Multiple times last week, I argued that Auburn’s coaches should choose Neil Caudle as their starting quarterback for the Ole Miss game, even as the coaches and Auburn’s players and even Neil Caudle himself all said that that quarterback should be Chris Todd. No matter, I thought; loyalty can make people do weird things, like ignore back-to-back yard-per-attempt marks under 3.4, that the offense was busy redefining the word “flailing,” the, you know, three consecutive losses … each uglier and harder-to-swallow than the one before. Staring Caudle couldn’t possibly make things worse, I thought. Auburn had everything to gain with a QB switch, and nothing to lose.
But being a fan who sees 3 to 4 hours a week in the life of a football team that actually spans some–what?–60 hours a week also makes people do weird things. Weirder things, really, as Todd showed us all in the second quarter against Ole Miss, when he dropped back on 3rd-and-2 on his own 18 and arced a pass to Terrell Zachery so parabolically perfect they should feature it in geometry textbooks.
Nothing to lose? Todd said, that pass said. You will lose that. You will lose this game. You will lose this season. Nothing to lose, my surgically-repaired ass.
There is nothing I or anyone else can say in response to that except War Damn Eagle and See you in Athens. Oh, and I was wrong, obviously.
Four weeks ago now, I sipped my 9:30 a.m. cup of coffee and nearly spit it out reading the early (very early, when you live in Mountain time) reports from Fayetteville: Eltoro Freeman wasn’t even with the team. Hadn’t even made the trip. After getting benched the previous week at Tennessee and spending much of the game brooding in solitude on the sidelines, it was impossible not to think of the Tray Blackmon comparisons that have both complimented and dogged Freeman since his arrival in Auburn. Six games into his career, The Toro had been a disappointment on the field and a distraction off it. Whether he returned or not didn’t seem to make much difference for 2009: I wrote the weakside linebacker position off for the year. We were going to spend the remainder of the season at linebacker making do with Josh Bynes, and Craig Stevens, and–with all due respect to Adam Herring– a giant, flashing Achilles heel.
Two weeks ago, in Baton Rouge, Freeman was Auburn’s best defensive player. Antonio Coleman took those honors Saturday, but Freeman proved he’ll claim them again sooner rather than later: a team-high six solo tackles, nine total, and a jackrabbit-quick quarterback hurry that nearly removed Jevan Snead from his own jaw.
Assuming he stays healthy and stays focused, Freeman has shown that he won’t be the second coming of Blackmon, that he’ll be better, in fact, than Blackmon ever was.
The list goes on. Ted Roof, whose defense held a team featuring Dexter McCluster, one of the SEC’s most dangerous (if erratic) quarterbacks, three senior linemen, and a half-dozen other dangerous skill players to all of 13 points. Terrell Zachery and Darvin Adams, who went head-to-head with one of the country’s best secondaries and came away with 6 receptions, 151 yards, and a touchdown. Field goal units–kick and block–that were just one more disaster in a season of disasters a year ago, and this year must collectively rank as the best in the country. Ben Tate, who was seen by many (yours truly certainly included) as a just another decent, solidly-built SEC running back before the season, ran for another 154 yards on 5.8 a carry and continued to stamp himself as one of the best, most consistently productive running backs in Auburn history. Auburn history.
And then there is this man. The one on the right:
He will win two more games–at the minimum–in his first season at Auburn than Tommy Tuberville won in his final one, and do it with less talent against a tougher schedule. A season after Auburn failed to beat a single bowl-bound SEC team, he will finish the year with victories over at least one, likely two, and maybe even three or four. The week after many wondered if he had lost the respect of his team, his team turned in its most complete performance of the season.
It is still too early to say, definitively, that we who doubted him–again, your humble Auburn Blogger among them, along with most of the country–were wrong about him. Final verdicts are still whole seasons away, most likely. But this week? This week, at the least, we were wrong. Wonderfully, deliciously, fantastically wrong. Thanks for making us look so stupid, Gene Chizik.
Other assorted observations
— Like everyone else (I think), when the final whistle blew yesterday I would have given more credit to the Auburn defense rather than the offense. The most frustrating moments of the day (kickoff return aside) all came with the offense on the field: the failed 3rd-and-1/4th-and-1 conversions, the three-and-out following the McCluster touchdown when Auburn so desperately needed to reclaim the momentum, the unconscionable Todd “fumble.” But the box score says something different: 6 yards a play even is more than half-a-yard better than any SEC opponent–Tide, Hogs, ‘Cocks, whoever–have managed against the Rebels. The defense was incredible–especially if you write off that retroactively fluky-looking first drive–but the win belongs to both sides of the ball.
— We’ve complained a lot the last few weeks about Auburn’s penalty problem, and after seeing the officials yesterday flag Auburn because they put the ball down and expected a Gus Malzahn offense not to snap it, I’m convinced part of the problem is that the pace of the offense puts the officials on edge. They’re put under pressure to hurry, keep up, make sure things run smoothly, etc. … and I don’t think they like it very much. They get nervous, and nervous officials throw flags.
— Well, we all knew Auburn was going to give up a touchdown on a kick return eventually, right? Hopefully that’s at least gotten it out of their system, and aside from that one return the unit showed actual improvement. Maybe there’s hope? (I’m just about ready to give up on the punt team, though: Durst had his moments and Todd, but a net of 34.7, thanks to those long Rebel returns, still isn’t good enough. Oh well.)
— I’m sure Dr. Gustav loves the unpredictability of throwing Burns into the Wildcat and running 10-blockers-vs.-11 instead of 9-vs.-11, with the added bonus of Burns’s ability to throw … but man alive, aside from the Trott touchdown Auburn got less-than-nothing out of the formation yesterday. I like having the change-of-pace as a possibility, but if we’d seen it for a few fewer snaps I don’t think anyone would have minded.
— More in yesterday’s post.
Antonio Coleman. Four tackles for loss, two sacks, four other QB hurries, a forced fumble, and one more tackle for good measure. That, folks, is a dominating performance, and probably not the last one we’ll see from him if he stays healthy.
Daren Bates. Nine tackles to share team-high honors and a major role in a secondary that held Snead to 5 yards per-pass and a 1-to-2 TD-to-INT ratio while Etheridge missed the final three quarters. Not bad, freshman, not bad at all.
Walt McFadden. No point in pretending the bounce off of Summers’s hands wasn’t a gift from the football gods, but McFadden could have easily 1. dropped it 2. stepped out-of-bounds 3. not housed it. Instead he did all those things and added 5 tackles–1.5 of them for loss!–and a pass breakup on top of the defenses’ biggest play of the day.
Three areas for improvement
Not “fumbling” the ball away in your team’s own territory at the end of a 20-yard sack up two scores late in the fourth quarter. That’s a big one.
Not allowing 79-yard touchdown runs. I know guys like Devine, Cobb, Shepard, and now McCluster are very fast and very good, but seriously: this is too many damn catastrophic breakdowns like this.
3rd-and-1 conversions. I don’t know if sticking Todd under center is the answer–remember what happened vs. Arkansas?–but Auburn needs to come up with something.
Your bottom line
It’s a winning season, Auburn fans, and if that’s not enough reason to celebrate your Tigers are one likely win in Athens away from playing on New Year’s Day. These are good times. Enjoy ’em.
Both photos by Van Emst.