Is it just me, or does it seem like every week is the one in which we really — really — learn what these Tigers are made of?
Or, perhaps, every week so far has offered distinct challenges, challenges which our team has met, every time:
• The valley of the cowbell, for any chance at relevance, any hope of success — check.
• Versus ACC sleeper Clemson and their powerful backfield, with our offense still bumping down the runway — check.
• Against what may be the best team in the SEC East, then-# 12 and then-stout against the rush South Carolina, led by a brilliant performance by Stephen Garcia — check.
• Kentucky, scrappy and trappy, with an offense tuned and calibrated to give our defense fits, in Lexington, new and better UK coach — check.
• The Hogs, led by the legend, Ryan Mallett, the Mallett-clone who took over for him, with a top-20 defense completing the picture, and with the game spiraling out of control into a shootout to end all SEC shootouts…
Check. And with that, add these to the list of challenges: “bona-fide SEC champion contender,” “genuine Heisman contender on the team,” and “honest-to-God national title aspirations behind only a mid-major who won’t play anyone the whole rest of the season, an Oregon team facing a tough Pac-10 stretch, and Oklahoma in front.” That old threadbare phrase rings true: We truly control our own destiny.
This is when, as a lifelong Auburn fan, I start to get nervous.
Auburn is a dark horse, a Rocky, a Sigurd pushing his sword up to the hilt in Fafnir’s belly, a Beowulf alone with the demon under the lake — the warrior out of nowhere raging to victory. And while that’s Auburn Mythology 101, our teams do seem to play better when they are staring up at a smug and lolling giant, when the world dismisses us, when they yell “You’re a bum!” in our faces. Maybe the Auburn story is supposed to end, like any good tale, when the hero achieves validation. For whatever reason, Auburn’s football success seems to drop off when that story ends. Maybe it’s just because I really came of football age in Tubby’s era. But I still start to get nervous.
(Granted, I’d rather have that story than certain others that seem to begin with validation and then proceed into the world fawning on the victors for the rest of eternity. Even beyond the fact that it doesn’t reflect reality, it’s just a really bad story.)
Thus far under Chizik, the Plainsmen have staked their name on never being out of a contest, on absorbing all kinds of ugly blows and popping back up for more, getting to their feet with another punch ready to throw. If they weren’t so good at that, well, we wouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place — all our wins against quality teams have been achieved by some eye-popping, late-game surge. It’s just what Gene’s teams seem to do. Stick-to-it-iveness is our MO, and one that is distinctly Auburn, and through it we have met every challenge and will contend in every game. But now that the season is about to be two-thirds over, there are certain things from which the tigers cannot recover. You know how every Friday Preview has “success is/failure is: a win/loss” in it? How much more true does that ring, now that we have very real aspirations for the crystal football? A single loss is going to end this staggering run, as there just are not enough games left to climb back into the polls, and Atlanta will fall out of reach, and we’ll be looking at a very good bowl game.
Don’t get me wrong: Two years removed from the Tony Franklin Catastrophe, Tubby’s firing, and “5 and 19 Gene,” going 10-2 or 11-1 would be simply astronomical. Taking only a loss or two in the tail-end of a season that contains the defending national champions and the #6-ranked LSU Tigers would be worth remembering in and of itself. But these instances of genuine contendership come about once a decade for Auburn, and rarely emerge without some damning caveat. In 1983, we were on the wrong side of the polls until the last, worst possible moment. In 1993, we were unbeatable, and ineligible. In 2004 (do we have to revisit 2004?) — Auburn never gets their shot without being hobbled by some technicality. And now, out of nowhere, this season. The Tigers are on the right side of the rulebook and the computers, and gaining momentum in the polls, and have the firepower to take every tilt into the fourth quarter. When these chances come along, they must be seized.
Forget LSU. Forget the prospect of facing, for the first time this season, a true SEC team: juggernaut defense with a madman at the helm. Forget the looming clash with Alabama, the shadow of the Georgia dome that is cast upon our season. Auburn has been so good at taking punches, at getting back to their feet with a fist rocketing straight at the opponent’s jaw. Forget that. That’s not going to be enough anymore.
The new challenge is: never hit the canvas.
Part of the fun of Spread Sheets — for me, at least — is seeing what kind of patterns emerge from the games. The Arkansas game was a classic shootout and the charts reflect that, with the game swinging wildly from one team to another until someone slips up. Check out the charts here:
One refinement of my technique to point out: The topo maps are no longer based on averages (or, arithmetic means.) This was done to avoid the scenario that Stephen Garcia presented us, earlier this season, whereby a couple of brilliant throws skewed his average and destroyed the basis of comparison. So now, the charts are much easier to compare, one to the other, and in fact are pretty much additive to one another. For instance, the chart for when Auburn has the ball and the chart for when Arkansas has the ball, taken together, give us the chart of the whole game from Auburn’s perspective.
