Okay, so: I caught the first half of the Arky State game. And what a way to kick off the season! This was the meme going in and I hesitate repeating it, but remember Christmas morning, being a kid and waiting forever for your dad to do God knows what, then scampering downstairs, turning the corner dangerously into the living room and BAM it’s all there? The Big, Amazing Thing you’d drooled over since you got your hands on the Sears catalog? The little things you’d greedily hoped for in secret? And the complete surprises that turn out to be as good or even better than you could have known or hoped for? We got that.
We got Newton going loop-de-loop around an entire defensive line before taking off downfield, raining bombs down to the goal line with hardly any effort, taking off for a 71-yard touchdown dash and outrunning the entire field in the process. I was pretty bummed when, in the first quarter, he started running and it just didn’t look like he was moving at all. Well dang, I thought, not as fast as advertised? And then, he just took off and was gone in a flash and I realized, it’s not that he’s slow, he just looks slow because he’s freaking enormous. We got a whole stable of backs looking just as dangerous as advertised, McCalebb going in between the tackles without fear and shooting around the edge with the same kind of jet pack velocity we’re used to, Dyer bursting downfield with true-freshman exuberance, like the back we all know he can be. We got Fairley blowing right up the gut to tear down the quarterback, Eltoro crashing through for more of the same.
I loved it. I love that game beyond the simple, joyous return of football. I love the 63-second-drill at the end of the half, especially the slightly goofy throw to Darvin Adams into double coverage. I love the way this team will take shots downfield almost casually, and succeed. I love Dyer’s thickness, Quindarious Carr’s speed, McCalebb’s speed and new thickness. I love Neil Caudle’s cameo and the long post that was just a couple yards from a perfect strike. I love Kodi Burns leaping, reaching out for the score and getting just inside the pylon. I love, love, love the vastly-improved kickoff coverage. That game was a hell of a ride, the perfect overture to a promising season – and there are still things yet to come, things we have not yet seen, gifts as yet unopened. I just can’t wait.
There are still kinks to be worked out, sure, such as the galling number of penalties, the issues in pass protection, Fannin’s fumble. And, especially, the defense.
There’s others who are bound to be upset by the way the defense played and yeah, that weren’t the terrifying Auburn defensive display of yore. We can say what we want – and will – about the overall team performance of Tuberville’s latter teams but one thing is for sure: they likely wouldn’t have allowed this kind of yardage and point total. This wasn’t “BOOM M________!!” Nor can I say that it’s not frustrating to see the almighty Red Wolves* seemingly run roughshod over our boys in orange and blue. But I don’t give Ted Roof, the players, or anyone, really, the blame – I give ’em all the credit.
Hear me out.
I think it was 100 percent due to the particular scheme we were running… all those blitzes with deeper coverage leaving the underneath routes wide open. I haven’t told you anything you don’t know already, but I also think that it was the right scheme, a good plan for accomplishing our goals.
And the goal in this game wasn’t only to win, or even just to successfully defend. After all, Auburn has the horses to keep the Red Wolves bottled up – they wouldn’t be able to hang with us if we just played conservatively. The goal against Arky State should have been to win in a way that maximizes the exposure and development of our players. And as such, that deluge of blitzes opening up the underneath routes, in my estimation, did two very important things.
First off, it put our safeties out into coverage and forced them to make the plays. Has any team ever had a group of safeties with as much talent, as much experience, and yet as much rust on ’em as Auburn does this year? What they needed to do was make mistakes, get a good portion of the “Oh, right” moments out of the way before they go live against an SEC offense. And likewise, to get them some live action against a team in a different colored jersey, so to let the coaches see them in action What better way to do that than to blitz like hell and let the receivers get up field? Thigpen came right out and said that he liked what he saw from Mike McNeil, and thought he should have gotten more time on the field. Let ’em get loose and make plays against Arky State when even if the defense has some epic lapses – the offense has enough firepower to bail ’em out.
Secondly, it lets our team as a whole try out the blitz. And I don’t mean a blitz, or some blitzes, or a situation plan, but to get down into the philosophy of bringing the heat and bringing it every down.
The spread offense has changed the game of football. Old-school, run-first defensive-minded football, at its essential level, is a game of two teams failing until one of them succeeds, usually by accumulating enough good field position through strong defense and effective special teams to give the offense enough of a chance to score. In the spread game, however, it’s much more akin to two teams waiting for the other to slip up – if both offenses are able to score on many if not most of their possessions, whoever makes the first or the most or the most critical mistakes on offense loses. The trick for a head coach installing the spread seems to be in selecting a proper defense; because of the ability and design of the spread to score quickly and score often, the crucial plays have to be made while defending. You can’t just hang on. You have to make them fail.
A blitz-heavy, attacking defense could be an effective solution. After all, what else does a blitz do but force the offense to play quick and make decisions under fire? Seems to me that it’s better to force your opponent into mistakes, rather than waiting for them to do it on their own. Case in point: in 2007, the Golden Gophers defense was one of the worst in the entire nation. In 2008, under Ted Roof’s tutelage, the defense did improve its rushing, passing and scoring totals by a decent amount, but what really leaps off the screen is: 7th in the nation for fumbles caused, 11th for all turnovers, top-25 in sacks and tackles for loss despite having been completely in the tank just a year before. That’s more than a simple predilection for blitzes, more than being aggressive as a matter of style. It’s clear that Roof lives for the attack. He’s not going to bend until you break, he’s not going to slowly smother your offense, he doesn’t out-bean count you in the field position game – he wants to rip the ball right out of your hands. And he’s willing to gamble to do it.
Last year, we weren’t able to execute Roof’s vision because of our thoroughly depleted roster. After all, you can’t tell your linebackers to sprint into the backfield on every other down when they’re playing almost every snap. Now, with a replenished D-line and depth at linebacker, we can actually let the starters take a breather and the Plainsmen can really pin their ears back. We seem to have the personnel to at least run the scheme. But just as importantly, all the players have to be on board – blitzers can’t be worrying about the coverage while they fly to the point of attack, can’t be distracted from the task of six, seven, eight hats in the backfield. The blitz has to be as much a part of their defensive soul as it is for Roof’s. And when you go an entire year almost without blitzing at all, how could that heat be part of your defensive psyche? The way I see it, the best way to blood our troops and inculcate them with Roof’s hyper-aggressive philosophy – mind body and soul – would be to schedule a lesser opponent and then blitz, blitz, blitz and blitz again – send ’em all downhill and wring out any hesitation that may still linger.
Maybe we gave up more yards and more points to Arkansas State than anyone would have enjoyed – you, me, the coaches and the Toro included. And it certainly remains to be seen how we’ll hold up against Mississippi State. But if this game has served to stoke the kind of chaotic fire that Roof is hoping will rage across the Plains, then those were points and yards well spent.
* If you have an animal mascot and you have to preface it with a color, it kind of sucks out all the verisimilitude…. Golden Gophers excepted because that’s just kind of cool. And there’s not much verisimilitude to a gopher, anyway.
John Magruder is a doctor or something, somewhere up North. He has been going to Auburn games since before he was born. He was in –Legion Field- utero when Bo went over the top. Some mothers play Mozart to their developing progeny. John was raised on the roars of the Tiger faithful. You can chart his growth with his fantastic column, God, Girl, Grill, Gridiron, and write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.