumble recoveries and interceptions has been to a defense that’s fallen far short of “lockdown” status regardless of opponent.

So you’d think going an entire game without those Big Plays should have cause for some serious, serious alarm on Auburn’s part. And go without they did: the longest pass completion of the night went for 24 yards, to a running back. The longest run traveled 32 yards. Neither of those plays went for a touchdown.

On defense, Auburn went without an interception despite facing off with arguably the most interception-prone quarterback in the country and said quarterback putting the ball in the air 43 different times. Auburn “forced” just one turnover for the night, a first-half fumble Tennessee might as well have wrapped up in leftover Sunday comics and tied a ribbon around, and never recorded a sack.

And sure, Auburn suffered from the lack of Big Plays. Without the long TDs, the Tigers punched into Tennessee’s end zone just twice despite taking the ball into Vol territory nine times. Without the turnovers and sacks, Auburn allowed Tennessee’s moribund (and that’s putting it more kindly than, say, Gandhi would) offense to drive 70 yards in barely more than a minute to give the home team life at halftime, then watched the Vols put up 10 straight fourth-quarter points after drives covering 62 and 72 yards. Put those two sides of the No Big Plays coin together, and you get a game that could have been put to bed early in the second half remain in doubt until Byrum’s final field goal with just 39 seconds left.

However: that Auburn won the game (and, honestly, won without that much difficulty) is also a testament to how weel, in the absence of Big Plays, they did the proverbial little things. Things like:

Not turning the ball over. Chris Todd threw 35 times against one of the most dangerous secondaries in the conference and was never intercepted. (His TD-to-INT ratio for the season now stands at 12-to-1. Respect.) Auburn fumbled twice but recovered both, one of them a cat-quick reaction by Darvin Adams to preserve a Tiger scoring opportunity on 1st-and-goal. (Also worth noting: no fumbles on punt returns. Thanks, Frenchy.)

Blocking on kickoff returns. The Others gave McCalebb two fourth-quarter holes you could have pushed a hot-dog cart through, the result being returns of 39 and 52 yards. The first meant that Tennessee started 81 yards fro mthe end zone even after Auburn went three-and-out, and the second of course set up Byrum’s icing field goal.

On defensive 3rd downs, sure tackling and keeping quarterback contain. Certainly, it’s a lot easier to stop Jonathan Crompton short of the sticks than Jarrett Brown. Nonetheless, after spending the first part of the season ranking among the nation’s very worst at getting off the field on third down, Auburn held the Vols to 4-of-17 on third-down conversions. Many of them came down to a one-on-one battle in the open field or a last-second takedown of Crompton just ahead of the marker–but for the overwhelming majority of the game, Auburn made those plays when they needed to.

And so once again this Auburn team has proved its versatility: we already knew it could win throwing the ball around or by bulldozing over people on the ground, by laughable blowout or skin-of-the-teeth comeback, by dominating the defensive line of scrimmage or waiting for the secondary to save everyone’s bacon.

We said all week here at WBE that Auburn was the better team and would pull out a victory if they just managed to avoid the killer mistake and did the little things they’d one all season. And so now we know that was true–Auburn can win by the Big Play or the smaller ones. (Or, of course, at home or on the road.) And as I’ve said several times this season, there’s really only one term for a team that can win in all these different methods: good.

Other assorted observations

— Byrum missing that last kick before halftime and seeing it turn into a 9-point swing the other way was aggravating, but let’s be honest: he was due for a miss somewhere along the way. After Georgia’s Blair Walsh honked one earlier in the day, it seemed kind of inevitable. 4-for-5 and 10-of-11 on the year is still pretty damned impressive.

— Where the hell did Todd get this kind of Tarkentonian pocket presence from? It’s one thing for your new cyborg shoulder to give you better zip on your ball, more confidence in your throws, better accuracy, maybe even better decision-making on where to go with it … but how does it help your ability to avoid the rush and spot the open man on the move, which Todd must have done a half-dozen times last night? I give the credit, as I do things like nice weather and a fireman rescusing a cat from a burning building these days, to Gus Malzahn.

— Jay Boulware’s come in for a little bit of criticism here and there (“here” meaning, you know, here, i.e. WBE) for the Auburn special teams breakdowns, but all you can really ask of him is that his units improve as the season goes along and learn from their mistakes. And last night the kickoff return was the best it’s been this season, the punt return finally has its man, and on the punt team no punts were blocked or huge returns given up (though Durst was still more inconsistent than I’d like). Kickoff coverage still needs work, but steps are very clealy being taken.

— Tennessee has a solid offensive line, but you’d still like to see more production out of the Auburn defensive front: no sacks, just five tackles total (or two less than Daren Bates had), one lonely quarterback hurry as Antonio Coleman’s only contribution to the box score, and a 5.2 yards-per-carry average for the Vols. I don’t think Tracy Rocker’s a very happy man this morning.

— I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Lane Kiffin for watching his Wildcat formation gain 41 yards on the game’s first play, then deciding he’d never use it again.

— Mantario Hardesty is a man’s man, man. Too bad for him he plays alongside the worst passing game this side of the service academies.

Three Stars

Onterio McCalebb. Ben Tate is getting most of the postgame pub, and not without reason, but FAST came back from two relative off-games by racking up 113 yards of total offense on 16 touches, averaging 45.5 yards on his two kick returns, and making arguably Auburn’s  single two biggest plays of the night–the kickoff return, of course, and the 3rd-and-8 conversion that led to the final Tiger TD.

Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes. With the defensive line largely a nonfactor and the weakside ‘backer M.I.A. as usual, it was up to these two to hold together the front seven single-, er, double-handedly. They just about did: 20 tackles, three passes broken up, a fumble recovered and one tackle-for-loss between them.

Ben Tate. When you gain 5.1 yards-per-carry against that defense, you’ve accomplished something.

Three areas for improvement

Pass rush. Zero sacks is bad enough, but knowing how prone Crompton would have been to throwing a pick under pressure makes it even worse.

Red zone offense. Auburn was never going to stay as hot as they were in that Miss. St./West Virginia stretch, but two TDs in five trips inside the 20–including coming up short on 2nd-and-goal from the 2–lets the pendulum swing a little too far in the other direction. And that’s not even mentioning the four other possessions that crossed midfield and resulted in a total of 3 points.

Weakside linebacking. Same ‘ol story: zero tackles combined from Freeman and Herring, whose only collective appearance in the box score came from a Freeman QB hurry on a blitz. I’ll keep a close eye on the rewatch to see how often they’re coming off the field for the nickelback, but even if they’re only out there half the time, this just isn’t enough impact.

Your bottom line

Getting out of Fayetteville with a perfect record intact is going to be the highest mountain Auburn’s climbed yet, and even with a win there, coming home to face Kentucky is so perfect a letdown opportunity we might as well spend the weeks calling them the WildTraps. The only thing Auburn’s really guaranteed themselves is a bowl berth.

Still: Gene Chizik and the Tigers are two winnable games away from heading to Baton Rouge at 7-0, to play a game with serious divisional and possibly even national (if LSU can upset the Gators) ramifications. That scenario is still a long, long way away, but that it’s even as close as it is only a year removed from the Season of DEATH … I can’t even wrap my head around it.

If there’s been a better coaching job than the one Auburn’s coaching staff has put together, I’d love to see it.

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