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The Mississippi St. recap, charting and analysis

He runs! He blocks! He makes special teams tackles! He does it all! He's Emory Blake!

THE NUMBERS

If this is your first season here at WBE, each week (when Auburn’s not playing on Thursday, anyway) I rewatch the game and chart how each player performs. Positive plays get pluses, negative ones minuses, average/routine plays (i.e. the overwhelming majority of plays) get nothing, really big plays–like Nick Fairley’s interception or Quindarius Carr’s muff. (The offensive line, downfield secondary coverage, and special teams are graded as a unit; routine catches by receivers are filed under the “hands report.”) Then I add ’em all up and see what we get. It’s not perfect, but it’s something. Here’s what I got for the Mississippi State game:

Fairley +11, “Coverage” +5, “Line” +3, Dyer +3, Newton +3, Blanc +3, Freeman +3, Savage +2, Etheridge +2, Blake +2, McNeil +2, Fannin +2, McCalebb +1, Adams +1, Eguae +1, Clayton +1, Zachery +1, Goggans +1, Lemonier 0, Bynes 0 , Bell 0, Evans 0, Bates 0, Thorpe -1, Smith -1, Burns -1, Carter -4, “Special teams” -6.

I thought I’d also try something new and chart a “playcall” rating for the two coordinators; there are lots of plays where a play works or fails not because of anything incredible the players do or don’t do, but just because the call from the sidelines puts the opponent in a particular bind. (The Blake touchdown, for instance, got its first 10-15 yards because of Zachery’s incredible block … but it went for a touchdown because Malzahn caught Diaz in a blitz. A lot of State’s success on the swing pass to Bumphis occurred on plays where Auburn just wasn’t in a position to do anything about it.) Putting everything together, I got:

Playcall: +2

The problem is that since I haven’t done this before, I’ve got nothing to compare it to. (And in retrospect, I should have split out Malzahn’s calls from Roof’s.) We’ll see what we get next week and check back. Also:

Hands Report: 10/10 “routine,” 2/2 “makeable,” 0/2 “difficult.”

i.e. Auburn caught 10 of their 10 possible routine balls, but neither of two passes that would have been difficult catches but not totally impossible.

ANALYSIS

— I haven’t been doing this for too terribly long–I started at the midpoint of 2008–but I’ll almost positive Fairley’s +11 is the highest score I’ve recorded for an individual player. It’s worth noting, though, that it wasn’t just the sacks and turnovers–Fairley also made a couple of plays defending the run, including one outstanding tackle on an option play late in the game. To get this kind of production out of a DT is … well, it’s the sort of thing that leads to one of the country’s best rushing attacks a year ago to get one scoring drive longer than 20 yards and only 14 total points at home. If Fairley can stay at even half this level of play, Auburn’s D is going to be fine. (Of course, he may wind up taking the Pat Sims comparisons all the way and declaring early if that’s the case, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.)

— The nice thing is that Fairley was hardly alone in excelling in the tackle rotation. I’m sort of bothered that Tracy Rocker got to talk to the press last night, since his effusive praise for Mike Blanc stole a bit of my thunder, but I’ll spell it out anyway: Blanc has been very, very good off the bench, in both pursuit and in the pass rush. I wonder if for whatever reason he’s just better-suited for a come-in-to-provide-a-spark role, since he also did some good things as a backup in 2008. Clayton wasn’t dominant, but he had his fair share of moments as well.

The one demerit for the tackles: the back-to-back plays on the goal line in the third, where State blew apart the left side of the line on back-to-back plays.

— While we’re discussing the defensive line, it was a better performance for Michael Goggans, who seemed much more active than he had been against Arkansas St. But boy oh boy, Antoine Carter is not going to want to see an option team again any time soon. Again and again Carter either ignored the fullback completely as he galloped for big yardage, got dragged for five yards after arriving late, or couldn’t keep contain on Relf when that responsibility fell to him. He also didn’t have a lot of luck against the State tackles; even that half-sack he was awarded was a gift from the scorers when he piled on after Fairley had done the hard work. Not his best performance at all, but against a more conventional offensive team (and one without a Derek Sherrod), I’m sure he’ll bounce back.

— Sorry, folks, but on the basis of this game at least, Newton’s not there yet as a downfield passer. He completed only 11 passes and of those 11, 9 were either check-downs or swings. The other two? The touchdown to Adams and the third-quarter throw to Adams over the middle. Or, put another way, only one more downfield pass than he completed to Mississippi State.

