–Your broadcast probably varied from mine, but out in the wilds of the Mountain Time Zone, the “pregame” on ESPN GamePlan consisted of about seven minutes of automated score and stat updates set to a KILLER GUITAR RIFF that repeated over and over again and by about minute four seemed to be laughing at me for the dramatic increase in blood pressure I was experiencing because WHERE THE HELL IS MY GAME, DAMMIT.
Then finally we had a camera shot that was 94 percent orange-and-blue shakers, and all was right with the world.
— Announcers for this year’s Saturday night “SEC Network” broadcast: Bob Rathbun and Tim “Yes, that Tim Couch” Couch. I’m always pleased to be in the hands of old pro Rathbun (that he earns his paycheck calling the SEC’s off-off-Broadway matchups and Atlanta Hawks games while Mike Patrick calls national games for ABC and ESPN is a crime worthy of the Hague), but Couch will have a little bit of work to do to match the standard set in this assignment last year by Dave Archer of Three Daves 2.0 “fame.” He’ll have to be a better announcer than he was professional quarterback, anyway, not that that would be hard ZING!
— Arky St. takes Byrum’s kickoff at the goal line, returns it to … the 13! Emory Blake with the tackle! Competent kickoff coverage say WHAT?!? EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT THIS YEAR AND WE WILL WIN.
— Well, the Red Wolves pick up a quick first down on an out route against soft coverage, so maybe not everything has changed. ASU QB Ryan Aplin makes a great play on 3rd-and-10 to pick up another one, but OC Hugh Freeze (who you might remember from The Blind Side/Coach O’s Ole Miss staff) decides to spend the following first and second downs handing off to a white running back, and since he’s not Tre Smith the results are predictable. They punt.
— Quindarius Carr fields a bouncing ball on the punt–one well on its way to being downed at the 2–and returns it the 20. Chances that happens last year: 0.34 percent, about 36 percent behind “let ball bounce to 6, then attempt to pick ball up, fumble.” I find the change refreshing.
— Newton’s first pass … complete! Nice touch on a roll-out to get the ball to Adams, first down. Newton’s second pass … well, there is no second pass, as Newton gets a little jittery on 3rd-and-five and scrambles out of what was a perfectly intact pocket into an easy tackle. I know Dr. Gustav’s offense is fairly simple, but Cam did have more than one progression there, right? Auburn punts, Darvin Adams with the tackle on the return. I thought we’d pulled the really valuable guys off the special teams units? I guess that ignores the fact that on the punt coverage team, Darvin Adams is already really, really valuable.
— Oh heavens. Both Etheridge and Washington attempt to cover the running back in the flat and leave a receiver totally uncovered behind them–I’m fairly sure this is on Etheridge–and Aplin hits him for 60 yards. Pass for 6, pass for 4, run for 2, run for loss of -1 to set up 3rd-and-10 … Touchdown? Dammit. Pretty sweet pass from Aplin, though, between Bynes (who got caught up with the umpire as he drifted back) and the late-arriving McNeil. Oh well, Auburn’s not the first heavy favorite today to fall behind early. And hey, Blanc blocks the extra point. I’m OK, you’re OK.
— Auburn starts the next possession with Newton unnecessarily bouncing a zone read outside, forcing Eric Smith to hold his man to keep him off of him. 2nd-and-15, Newton goes deep, Adams drops it. I am suddenly much less OK.
— And on 3rd-and-14 … a called quarterback draw?!? And … it works?!? 16 yards for Newton, easy as you like. On a scale of 1 to 10, I wonder how nice Malzahn would say it is to have that as an option. Probably “67.” McCalebb takes an option pitch for 35 yards to the 3, Burns runs a sweep out of the Wildcat, dives, TOUCHDOWN, AUBURN! 7-6, and the world makes sense again.
— That is also more like it: Nick Fairley sacks Aplin for a loss of 14, three-and-out, first down Auburn at the ASU 36, Newton going long, Fannin, wheel route, TOUCHDOWN, 14-6! I swear I’ve taken longer to pour myself a cup of coffee than it took Auburn to go from scoring on their last possession to scoring on this one. I’ve had sneezes that lasted longer, conversations with telemarketers, complete listens to Blur’s “Song 2,” you name it. Good thing we’re told that Newton visited the defense to “pass the baton”; motivation maybe helps when you’re still gasping for breath?
–Looks like it; after one first down (against some seriously downy-soft coverage), Aplin throws incomplete twice and ASU punts. Hey, Rathbun and Couch? If we’re going to really going to play up this whole “Auburn Tebow” thing, we need you to give him the credit for the defense’s stop, please. He totally earned it!
— Michaelke Dyer’s first carry … he stiff-arms his way to the corner and picks up a first down. Sweet. He is, as we have been promised, built like a particularly muscular fire hydrant. Or, as a commenter recently suggested, Dwight Howard squished into a 5’8″ frame. The odds that he does not succeed as an Auburn running back if he remains healthy are somewhere between my chances of winning the lottery and becoming Emperor of the planet Zurgtroid One, which doesn’t even exist. That’s how good his odds are, I’m saying.
— Mike Berry whiffs on a block on a nice-developing Zachery reverse, loss of 6. Then he gets himself mentally ready to make up for his mistake, really focuses, gears up to destroy ASU on this very next snap … and false starts. Auburn punts two plays later. Thanks, Mike.(Oh, for 34 yards. ASU starts at their own 46. Thanks, Ryan.)
