Wednesday of last week I wrote a post outlining the blueprint for an Auburn victory in the Iron Bowl. The Tigers followed through on several items on that blueprint … but, as we all know, not on quite enough of them to pull out what would have been the defining upset of the entire 2009 college football season. (Sigh with me on this one, everybody. 1, 2, 3 … Siiiiiigh.) With Auburn likely to face a similar challenge in ’10 (albeit with a much stronger team than the one that took the field last Friday, albethat on the road in Tuscaloosa), I figure I’d forego my usual bullet-point style of analysis and focus on where the blueprint broke down and where things went according to plan.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
The fast start. The way Auburn faded down the stretch against Kentucky, Georgia, Arkansas, even Tennessee, we all knew that to have any shot at all against a punishing, physical team like Alabama, Auburn would have to break out of the gates with a fury.
Fortunately, the Auburn coaches and players seemed to know that, too, judging from the way they dominated the first quarter. Much has been made of Auburn “pulling out all the stops” in the early going, and the onsides kick and the double-throw to Adams fit that bill … but the defensive shutdown? The Zachery reverse, a play that’s been so much of a Malzahn staple he ran it for a touchdown during the freaking spring game? (If you want to know why I have zero problem claiming that Auburn’s coaches badly outcoached their Alabama counterparts, try the fact that after a de facto two weeks of preparation, the Tide were still caught totally off-guard by one of Auburn’s bread-and-butter plays on their very first drive.) The chunks of yardage picked up by Ben Tate on Auburn’s second drive? All of that isn’t stop-pulling-out, it’s good old-fashioned execution, and for a quarter Auburn couldn’t have done it any better.
The gambles. That said, the onsides kick call was perfect: perfectly drawn up, perfectly executed, but most of all perfectly in line with the way Auburn had to approach this game: balls-to-the-wall, damn the torpedoes, leave nothing in the playbook. The double-throw on the ensuing drive and the pump-and-go against the Tide corner blitz to spring Adams for the second-half touchdown was just more of the welcome same.
The same goes for the defense, which sold out to stop Mark Ingram and the Tide running game and dared the Tide to find Julio Jones and Darius Hanks deep; for the most part, they couldn’t. This is why I’m not all that bothered by Ted Roof’s big blitz on the third-down that resulted in the Colin Peek TD: sure, that’s the risk you take, but this was the sort of game where risks needed to be taken.
In the end, in fact, even if Auburn’s coaches played it just about as go-for-broke as I’d hoped, I still wish they’d have gone just a little farther: the razzle-dazzle from Malzahn was in short supply in the second half, and the 4th-and-11 from the Tide 44 could have been an excellent time for a fake punt.
Catching the breaks. Both sides finished the game arguing the other side had gotten lucky … but I tend to think that Auburn got the better of the proverbial bounces. Both of Demond Washington’s muffed punt returns bounced right back to him. Ziemba false-started at the perfect time to negate what would have been a back-breaking Burns interception … or, even if you think the blowing whistles had something to do with the execution there (which they may have), still led to the key unsportsmanlike penalty that set up the makeable third down. Ingram and Jones screwed up what should have been an easy touchdown on the running back toss. Though the umpire’s repeated appearance in the middle of ‘Bama’s check-down routes to their backs has been vastly overplayed by Tide fans since the game–he “broke up” one pass at the most–I can’t say his ability to at least show up in the middle of things helped the Tide’s cause any. Durst’s sand-wedge shot stayed in play. A handful of Todd passes that fell incomplete could have been picked off. Etc.
Alabama also got their fair share of breaks–the recovery on Todd’s fumble, a call here or there (though not the game-ending “pick play” I know some Auburn fans are bothered by–that was never getting called in a million years in that situation), Todd’s various misses–but on the balance, in my opinion, Auburn got enough of the good fortune they needed.
WHAT WENT RIGHT BEYOND ALL EXPECTATIONS
The run-stopping. I didn’t mention “stuff the Tide running game cold” as part of the blueprint, because frankly I didn’t think that was a possibility. Auburn holding their own and occasionally forcing the ball into McElroy’s hands was a necessity, of course, but it seemed like so obvious a goal it wasn’t worth mentioning.
