Sorry for the delay on the afternoon post. Real Life.
— Your announcers for tonight’s ESPN primetime broadcast: Brad Nessler–only one of a handful of the best college play-by-play guys anywhere–Todd Blackledge–the best CFB color commentator working today, period–and Erin Andrews, horribly overrated as eye candy but after showing some dramatic improvement in her mad reporting skillz over the past couple of years, now one of ESPN’s better sideline reporters. (As her report on Brandon Warren pitching a hissy fit will later show.)
So if your favorite part of the recaps is the cracks at the announcers’ expense, sorry, you’re just going to have to wait ’til next week, as Nessler’s and Blackledge’s professional-and-informative-yet-relaxed (and completely joke-proof) introduction shows.
— Auburn gets the first tidbit of good news from the game as Hull blasts the kickoff a good couple of yards into the end zone. So just think how far David Oku would have gone–he brings it out to the 35 and looks one or two broken tackles away from busting it long–if Hull hadn’t kicked it that deep.
— Oh man, that’s not a good sign. Tennessee lines up in the Wildcat and snaps to NuKeese Richardson, who cuts back, picks up 40 freaking yards, and is one (rather well done) Neiko Thorpe tackle from going the distance. Heavy doses of the Wildcat seem like the best possible strategy for Tennessee–no Crompton, an extra blocker to assist an already-piledriving offensive line, the ball put directly in the hands of one of their various dangerous skill players. And now Auburn’s started off by giving them all the confidence in the world in it.
Surely even Lane Kiffin won’t be so stupid as to ignore this kind of weapon in favor of having Crompton throw, like, 43 times or something.
— As Blackledge explains that that first explosive play wask ey because “it’s hard to score without explosive plays,” the Vols prove his point by moving two yards on their next three decidedly non-explosive plays.
— So it’s Daniel Lincoln on for the field goal, and … he misses! Still scoreless.
(Just to be specific: that “he misses!” came the instant the ball left Lincoln’s foot and had that “Grandpa can’t quite grip the ball the way he used to, but he tries to throw with us on Gameday anyway, even though we kind of wish he’d give up” look to it. It misses by a mile. By the way, the Vols have the better kicker.)
— So here’s the matchup we all came to see (or, at least, the neutrals did; the diehards sat through Franklin-Chavis last year): Malzahn vs. Kiffin the Elder. And things are off to a good start for the high-school upstart: Todd finds McCalebb wide slap opn in the flat and he dashes for 24. (Jay Wisner tries for one of his patented downfield blocks here against Rico McCoy and … well, I think he at least slowed McCoy up. I think. It’s hard to tell. Full points for Wisner on effort as always, but blocking West Virginia defensive backs was a little easier than an All-SEC linebacker, I’m thinking.)
— Travante Stallworth takes the handoff on Malzahn’s classic pseudorooskie and picks up a quick 10 as the cameraman follows not-the-play. Uh, yeah, this is a game I’d say Auburn’s coaches want. The stops, they’re all going to be pulled out.
— Todd finds Fannin down the sideline for big yards, but it comes back for a chop block committed by … well, you get one guess.
I’m writing a post on Ryan Pugh tomorrow [Ed. note — here it is] and won’t prehash the whole thing here, but watching the play a second and third time, it’s not possible to describe how stupid this penalty is. The other four Auburn lineman all stand up and pass block; Pugh waits a beat as Berry engages the Tennessee DT (Wes Brown) and then falls headfirst into the back of Brown’s legs not five feet in front of an unscreened official. I’ll leave the question of maliciousness for later, but there’s no debating how just plain mind-blowingly dumb the play is. So instead of 1st-and-10 on the Tennessee 25 or so, it’s 2nd-and-29 on the Aubun 41. Terrific.
— Tate gets more than 20 of those yards back on second and third down, but on 4th-and-7 from the Vol 37 Chizik goes with the Todd pooch kick. It needs a little bit of work, as it turns out: Todd plunks it smack on the hash rather than getting an angle towards the sideline, and it bounces into the end zone for a net of 17. Nice idea facing an offense with as much trouble sustaining drives as the Vols, but poor execution, and the final feelings one gets from this drive are 1. disappointment at the wasted opportunity 2. anger at the center who wasted it.
— OK, first-play-from-scrimmage notwithstanding, the expectation is that the most exciting things that are going to happen when the Vols have the ball are going to be hilarious mistakes, tackles-for-loss, and turnovers and near-turnovers … and the home team does not disappoint on this possession, as other than a Crompton pass fired directly at Walt McFadden (who drops it, the first real out-and-out drop of a possible pick this year IIRC) nothing happens. 3-and-out.
— Auburn takes over on their own 44 and if you want to know exactly how focused Kiffin the Elder’s defense is on preventing the long touchdown that Auburn’s made such a staple of their offense, check out Auburn’s first down play: it’s the flip-to-Burns-on-the-reverse-and-throw-down-the-opposite-sideline play to Zachery that should have been six points vs. West Virginia. You remember the one. It works again, as Zachery has plenty of room to make the catch 15 yards downfield … but he doesn’t get much more than that since Tennessee has a safety positioned seven or eight yards even further downfield.