— Auburn forces their first coverage sack of the year as it takes Carter a good five or six seconds to reach Aplin. Couch says the pressure got there too fast for Aplin to hit his open receivers. No, Tim, I know it sounds strange to give Auburn’s secondary any credit the way they’ve played thus far, but that is the opposite of correct. ASU goes three-and-out.
— Newton drops back on 2nd-and-5, and this is the absolutely bonkers scramble where he avoids, let’s count … one, two, three, four, five, six tackles–not an exaggeration–and picks up 16 yards. I bet a lot of people would say “that’s like something out of a video game,” but not really, because I’ve never seen anyone do anything like that even on XBox. That play needed lithium it was so insane.
— Just to make sure we don’t get our bearings too quickly, Malzahn chooses the very next play to put Burns in the Wildcat, have him hand off to McCalebb, have O-Mac pitch to Neil Caudle, and have Caudle throw a bomb to the 2 to Adams. Honestly, I don’t blame Rathbun and Couch for being so confused they suddenly think Kodi Burns–who they’re crediting for the pass–has had a dramatic change in skin coloration. Newton plunges in at it’s a TOUCHDOWN! 21-6 Auburn, and now we’re in the loose-and-fun part of the game! All clear sailing from here!
— Maybe not; Cody Parkey has to make the tackle on the kickoff return at around the 40. At least he seems unusually sure in the tackle for a true freshman kicker who we all remember looked like a grade-schooler in his Rivals mug.
— OK, definitely not: Aplin hits this annoying Frampton guy down the seam, directly between the safeties. 20 yards, first down at Auburn’s 34. If we’re going to play soft coverage underneath, can’t we at least stop the downfield passes instead? Another first down two plays later on a simple out route. (Well thrown, again, but still.) Two plays later Aplin scrambles for 13 as Jessel Curry bites just a bit on a pump-fake Aplin uncorks 5 yards downfield. Sigh. At least we’re getting the younger guys some run.
— Next play, sweep left, Eguae sealed and Curry blasted out of the way, but a clear shot for Etheridge to hold the gain to two or three … and a total whiff. Touchdown, 21-13. Auburn, the rest of this game was for relaxing. This was not in the script, sirs. Auburn had backups on the field at both linebacker and the d-line for the first time, which is not exactly an encouraging sign for keeping the starters out of exhaustion levels later this season, hmm?
— GamePlan takes us to a halftime studio show even though there’s nearly seven minutes left in the quarter. We come back to find we’ve missed the kickoff. DOES EVERYONE HAVE TO SUCK?
— The Auburn offense does not: McCalebb for 9, Newton for 7, Newton deep to Carr TOUCHDOWN. Holy crap, that was fast … again. On replay, this is a ridiculously good pass by Newton–drops straight down smack into Carr’s arms at the 2, no chance for the defending corner. As debuts go, this is Boston quality.
— OK, defense, your turn. No, your turn NOT to suck, dammit! Pass for 3, pass for 15 plus facemask, pass for 13 more, first down on the Auburn 28. I hate to pour fuel on the Ted Roof fire, but this last play is a swing to the left where it’s 2-on-1 with Thorpe against both a blocker and the ball carrier, and I’m guessing Freeman assigned to cover the flat, since he hauls butt in that direction after biting on a play fake. But even if he’d sprinted out there at the snap, he doesn’t get there in time, probably, and otherwise you’re asking Thorpe to both fight off the block and tackle without any help. This is just not a defensive call that will succeed against this offensive set very often.
— 3rd-and-9 now, at least. HEY A BLITZ THAT DOESN’T GET ANY PRESSURE FIRST DOWN LET’S THROW A PARTY.
— Thankfully, Freeze goes back to the run (which has fizzled all night, the touchdown run excepted) to set up 3rd-and-6, and Aplin misses. Field goal good, 28-16 Auburn. That’s four drives of 35 yards or more and three scoring possessions of 55 yards or longer. I know the offense is barely giving them time to breathe, but come on, guys.
— 2nd-and-13 after a blown snap count and Fannin run for two–which, where he’s been other than the TD reception I have no idea–but here goes Newton on a QB scramble … and dude, where’s my defense? … and holy crap, man, he’s goign to score without even being touched! Without even being in the same zip code as “touched”! TOUCHDOWN! 35-13! Replay shows a flood of receivers to the right, and no one with a prayer of ctaching Newton once he breaks loose to the left. I’m going to assume Malzahn designed it that way, because that makes him that much more awesome and who wants to just chalk it up to “busted play”?
Couch says Newton is “Vince Young with a Daunte Culpepper arm,” which, sounds … you know what? It sounds totally, 100 percent accurate. I mean that. Almost.
— OK, so a hold on the kickoff backs up the Red Wolves inside their own 10, and if Auburn can’t get a stop this time, I’d advise Ted Roof to come out for the second half wearing a helmet. Fortunately for his continued efforts to not look silly, a big tackle by Etheridge forces a three-and-out.
— Two timeouts and a return by Carr give Auburn the ball at ASU’s 49 with 1:03 remaining. Pass to Zachery for 9. Newton draw–including cuh-razy juke for a guy of his size–for 10. Newton scramble for 19, first down at the 11. Incompletion. Free play; incompletion. Screen to Fannin … uh-oh. Lots of green behind the one guy who slipped through, but Fannin can’t get past him and is tackled in-bounds. Come on guys, snap it . Snap it. Stupid official, get out of the way! BLEAAARRGGHHHH.
— Chizik is less than happy in his sideline interview, as you’d hope. Overall, though, 35 points is exactly what you want from the offense in a game like this, even allowing for the screw-up at the end; the 16 points allowed, not so much. Chizik says they’ll get it together. Let’s hope so.
Photo by Van Emst.