Auburn’s beleaguered front seven did way more than occasionally force the ball into McElroy’s hands, though: they made McElroy the entire damn offense. It’s hard to even describe to you how jaw-dropping the Tigers’ performance in rush defense was, but maybe this will help: Alabama’s 2.09 yards-per-carry was their worst rushing performance of the season by more than a yard-per-carry, while Auburn’s 2.09 allowed was their best rush defense performance of the year by a half-yard. That’s right–Auburn gave up more per-carry to Furman, Louisiana Tech, and Ball St. than they did to Alabama. They turned the best rushing attack they’d faced all year into the least productive they’d faced all year.
That, folks, is a towering achievement, and while the cynic will ask why it took so long, the optimist will point out that outstanding rush defense (and the excellent linebacker play that fuels it) is what Ted Roof’s defenses have always been known for … and will probably continue to be known for when his players aren’t exhausted by an 11-week slog and a total absence of quality backups. (You can guess which camp I’m in.)
WHAT WENT WRONG
Third-down conversions. No doubt Gus Malzahn accomplished some things during the bye week, but solving Auburn’s ongoing third-down woes wasn’t one of them. Auburn’s final conversion numbers–4-of-12–don’t look that bad against a defense of Alabama’s quality, but look a little closer and …
— Auburn never converted a third down longer than 2 yards. Not one.
— Between Auburn’s first two drives and their final, desperate possession, the Tigers converted zero third downs, a streak lasting eight consecutive misses.
— Half of those eight failures came on tries of five yards or shorter, and yes, all four of those failures on “makeable” conversions came on called pass plays. Auburn’s only run on a third down longer than 2 yards was a straight hand-off to Tate on 3rd-and-9 from Auburn’s 9.
Auburn has had great success all season long with both the wrap-around draw and Todd on the straight QB draw, and did again in this game–the two times Malzahn went to those plays (once with Todd on 2nd-and-10 on the second TD drive, once to McCalebb on the final possession) Auburn gained 13 yards each time. Why Malzahn has insisted on ignoring these plays over the second half of the season in favor of pass plays that have proven–time and time again–a low-percentage third-down strategy for this Auburn team, I don’t have the foggiest clue.
Turnovers. I said Auburn would have to commit none–zero–since between Mark “Never Fumbles” Ingram and Greg “4 picks All Season” McElroy, Alabama simply couldn’t be counted on to turn the ball over. And sure enough, the Tide running backs never fumbled, and McElroy never threw the interception that could have swung the game.
So when Todd fumbled the ball away and threw the overthrown pick we all knew was coming from the moment of his now-infamous miss on the slant to Trott, that was it: a 2-0 loss for Auburn in turnover margin, and, I mean, what were ever Auburn’s odds on beating that team down 2-0 in the turnover department?
McElroy. Auburn’s defense did what they had to do: they forced Greg McElroy to beat them.
Unfortunately, he was just good enough to do that. He wasn’t brilliant or anything–6.8 yards-per-pass isn’t anything to write home about–but McElroy never made the critical mistake: never threw the killer pick, never fumbled, made the correct reads when Auburn blitzed, only rarely missed the open receiver and played flawlessly on the decisive, game-winning drive.
Auburn had their troubles in special teams (that’s next on the agenda), but the biggest mismatch in this game took place at the quarterback position. Todd’s final numbers looked OK, but aside from the big completion to Adams Todd averaged just 4.19 yards an attempt, failed to complete a single pass on third down (McElroy was 3-of-3 for three conversions on ‘Bama’s final drive alone), and was responsible for both of Auburn’s crushing turnovers. Against Georgia, Todd made enough plays that I could (mostly) forgive him his mistakes; that wasn’t the case against Alabama. Not to take anything away from what has been a solid (and record-setting) season overall for Todd, but the official WBE opinion is that the difference in QB play, more than any other factor, was what cost Auburn the game.
Arenas AAAARRRGGGGHHH. Auburn kicked off deep three times: Alabama’s resulting starting field position was the 40, the 40, and the 46. Twice Auburn gave up a punt return to Arenas: the first was returned 11 yards to the Auburn 45. The second was returned 56 yards to the Auburn 33.
Sure, Arenas is as good as it gets. I cannot wait for him to get the hell out of Tuscaloosa so I can breathe on Auburn’s special teams in this game again. But no matter who the opposing returner is, you cannot allow him to have this kind of impact on a game and expect to win.
(One more quick special teams note: I’m not of the opinion that you can expect to get a huge punt or kickoff return, no matter how weak the opposition. They’re too fluky. But Auburn really, really could have used a big return against one of the worst kickoff coverage units in the nation, and even if Washington’s average of 25 yards a pop isn’t bad, it’s far from what Auburn needed in this game.)