Now, there’s a few mitigating circumstances: 1. Some of that seemed to be by design on Malzahn’s conservative part 2. he could have used a little more help from his receivers on a handful of plays when he dropped back, had time, and found no one to throw to 3. State was fully committed to cutting off Auburn’s deep throws, as evidenced by the interception and the three players surrounding Adams at the time. It’s true that Newton didn’t throw a lot of inaccurate balls downfield; he barely threw any balls downfield, period. But he threw a couple, including one total howler on the pick, and whether it’s out of fear or poor reads or blanketed receivers or whatever, two downfield completions over the course of an entire game isn’t enough.

— The good news? Newton was excellent on the routine throws: every swing was on the money, the check-downs right in the back’s gut. He missed on one simple out route to Blake on the doomed end-of-first-half drive, but that was it.

— The other end of that equation was solid as well, as Auburn didn’t drop any–any–routine catches, or even makeable ones. Unless you want to ding Burns for that play where he got clobbered (or Adams for bobbling the touchdown reception for a split-second), hands weren’t an issue.

— The offensive line had its moments, but they seemed to mostly come in pass protection, or on draws, or the sweeps to either side. Interior run-blocking, however, will have to get better; Auburn got nothing testing MSU in the middle. (Some of that, admittedly, was White, the MSU linebacker; best game for an opposing linebacker I’ve charted since Sam Maxwell was going bananas for Kentucky last season.) Pernell McPhee is a handful, but Auburn’s probably going to face some better tackle pairings down the road, too.

Individually, Brandon Mosley wasn’t perfect (and wasn’t Lee Ziemba), but he more than held his own and was responsible for a coupel of well-executed seal blocks on outside runs to his side. The biggest Achilles heel for the line, in my opinion, was Mike Berry. Line play is one of those things I feel a little hesitant in offering definitive opinions on, but it seemed like it was Berry’s man, time and again, who was responsible for making a tackle to hold a gain down or pressuring Newton or just clogging things up. I’d pay good money to ask Jeff Grimes what he thought about Berry’s performance, but from here, callin’ ’em as I see ’em, Berry was subpar.

— No question about it in my mind: Eltoro Freeman was our best linebacker Thursday night. Very aggressive in eluding blockers and attacking the line-of-scrimmage. By comparison, Bynes had a really quiet night for a guy who never left the field, with few plays where he was obviously out-of-position or getting blown up, but also very few where he made more than a routine tackle.

Bates and Evans weren’t on the field all that much thanks to the rotation and State’s preference for three- and four-wide sets, but neither did a whole lot while they were on, either. A little bit disappointing for Bates after the solid debut against ASU.

— For all of my huffing and puffing about defending short passes, Auburn has done an excellent job this year of shutting down deep passes; State’s longest completion was 22 yards, and that was the little play-action flip to an RB out of the backfield. 3.7 yards an attempt is a tiny, miniscule number, even for a team as run-and-screen based as the Bulldogs. The straight busts from the safeties that we saw Week 1? Not there this week. I don’t know if Savage and Etheridge were the “200 percent better” Thigpen promised, but they got a lot of the way there, and if Thorpe isn’t nearly as active against the run as I’d like (or Ted Roof would like, according to the announcers), he and Washington are doing something right in coverage.

Yes, the drops helped.

— McCalebb picked up a +1 on a busted option play to start the long drive that opened the second half, but other than that, neither he nor Fannin gained any yardage the blocking and playcall didn’t earn them, I didn’t think. (To be fair, McCalebb’s speed in reaching the corner isn’t something I account for, though.) Meanwhile, Dyer wound up with a +3 on 9 carries. If I have one game to win tomorrow, there’s no question who I want carrying the ball 20 times.

With that said, anyone burying Mario Fannin needs to think again. Fannin does so many things well: he blows up blitzers, he catches the ball for solid yardage, he even blocks downfield when someone else is doing the running. And in fact, he did all of those things against State. Auburn needs him out there and needs him badly

— I thought Burns was oddly passive as an edge blocker, multiple times getting to his man and then just standing in front of him rather that trying to actually shove him around. It looked like he’d been coached to do that–maybe because, with his back to the play, he doesn’t know the way McCalebb or whoever might cut?–but it still looked from here like a little more physicality (to get all announcer on you) could have earned Auburn some big extra yards here and there.

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