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The Kentucky recap, charting and analysis

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Third downs, man, it's all about the third downs.

THE NUMBERS

Offense: Tate +4, “Line” +2, McCalebb +1, Burns +1, Douglas +1 (yep, he came in, made one really good block, and left again), Zachery 0, Wisner -1, Adams -2, Trott -2, Todd -5.

Defense: “Cover” +5, Carter +3, Coleman +2, Ricks +1, Washington +1, McFadden +1, Goggans 0, Bynes 0, Fairley 0, Etheridge 0, Blanc -1, Lykes -1, Thorpe -1, Stevens -2, “Pressure” -2, Bates -4, Herring -6.

Special teams: -4.

Hands report: “Routine” 11/11, “Catchable” 0/2, “Difficult” 0/4.

ANALYSIS

Oh man, I don’t even want to talk about Auburn’s third-down passing. Commenter “Alapolytech” pointed out early this week that Auburn really struggled in the short passing game on 3rd down, but even saying that half of Auburn’s failed drives failed on a 3rd-and-short pass doesn’t do the horror of Todd’s performance in conversion situations. Here’s Todd’s stat line on 3rd and 4th down, and keep in mind it may not be suitable for young children:

2-12, 39 yards, 1 INT, 0 TDs, 0 sacks.

Only once on those 12 attempts to pick up a first down via the pass did Auburn convert. And one 3rd-and-25 aside (on which Todd got that second completion, for 2 yards), distance was not an issue: Auburn went 0-6 converting 3rd and 4th downs of 5 yards or less with a pass. Here, let’s repeat that: Auburn went 0-6 converting 3rd and 4th downs of 5 yards or less with a pass. And pressure on the quarterback had just about nothing to do with it. An offense can’t work this way.

We all know that much of the blame for those failures falls on Todd–whose bad plays are badly outnumbering his good plays right now, simple as that–but he’s not getting much (if any) kind of help from his receivers. Auburn didn’t catch a single ball against Kentucky that wasn’t a wide-open, routine grab. Not may opportunities fell into that “not routine, but catchable” range–most of Todd’s throws were either short and routine or downfield and totally uncatchable–but Adams missed both of the ones that did, and both were, of course, on 3rd downs.

Because of these kinds of struggles, Malzahn probably should have turned to the draw more often: Auburn tried to convert 3rd-and-more-than-a-yard with a run just twice, but they were successful both times. None of those 6 incompletions on 3rd-and-makeable came on swings or screens, either–Malzahn was asking Todd to get the ball downfield, and he couldn’t do it.

No, it wasn’t a good night for Auburn’s linebackers. Herring we’ve said enough about. But Stevens and Bynes were both off their game as well, both missing more tackles than they balanced out with good, aggressive plays. My little charting metric has never been very fair to Stevens, in particular, whose strength I would say comes in making steady, routine play after steady, routine play (which I don’t hand out “pluses” for) without either mistakes or big plays. And that’s fine. Good, even, since it helps balance out Bynes’s more risk-reward approach. But when Stevens starts missing the occasional tackle, the lack of noteworthy plays means he’s also not bringing as much to the table as we might expect from an Auburn linebacker.

Yes, I agree, Ted Roof could stand to be more aggressive. Overall, thanks to generally solid play from the secondary in downfield coverage (Kentucky’s only big completion of the night came on an obvious missed offensive pass interference, though to be fair their QBs did miss a couple of open receivers deep) and strong efforts from the defensive line in the 2nd and 3rd quarters (shame about the 1st and 4th), Auburn’s defensive performance was all right. As John Magruder pointed out this week, they were right in line with what other SEC defenses have yielded to the Wildcats, and if Hartline’s absence maybe hurt them a little it maybe also helped them a little by forcing them to feed Cobb and Locke the ball. Auburn’s defense played well enough to win the game, that much we know, and angrily asking for more than that from Roof is, simply, irrational.

All of that said: playing against a quarterback-less team like Kentucky, I don’t understand why more effort wasn’t made to outnumber the ‘Cats in the run game. Repeatedly Kentucky would line up with Cobb at quarterback, Locke or their big fullback with him in the backfield, three receivers, five down linemen and a tight end. Auburn’s positional response was to keep our base seven in the box, play man on the receivers … and leave a safety deep. The result was that up front, Kentucky was playing 7-blockers-on-7-defenders whenever Cobb kept the ball … and if the play-call was a quick-hitter to either side that allowed the ‘Cats to safely leave a defender unblocked, Kentucky had a numerical advantage at the point of attack.