WHAT WENT WRONG BEYOND ALL EXPECTATIONS
Field position. Look at the Tide’s numbers: 291 total yards. 2.1 yards-per-carry, a miserable 4.3 yards a play. (That latter number would have put the Tide dead-last in the SEC if sustained over a whole season. For one afternoon, Auburn’s defense turned Alabama into Vanderbilt.) Zero defensive or special teams scores.
All of which begs the question: how the hell did Alabama score 26 points? Ask me to predict a final tally based on the stats above, and I’m telling you 17 on a good day. But the Tide not only put 26 up, they could have broken 30 easily: they had a field goal blocked and botched an easy touchdown on the Ingram pass.
How? Field position, field position, field position. The Tide started four different drives in Auburn territory and a staggering eight at their own 40 or better. Not counting the aborted possession to end the first half, Alabama began one of their 12 drives inside their own 20. The Tide’s five scoring drives covered exactly one more yard than Auburn’s three, 215 to 214. You get the picture.
Auburn probably could have survived the special teams issues. Auburn probably could have survived the two turnovers. But the combination of the two? Killer. Even the best defensive performance Auburn had put together since Arkansas 2007 (yeah, I went there) wasn’t going to be enough against that kind of crushing advantage.
SO … WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
It means that by-and-large, down-to-down, Saban was right: Alabama got their asses whipped. The Tide didn’t win because of their ferocious, physical defense; Auburn’s defense was even more ferocious, more physical. The Tide didn’t win because of their punishing ground game; Auburn’s wasn’t any great shakes, the Zachery reverse aside, but it was better than theirs. The Tide didn’t win because of any supposed great coaching advanatge over Chizik, Roof, and Malzahn; Auburn appeared to be the far more focused, motivated team, and even if you call the Saban/Smart-vs-Dr. Gustav match a draw (generous, if you ask me, given what Malzahn is working with and what Smart is working with), Roof decisively outfoxed McElwain in that match-up.
This is what’s made this game simultaneously so promising and so mind-blowingly, hair-pullingly frustrating. If you’d told me ahead of time that Auburn would let Arenas run wild, lose the turnover battle, see Todd struggle, and continue to be as utterly sorry on third downs as they were, I’d have told you the Tide would win by, well, 36. But if you’d told me ahead of time that Auburn would outrush the Tide 151-73, average 1.3 yards more per-play, and score on two touchdowns of longer than 60 yards, I’d have said Auburn finds a way to win that game every time, hands-down. On the one hand, Auburn was fortunate they even had their chance in the fourth quarter; on the other, it’s amazing they found a way to let an opportunity like this slip through their grasp. This game fills me with so much hope and pride I could burst. This game makes me want to smash every window in the house and cry.
Let me be clear: all of this is not to say that Alabama didn’t deserve to win the game. They were the team that made the plays that had to be made. They were the team that had the better quarterback, that had Javier Arenas, that didn’t find a way to screw up so many third downs, that forced the fumble and made the interception. And that’s why they won.
But the line you might be hearing that the Tide wore Auburn down and the more talented team inevitably triumphed in the end … that’s bunk. Alabama was and is, certainly, the more talented team. But even acknowledging how gassed Auburn’s defense was on that final drive, the Tide won not because of some grinding, overwhelming, 11-on-11 talent advantage. They won because Auburn’s quarterback, the singular talent of Javier Arenas, and a series of third-down screwups all conspired to give the Tide offense so many scoring opportunities not even a unit that averaged 4.3 yards a play could mess all of them up.
And this is what’s promising, from the Auburn perspective. If it had been Auburn who had held the field position advantage all game, won the turnover battle, and still lost because even all of that wasn’t enough to overcome how just-plain-better the Tide were, then we couldn’t be all that confident going forward. Those kinds of gaps are tough to close, especially in a hurry. But on the evidence of this one game, at least, Auburn has just enough talent and plenty enough coaching to make the “who’s better?” question almost irrevelant; to beat Alabama, all Auburn apparently needs is mistake-free quarterbacking and for the Tide to not have Javier Arenas. That much is manageable.
That’s not to make any kind of bold prediction about next year, of course. The Tide will be at home, will be very unlikely to run the ball as poorly as they did this go-round, might catch a handful more breaks, and won’t be as susceptible to the kinds of massive offensive plays Auburn relied on Friday. But the bottom line from the analytical perspective is the same as from the emotional one: that gulf that separated these teams at the end of 2008? It’s already gone.