I wouldn’t rule out McCalebb possibly sprinting through the secondary just yet, but the bombs over-the-top to Zachery? Forget ’em.
— It’s 3rd-and-10 on the Vol 28, and here comes a whip-smart Kiffin blitz, totally unblocked and smack up the middle. It has to be a sack, but Todd coolly steps to one side, sets himself on his back foot, and floats one to Trott over the middle for the first down. Um … what? Who are you? What have you done with Chris Todd? Is he OK? I just want to know he’s OK.
— The drive stalls as Todd fires over Fannin’s head on third down (of course he does–he’s already left him high and dry on a swing pass once, just more evidence Fannin’s ignored his friend request on Facebook) and out comes Byrum. Field goal good, 3-0 Auburn, and if we’re scoring Malzahn vs. Kiffin as a prize fight, it’s 10-9, 10-9 Malzahn after the first two rounds.
— Oh, you Vols: once again, you do not disappoint. Crompton fumbles the snap (on first down!) and can’t recover because Warren is trying to recover, but he’s trying to recover (a fumbled snap! the linemen are practically standing on it!) without falling on the ball. And now all the high school coaches in all the land and all their years upon endless years of drills cry out in a great schism of pain as Warren’s non-falling plan works exactly as well as any sea urchin could tell you it would.
Auburn football! On the Tennessee 26! Opportunity knocks, Tigers.
— And here’s where I grumble as opportunity gets tired of waiting for the Tigers to come to the door and just leaves a field goal attempt on the doorstep. In non-metaphor terms, this means that Pugh and Eddins let the DT through almost untouched on a second down Tate run, turning 2nd-and-2 into 3rd-and-6, and on that 3rd-and-6 McCain comes up FAIL on a cut-block. The pass is batted down, and on comes Byrum.
— Money, from 43 yards. 6-0, but that’s three times Auburn has been inside the Vol 30. Letting an inferior team (and yes, watching Tennessee’s past two attempts at a “drive” means I have no problem calling them that) hang around and keeping their already-antsy crowd involved isn’t the best idea Auburn’s had this season.
— Eh, at least it’s just Tennessee, who do exactly what we expect Tennessee to do on their ensuing possession: 1st-and-10 run for 7, false start, 2nd-and-8 run for 4, entirely predictable 3rd-and-4 swing pass blown up by Coleman. Punt.
— I guess even SuperTodd is human–on 2nd-and-8 he escapes pressure, moves left, has a ton of room to run, but pulls up just before the line-of-scrimmage to fire a pinpoint pass to … some dude on Tennessee’s sideline. Picking up four and heading out-of-bounds would have been beyond simple there. On third down, Todd gets flushed again and ignores two wide open receivers in the right flat to fire towards a well-covered Trott. Sigh. Punt. Judges’ scoring now has Malzahn and Kiffin even.
— Tennessee is flagged for a personal foul on the punt, for some reason we never discover. Might not be the biggest deal in the world to most teams to start at their 31 instead of the 46, but Tennessee is not most teams.
— Dammit: McFadden goes down clutching his leg. Against most teams this would be a well-nigh disastrous turn of events, but like I said, Tennessee … you know the rest.
— Blackledge after two consecutive poor throws by Crompton (on routes not further than four yards downfield) set up a punt: “Those are throws a quarterback in the SEC has to make.” There’s a very long pause as you can feel both Nessler and Blackledge trying to figure out some way of accurately emphasizing the point without being unprofessionally cruel. “You just have to make those throws,” Blackledge finally finishes, which might as well be announcerese for “Seriously, I cannot believe this guy. I cannot believe this is Tennessee’s quarterback. Seriously.”
— Fannin grabs a swing pass, and since (for once) the throw is accurate, even though the middle linebacker closes quickly to tackle from behind, it’s the easiest five yards Auburn’s picked up all night.
I think to myself “See! Why don’t they just do this all night?” and maybe somehow Malzahn hears what I’m thinking (would you put telepathy past him?) because the very next play is a swing to the other side … where Trott ignores the onrushing Eric Berry in order to run aimlessly towards the sideline. Whaaa? Loss of 3, Todd’s forced to check down on 3rd-and-8, and this makes one first down in Auburn’s last three drives. A little troubling, yes, but the very good news is that we saw this happen against Miss. St. and Ball St., too.
— The other good news is that we’re playing Tennessee and that even a 21-yard run from Hardesty to start the drive doesn’t matter too much. here Nick Fairley continues to make the absolute most of his limited snaps, blowing his man backwards on both a 2nd-and-4 near midfield and the subsequent 3rd-and-3, forcing a punt almost singlehandedly. That outburst against La. Tech to start the year? Officially, verifiably not a fluke.
— Auburn takes over on their own 13 and here we go: McCalebb for 7. McCalebb for 4. Screen to McCalebb for 22. McCalebb for 2. Ridiculous throw under pressure to Smith for 17. Tate for 15.