If Newton or Fidler was in the game, fine, tell the safety (Bates, usually) to be very aggressive coming forward but keep some line of defense in the deep middle of the field. But when Cobb is at quarterback? It’s time to damn the torpedoes, stick eight guys near the line-of-scrimmage, and if Cobb makes a throw, you tip your hat to him and dare him to do it again. Sometimes, Roof did this. Sometimes, he didn’t, and I’m not sure why. Of course, it didn’t help him that his DTs and LBs so rarely fought off a block, or that …

Bates struggled in run support. He finished the game with a number of tackles, but most of those were of the “uh-oh, Locke’s loose again” variety in the secondary. Bates’s attempts to come forward and support the linebackers generally resulted in a missed tackle or a wrong angle taken, and often a long Kentucky gain. (Etheridge had a little more success in this area, but missed a couple of tackles himself and was hardly spectacular.) I don’t hold this against him in the least; it’s the price you pay for playing a true freshman.

No question, Malzahn is keeping his promise to run the ball. But should he keep it a little less? You want another damning piece of evidence about Todd’s health? Malzahn has totally lost trust in him to throw the ball on first down–Auburn ran 26 first down plays Saturday, and 23 of them were runs. The other three were: 1. The screen to Adams out of the weirdo formation where Ziemba lines up at WR 2. Burns throwing the fake-out swing to Zachery 3. A Todd throw on 1st-and-16 after the Adams block-in-the-back.

In other words, Malzahn never called for a straight drop-back pass on 1st-and-10. Not once. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is debatable. Those 23 first-down runs averaged 4.5 yards a pop, and in terms of consistency, 13 of the 23 gained 5 yards or more. So you can’t say they weren’t successful. At the same time, to achieve those kinds of marks even with that level of predictability is kind of amazing and I suspect not repeatable against LSU. I also wonder if, just as a thousand color commentators would tell us, the way to get Todd going and get the ball downfield a little more is to air it out on traditional running downs. Give the defense a little more to think about. Of course, Malzahn did just that the first several games of the year–what’s changed to make him abandon that strategy, if not Todd?

Special teams blew. I gave them a plus-3 for the FG block; without it, they scored a -7. Seven more bad plays than good ones on a unit that’s only on the field for 20 plays a game or so. Yeesh. As much as it pains me to point it out, Durst was the worst culprit; SEC punters have to put the ball inside the 20 from midfield.

The offensive line faltered. Somewhere near the middle of the third quarter I had the line at +8; eight of the last 10 marks I gave them were negatives, though, and they ended up with what I think is their worst score of the season. I don’t think it means anything going forward–cut out the penalties and we’re fine–but it does help explain why things fell apart in that stretch of the game. As I mentioned yesterday, the failure of Auburn’s final drive had more to do with the line than Todd or Adams or anyone.

We’ll end this section on a positive note: our defensive ends were back. Coleman looked as good as he has in weeks, but even he didn’t have as much impact as Antoine Carter did, who repeatedly bull-rushed his way into the pocket (he’s the principal reason the “pressure” metric isn’t lower than it is) and made a solid number of plays in run support. I think Goggans will be hard-pressed to reclaim his starting spot.

On the second string, I’ve made multiple mentions this season of Dee Ford’s inability to hold up against the run (which isn’t his fault, really, as he’s a freshman and undersized). He got replaced by Gabe McKenzie this week, and though I didn’t see Gabe make any stand-out plays, I also didn’t see him get blown off the ball the way Ford has been. Progress!

GOING FORWARD

Honestly, the offense isn’t nearly as far away from success as it looks like–any kind of third-down success in the passing game, any at all, and it’ll make a gigantic difference. When you can run the ball as well as Auburn did even when the opposition knows it’s coming, what happens if Auburn actually gets its balance back?

Of course, you can see the obvious downside if Auburn doesn’t get it back–the Tigers ran just about as well as could be expected and still only scored 7 offensive points, because (as Tennessee showed us first-hand) you can only grind out so many first downs on running alone before you run into 3rd-and-pass. You can make midfield that way (and Auburn did, many times), but you can’t stick it in the end zone.

As for the defense, they’re the same defense they’ve been all season–on the softish side, but plenty good enough to get the job done if the offense will cooperate.

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