I’m going to reboot Spread Sheets in the next few days and by that I mean, I’m going to make a post that explains my methodology and reasoning, and gives a more clear picture of how to read the charts. Stay tuned.
Now, since we mentioned slipping up … one of the biggest disappointments for me has been Mario Fannin’s recurrent fumbleitis. When your running backs coach comes right out and predicts 1,000 yards for the guy, without reservation, it’s frustrating to watch him fumble at the worse possible times. Such as, when it would kill a promising drive in the cradle. Or, when it would (er, should) negate an essential touchdown. Think about what a goal-line fumble would (well, should) have done there, had the Hogs recovered, to Auburn’s chances for success. One outside run to Ronnie Wingo and a few 15-yard completions later and Arkansas would be in Auburn territory looking at a field goal, worst case, when Auburn had all but been assured of seven on the scoreboard. And it would be business as usual for the Razorbacks versus our boys on the Plains. Another year, another ambush, another tusk in the belly.
I’m not saying it would have definitely happened that way, and yes, even if you give Arky a 10-point swing should they have recovered the ball, the Tigers still ought to have won by a comfortable 12 points. But what an opportunity to run us right through the heart.
The flipside of our good fortune this season has been that our opponents have had few genuine opportunities to break us quite so wide open. That ball, bouncing backward from the goal line, was a big, fat, glistening opportunity for Arkansas to play their customary heartbreaker role. We escaped, but how did that happen? To Auburn? We never catch a break of that magnitude. And if fate is kind, why did it choose that moment to forgive Mario for a fumble that — be honest — we had all held our breath for?
Regardless of the touchdown, my first instinct was to think, “That ought to be his last fumble” if you know what I mean. But Mario will continue to be in our backfield and well that he should. His skill set is simply not duplicated on our team, as he can be counted on reliably to pass protect, catch that nifty little wheel for huge gains, and yes, run both with speed and physical authority. Other team members may be faster, may be better pure rushers, may be slightly better receivers, but none has all those tricks on his belt at once. If there is any one single concept that pounds the pistons under the hood of the Gus Bus, it’s having players fill multiple roles from diverse locations — passer/rusher, receiver/blocker, receiver/passer, receiver/rusher/blocker. We need Mario. And we need him to get carries, to keep rotating roles to which the defense must adjust. As much as you and I hold our breath when he barrels out of the backfield, ball in a single hand, the defense has got to be holding theirs even longer.
Inexorably, the ball broke the plane. Fate, karma — whatever you want to call it. It was there, down in the grass and chalk of Jordan-Hare. Why? Who knows. In Beowulf, there’s a line that goes, “Wyrd often saves an undoomed hero as long as his courage is good.” Keep your courage Fannin. Just put two hands on the ball.
As for other stars aligning — how about that Cam Newton? Every game he plays approaches ever closer to the Malzahnian Platonic Ideal. For all that the coaches are touting their willingness to adjust his offense to nonmobile pocketslingers, Malzahn wants to run, run and run and ol’ Gus has got to be giddy. Against an (allegedly) much-improved Arkansas squad, the cannon-armed corner-quick rush end we have taking snaps only rolled the defense for more than 300 yards… by himself. Nearly 200 on the ground and the rest through the air on 10 completions. Seventy-one percent completion rate, 10 yards an attempt. SEC records teeter frankly obliterated. What’s left to ask from this guy? To hope for? Behind Cam, Auburn is leaving defenses ragged and gasping.
And man does he know it. Maybe in interviews and with the kids at the day care, he’s “Aw-shucks Cam,” and maybe he’s “Hardest-working Cam” in practice. But on game day, the expression on his face says one thing and one thing only: This is awesome. That enormous grin, the breath-catching leaps into the end zone, the explosion of speed from around a pulling guard — Cam Newton plays happier than any player I can remember. And honestly, that exuberance (as long as he doesn’t blow a shoulder on a touchdown dive) may be one thing that helps carry the team down the stretch. Who wouldn’t want to play with a guy who is that happy to be cleat to turf, blazing and bombing his way down the field?
Can anyone confirm that story, dropped offhand oh-by-the-by-like into the sportscaster’s conversation, that Cam grew up wanting to come to Auburn but got scared off by Kodi Burns’ recruitment? Were we truly that close to missing out on the most physically jaw-dropping athlete to reach the Plains in a generation? He’s the anti-Emmitt Smith. I’ll buy you a Coke if you can find that on the intertubes.