And with Auburn having moved 67 yards without so much as a third-down conversion, Kiffin the Elder asks for a timeout, because the body needs oxygen to function properly. You can hear the Auburn contingent going bananas, you can see Trooper and other assorted members of Auburn’s sideline leaping around like fools, you can see the offense buzzing, and it occurs to me that seeing how fired up everyone is over an opponent timeout means this really is Basketball on Grass.
— Not a bad idea, that timeout, but it didn’t do much good: Tate flies through a massive hole in the middle of the field for 9 yards on first down, and then through an identical hole on the identical play for 11 and the TOUCHDOWN! 13-0, Auburn, and I’m going to buy a small flatscreen television, frame it, put that drive on an endless loop, and wait for compliments from houseguests on my fine appreciation of Art.
— I just don’t get it. Hardesty runs for 12 for a rare Vol first down on Tennessee’s next possession, followed by a one-yard loss for 2nd-and-11. Now, you might look at the average Hardesty touch in this game so far–which has gone for like 7 yards–and the average Crompton touch, which has gone for nothing, and think that getting the ball into Hardesty’s hands would be the playcall of choice here. Maybe nothing straight-ahead, but a draw? A screen?
Nope. First it’s a wheel route that Vol receiver Quinton Hancock drops like it’s hot, then a slant to Hancock that–I wish I was kidding, I honestly do, I feel bad, no I don’t–smacks him in the side of the helmet in the manner of those longlost ’80s Blooper videos. It would be hysterical if it wasn’t kind of sad, and as is it’s only just short of hysterical. “I’m not sure what that play was,” Blackledge says.
— Eric Berry makes the tackle on the punt return, because (lest we forget, Auburn fans) he really is just that good.
— Todd’s deal with the devil clearly hasn’t expired just yet–he runs play-action off of an option look, nearly gets creamed, escapes, and makes a wild throw that Adams hauls in because he’s been kind of quiet and needs to remind us all that he’s still every inch the bee’s knees he’s been all year. Oh, and did I mention this all comes on third down? Gain of 9, first down.
— Another insane Todd play results in a Smith reception for 11 as Auburn’s humming again: Tate for 5. Tate for 4. Sneak for the first. Tate loose in the secondary for big yards, Berry drawing a bead on him …
KABOOM. Pwned. Maybe not the way poor what’s-his-face was by Ronnie Brown five years ago, but that’s more rag-doll-like than I ever expected eric Berry to look on a football field. I don’t know if it’s going to be the first highlight College Football Final will show tonight, but you don’t even have to think to know this is the first highlight Auburn fans are going to remember about this game. I’ll have to splice it in with the drive in the framed TV.
Kiffin the Elder asks for timeout again, maybe because even he realizes Tennessee’s going to need a little bit more time to recover from that one.
— 1st-and-10 on the Vol 26, and you have to think that a touchdown here all but ends this as a competitive contest. Unfortunately, the timeout gambit works a little better this go-round: McCalebb picks up 5 on first down, but Todd wastes a down trying to find Adams in the middle of Tennessee’s deep coverage, and the third down play is a disaster. It’s option left, but Smith’s not quite quick enough with his cut on the Vol DE, who flies into Todd’s pitch lane. Todd decides to take a step forward and pitch on the backside of the marauding lineman, but that’s a tricky proposition even for seasoned veterans of the option attack, and while Chris Todd is many, many things this season, “seasoned veterans of the option attack” is one thing he is not. The pitch flies away and Auburn’s lucky McCalebb recovers for a nine-yard loss.
Hey, it’s OK, we still have Wes Byrum.
— Well, damn. All good things, I guess. Hey, it’s OK, they’re still Tennessee.
— I said Well, damn. 3rd-and-10 from the Vol 43, the Tennessee TE Stocker runs a hell of a route (he fakes an out, then cuts back into a post) to get away from Bynes. Crompton–who started this drive having gone 2-of-11 for 9 yards to this point–hits him in stride, and Etheridge makes the worst play of his season to date, flying forward wildly and at a terrible angle. Stocker glides by untouched and rumbles for another 25 yards, down to the Auburn 17.
Hardesty breaks free for 16 against a clearly discombobulated Auburn defense, and a play later it’s touchdown, Tennessee. Whether you call it a 10-point swing or a 14-point swing, it’s a swing, and it’s beyond infuriating–Auburn could have been up 20, 24, even 27 without that much further effort, and instead Tennessee will go into locker room down six and feelin’ fine.
— Scratch that: down seven, after Fairley (again!) wedges his way through the line and blocks the PAT. Thorpe even has a chance to pick up the loose ball and take it back for 2, but he can’t quite get the handle and then Herring trips over a prone Vol before he can get going. Justice (well, my personal view of justice regarding this first-half) was almost served there.
— Auburn starts at their own 39–can they salvage a field goal drive from the remaining 21 seconds? After an incompletion and a near-fumble on an attempted draw to McCalebb, no, no they cannot. 13-6 at halftime.
I should be happy with that: It’s a seven-point lead on the road against a team that shouldn’t be capable of playing from behind, and Auburn’s been second-half team all season.
And yet, after that last Vol drive: I am not happy. Confident still, but not happy.