Every college football fan gripes about consistency. Every team everywhere has off-weeks. Every team everywhere has a quarterback or offensive line or set of safeties that look fit to beat the world for a half, a week, a month, and then suddenly look like boiled crap at what is always the worst possible time. So Auburn fans are not alone.
But I’m starting to wonder if the Chizik era really is becoming the model of inconsistency, if we Auburn fans really do, in fact, have even more reason to complain than most. Last year we had one team for the first five games, a second one for three games, and then a third for the final five. This year so far we’ve played two games; in one, our offense racked up 600-plus yards and 52 points while the defense gave up yards in bunches, and in the other, the defense held a dynamic, well-coached offense to 14 points and fewer than 250 yards in their own stadium while the offense went an entire half without scoring and put up just 17 points themselves.
In a word: AAAAAARRRGGGGHHHH. Look, I can handle worrying over my football team. But at this point, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be worried about. The sputtering, suddenly identity-challenged offense? The panic attack-inducing defense, which even when it plays well always seems on the verge of some catastrophe and hasn’t yet faced a serious threat from a well-executed downfield passing attack? Neither, since Auburn is–after all–2-0 with a solid SEC road win already under their belts? (Don’t forget that an awful lot of smart people expected Auburn to lose that game last night.) Both, since a win over Arkansas St. was mere formality and the one over State one dropped pass away from serious doubt?
Like I said: I don’t know. But regardless of what I’m supposed to worry about, what I do find myself worrying over is the inconsistency. We know what this offense is capable of; after last night, we know what the defense is capable of. The Arkansas St. game is why we’re so upset about the offense’s performance in Starkville; the defense’s performance in Starkville is an even greater indictment of the ASU game than anything we’ve said about it. If we get both the erratic, mistake-hampered, confused-looking offense from last night and the poor-tackling, coverage-shy defense from the opener at the same time, the results are not going to be pretty. And even getting one of the two will probably be enough to ensure doom against the Arkansas’s and South Carolina’s of the world, much less the Tide.
But there’s a flip side to that equation, to. It’s like a Punnett square–maybe neither you nor I have blonde hair, but if one of our parents did, we can still have a blonde kid. Just because we haven’t seen what happens when both the offense and defense are on their game–the lower right corner of the square, where we get “OD” as opposed to “Od” or “oD” or, horrors, “od”–doesn’t mean we’re not going to see it at some point. I’ve come back time and again to the wisest thing anything said about Auburn’s 2009 season, Dr. Jolley’s comments on the midseason swoon, and I come back to them again today:
Auburn fans need not to ask, What have you done for me lately? But rather, What have you shown me is possible?
Auburn has, unfortunately, shown that a very poor overall performance is possible. But they have also shown that a victory over any team on the schedule is possible. The defense from last night combined with the lethal attack we saw Week 1, at the beginning of last season, against Ole Miss last October? That is a team that, as the saying goes, can play with anyone. The potential is there. We’re not just idly hoping for it any more, the way we did all offseason. Now we’ve seen it. Now Auburn just has to turn that awesome potential into something kinetic. We’ll power the program to those 10 wins. We’ll power the program for years, maybe.
So, to sum, I don’t blame anyone for getting frustrated over the offense. We didn’t know they were capable of that. But that frustration has to be matched with at least as much enthusiasm for what the defense accomplished. The floor for this team might have sunk a bit. But the ceiling has also been raised, and I don’t have any doubt at all that this team’s best performances are still ahead of it.
Other assorted observations
— Like everyone else, I had steam coming out of my ears as Auburn walked up to the line and wound the clock down throughout the second half. We’ve been promised a Gus Malzahn offense, and whatever else it might have been, that was not a Gus Malzahn offense. However, two points:
1. If Auburn was going to throw the brakes on the offense, wasn’t that just about the perfect time to do it? It’s a Thursday game following a Saturday evening game where the defense faced 84 snaps; the D had been on the field for six possessions in the first half, including back-to-backers after the Carr muff; and then they started the second half giving up a 12-play, 6-minute touchdown drive, then going right back on the field after the onsides kick. No doubt they needed the breathers, and particularly since we know preserving those guys’ stamina isn’t just an in-game goal but a season-long one, doesn’t it make some sense to have taken preventative measures now?