And Dyer. What a monster. By the second fourth-quarter carry, I’m on my feet — “Dyer’s in the game!” — and by the third he’s through the line and roaring downfield for a score and the guy. Is. Limping! Limping! As if to say, “Yeah, I’m hurt but I’m still going to get a couple tough carries and bust a huge gain for an instant touchdown – try and stop me.” Can you help but come unglued? Check out his chart, which consists of one humongous fourth quarter. If, next year, Newton continues his reign of awesome with Dyer beside him… hell is gonna break loose all over again.
Lastly, here’s hoping McCalebb gets more carries in the weeks to come — his speed demands that he see the ball more. Granted, the way that our opponents have been forced to respect the fly sweep, the right path ought to give him some numeric credit for Cam’s rushing yards. Without that neck-twisting fake, our offense isn’t plowing quite as hard.
The defense is a different story. When I called him post-game, my dad picked up with “Ted Roof must…” which I won’t continue, and was — honest to God — inconsolable.
When I think of classic SEC games, I think of slugfests along the lines of our usual battle with LSU — three or four scores total, a ton of punts, a slowly grinding field position war with the defense carrying the team until the offense breaks through. Down in this rabbit hole, it has completely reversed — the offense holds the other team at bay until the defense comes up with a big play. And in that vein, two things we’ve got going for us: Josh Bynes drifting back into coverage late in the fourth quarter, and the relentless annihilation of the backfield by our defensive line. We’ve had two games now that Bynes has put to bed with consecutive picks, and three games in which the opponent’s starting QB either had the ball ripped out, had to battle through injuries, or just flat got sent back to the locker room. Damn. Without those monumental efforts, Auburn gets beat at least once or twice.
But the secondary. Man alive, I can’t remember the last time our defensive secondary was playing this badly. Yards given up in huge chunks. Backup quarterbacks looking like starters. Poor angles, poor tackles — just plain old bad. There were three or four runs that Savage recognized and got down to the line to defend, but he came too far to the middle of the field and the back simply ran around him for a first down. There were multiple screens that the corner recognized late, then as he ran down to defend, he ended up a yard or two outside the receiver, giving up big chunks of essentially uncontested yardage. Maybe this is a matter of technique — make ’em go inside or outside — maybe the idea is that the first defender has support and is corralling the ballcarrier with their assistance. But help never came until the first defender had failed and 7 to 10 yards were ceded. Is that part of the plan? Is it a matter of guys not knowing their assignments, not executing them?
What the charts show us is that, whatever the problem/plan may be, it just flat out sucks. Pull up the QB vs. QB comparison chart — you’ll notice that Arkansas quarterbacks have three lines. One is for Mallett, one is for Wilson all by himself, and one is drawn as though Wilson had picked up right where Mallett left off. Which he did.
Now, I know that there’s a reason Petrino gave that kid a scholarship. I’m not taking anything away from his talent. But when a redshirt sophomore can step into the game on the road in the SEC and make us wish that Ryan “The Legend” Mallett wasn’t scramble-brained, that’s just bad. And what’s more, this only continues a trend from last year, whereby Auburn anointed multiple second-string quarterbacks. Remember that LSU game, when Jarrett Lee stepped in after Jerraud Powers rocked the starting QB’s world and played well enough that the sportscasters were calling him “General Lee”? Holy hell, it’s happening again. Twice if you count Connor Shaw’s coming out party.
I don’t know how to fix any of that. And it is only going to get worse, now that we’ve lost multiple starters to injury. I’ve been happy to beat the drum for Ted Roof, especially when his boys have carried the team to victory on several occasions, and Petrino’s genius can’t be denied … but this is getting excessive. Against quality opponents, every week of this season sees the Tigers giving up more points than the last. Granted, Stevan Ridley is the backbone of the LSU offense, and if there is one thing the tiger defense does right, it is the demolition of opposing tailbacks. LSU may end up a bit of a reprieve for our straggling D. But the end of the season is not exactly full of promise.
Still, the Plainsmen play one game at a time, and this weekend defies predictions like none other. If there’s one thing about the Violence Bowl I know, it’s that you never know what to expect and often can scarcely believe what you’ve just witnessed. All remains to be seen, Tiger fans. I can’t wait for this game — I can’t wait for any game, but especially this one. I want Dyer and Cam to hit those damn corndogs in the mouth so bad. I want Les Miles laughing at the end because how can you cry when unbelievable voodoo luck shrivels up to nothing? I want bourbon bottles shattering on the floors and the parking lots and the walls all over Red Stick! War Damn Eagle you Auburn tigers.
Here’s our game progress line, season-to-date, with LSU’s in there with it. The little diamonds are game markers :
P.S.: Kentucky charts are forthcoming with the Spread Sheets reboot. But it’s more important, I think,