2. Of course the offense’s second-half performance was a disappointment. To cross the State 40 four times (all four times) and come away with a grand total of jack squat is a terrible, terrible job of finishing drives. But it’s not like this was a Franklin-style festival of three-and-outs, either. The Tigers burned off 6:16 (!), 3:06, 2:18, and 4:11 on their four drives and ran 30 plays. The offense didn’t exactly do its job, but it’s also incorrect to say it didn’t make a solid contribution to the defense’s game-winning effort.
— I know this is going to sound crazy coming from an Auburn fan, but … shouldn’t Auburn throw the ball a bit more? Though I know sacks (MSU had two) and scrambles throw off the numbers a bit, Auburn passed only 21 times compared to 46 rushing attempts. More than once after the first-half pick, it felt like Malzahn just didn’t trust Newton to make the downfield throws he’d attempted (and largely succeeded on) Week 1. Some of that was also State playing deep–Mullen mentioned he didn’t want to give up that kind of huge play–but Auburn has to find some way to get the ball to Zachery and Adams. They’re too good to finish with a combined 70 receiving yards, and Newton’s arm is too strong for him to finish averaging just 7.5 an attempt (especially when his longest completion came courtesy of Emory Blake).
— I have to say that Luper’s 1,000-yard guarantee for Fannin is in some pretty serious trouble. I’m not one who wants Fannin to move back to H-back full-time–the run that got called back for Greene’s idiotic hold is proof that he can still make serious, positive contributions from the tailback spot, and of course that killer blitz pickup means he’s a must on passing downs–but Dyer’s just the more decisive back right now when it comes to carrying the ball.
— A shout-out to Jeff Grimes for having Brandon Mosley ready to play last night. Once again the line was more “good” than “dominant,” but it wasn’t Mosley (I don’t think) getting beaten for sacks or committing silly holding penalties. (Still: please come back soon, Lee.)
— The muffed punt, the blocked field goal, and the onsides failure are some pretty serious black marks, sure. But Auburn averaged more per punt return and about 10 yards more per kick return last night. Shoemaker’s 33-yard net is kind of lousy, but he also put two critical punts right at the 10-yard line for fair catches. Special teams ain’t there yet. But if Carr can make this a fluke rather than a trend, I still think they’re moving in the right direction.
— In the same vein, Auburn committed only four penalties, and one of those was an intentionally-drawn delay of game to give Shoemaker more room for a punt. Yes, the other three were all absolute killers–the illegal formation that canceled out a first-half first-and-goal, the Greene hold to negate a first down inside the 15, the pass interference on Thorpe to bail MSU out of 3rd-and-15 on their final drive–but still, three “real” penalties is a damn sight better than what we’ve usually seen from Chizik’s Tigers. All I ask for is improvement, and for a week, at least, we got it.
— I asked for Auburn to convert two-thirds of their third downs last night. They went 6-of-14 instead, including failures on two 3rd-and-1’s and one 3rd-and-3. Blecch.
Your bottom line
The defense is getting all the accolades today, and they deserve every freaking one of them. Did you know State averaged just 3.6 yards-per-play? That’s a tiny, tiny number, smaller than they averaged in any single game last year, even smaller than what they managed against the ’09 Tide. Obviously the Bulldog receivers’ hands of [pick your rock-like building material of choice] played a role in that, but that’s still phenomenal defense, especially on the road, especially against a team whose option/short-passing game I thought was a terrible matchup for Auburn.
Of course, it helped the defense, too, that the offense wasn’t doing its usual thing. This is the big question facing Auburn’s coaching staff going forward: if the Arkansas St. game is too far in one direction for the offense, and the MSU game is too far in the other, how do they find that balance? I know a lot of Auburn fans feel like it’s already time to jump off the big-season bandwagon, but the offense has played one bad half out of four and the defense one bad half out of four; is that so bad? The two colossal special teams blunders hurt, but overall, Auburn was the decisively better team last night: they outgained State by more than 100 total yards and a good-sized 1.6 yards a play. And hell, man, they won. On the road. Against a well-coached team. That wanted this one and wanted it very, very badly. There’s negatives, sure, but there’s a hell of a lot of positives. Last year the Mississippi State game was the best game Auburn would play all season; I’m more than fine knowing that’s not the case this year.
So: it’s my opinion that if–or when–they can cut down on the special teams gaffes, find the proper balance with the offensive tempo, and maintain some of the defensive improvement, everything we want for this team is still very much in play.
Photo by Van Emst.