Seems like a damn eternity since we beat LSU. These past three years have been a gaping chasm filled with spinning dice, and one crazy white guy right in the middle calling “Edge!” every time. And winning.
Which is why we’ve all come to hate LSU as many rivals come to be hated. It’s one thing to lose to your most important rival* three seasons running, which, frankly, I could endure if this were Tennessee, Georgia, or (er, probably) even Arkansas. Consider the flip-side – do Florida fans have any reason to hate Auburn, just because the Tigers had their number all through the glorious reign of the Tebow child? No. It’s just a game or three – even with a little more weight given that it’s intra-conference, a game still.
But of late, so much meaning and significance has arisen from the Violence Bowl out of so much meaningless, gibbering chance. It’s as if your boss walked into your office one day and said, inexplicably, “If there’s a trout in your pencil drawer, you’re fired and you owe me a Mars Bar.” Somehow, the drawer won’t open when you pull, halting abruptly with a wet thud. Water drips on your leg – is that lake water? Is that duckweed under your desk? With one mighty, scale-scattering heave of the drawer, out bursts the bewildered trout, landing in your lap as if to say “What am I doing here and oh I guess you’re fired.” Once is bad enough, but three fishy terminations in a row will make you question your luck.
To escape from the vortex of Bayou postmodernism that is Les Miles’s Bengals, Auburn had to be better than luck, had to be a force more powerful than sheer unlidded meaninglessness. Auburn was. And LSU couldn’t summon up nearly enough insanity to cover up the truth: we are without a doubt the better team.
Tough luck for Les, last Saturday, with two quarterbacks flopping fish-like on the grass, slowly accumulating more chalk on their hides at the firm insistence of our defensive line. Maybe from 2007 to 2009, our annual tilt was like being submerged in a deep and airless pool, surrounded by unblinking slow-motion eyes and accusingly scaly fins and skins, with nary a whiff to remind us of the reality of air. But we emerged, into such cool and clean autumn air. And the beauty of this year is, so did LSU, leaping from the water like a proud salmon, driven skyward by brackish instinct straight into the gaping maw of a grizzly bear.
Oh, whoops, I meant to put an actual picture of a grizzly bear, about to devour his hapless victim:
How do you like your fish, Auburn Tiger fans? I like it how Paul Prudhomme likes it: blackened. Scorched for two hundred-yard rushers and one 84-yarder thanks to a scintillating jet sweep, sizzling in the wake of 440 hard-nosed rushing yards, with another elite SEC rushing defense put to the torch? Take me back to that Louisiana kitchen! I’ll have the vaunted-defense-reduced-to-soot and a bag of chips.
I tell you what, that game makes the season for me. Alabama remains, but that game has a whole sinister life unto itself. Our postseason ambitions also hang in the balance and I still maintain that Auburn has to seize this once-in-a-generation chance… but even if we slip up now… this is still a season in which we stood up against a strong Clemson team, left Petrino’s razorbacks riddled with bullet holes in a dizzying shootout, and absolutely crushed LSU on the ground. This is one year I am going to remember fondly for the rest of my life.
Here’s your gallery of charts (and for an explanation of what on earth all the lines and colors be, refer to this post, which should make everything more clear) :
tomb after tomb, boom boom after boom
Auburn’s still got some detractors. Still. Around the country, there are folks who think that the offense is way too unbalanced, that there’s a significant doubt as to Cam Newton’s passing ability, that once someone stops the inverted veer off jet-sweep action that we’re in serious trouble of losing. Seems like there’s some disbelief, even among those who’ve actually seen the Plainsmen plowing over their opponents – why is this offense still working the way that it works?
Hell. Call me guilty, too. I’ve been asking that question an awful lot myself. When we run the same play, and indeed the same read on the same play, over and over and over and it almost always results in Cam bashing his way downfield, you have to ask why opposing defenses aren’t doing more to stop it. The other common charge levied at Auburn is that they are freakishly unbalanced, depending far too much on the run. Supposedly, if someone ever was to stop the Tiger run game, we’d be toast because Auburn can’t throw effectively… or something like that. Now, I understand this objection to our success – one bedrock principle of football offense is that an unbalanced offense is a vulnerable offense. The defense no longer has to choose between moving backwards (pass) and moving forwards (run), and they all start moving in the direction you’d like ’em not to. Then, you’re stuck with the weaker portions of your offense versus a defense more able to defend that segment of the game.
This is all fine and good, and in no way rocket science. But it is also fairly unsophisticated. Football – as the inestimable Chris Brown explained – is at heart a Nash equilibrium:
Imagine you are fortunate enough to have a future All-American guy at RB. He runs for a ton of yards as a junior, and now, a year later, you’re ready to ride him to a state title. But everyone else knows about this guy now. They begin stacking the line. You’ve got this All-American at running back and you’re averaging less per carry than you did three years earlier when you had three Academic All-Americans–and no football All-Americans–splitting time at RB. What’s going on? What do you do?
You pass of course. You run bootlegs, you fake it to him, and you throw the ball. But how odd you say. You have the best running back you’ve had in 15 years, and you wind up running less? The answer is simply that everyone else knows you have this stud RB, so they commit so much effort and defensive scheme and structure to push your expected yards per rushing play down to a manageable number, your passing opportunities increase, even if you have less talent there than years past.
This same goes for great passing teams. (Think about all the spread offense teams that have used the defense’s natural tendency to play pass against four wides to their running advantage.)
Essentially, what he’s trying to demonstrate is that your run vs. pass play calling is dictated by how the defense is reacting to your strengths. A purely balanced offense – IE, 50% rush and 50% pass – might not be the most effective offense. The key is to find a balance between the run and the pass that creates maximum effectiveness for the entire offense.
So what does that mean for Auburn? Is it sufficient to say, somewhat blithely, that we’ll just run the same play until someone finds out how to stop it? And if the LSU defense can’t stop our running game, why should expect anyone else to force us out of it? I don’t think so. We have to go back to that question – why is this offense running as well as it is in the way that it is? One answer for that question materialized late last game, when McCalebb took the ball, turned the corner between flanker and slot, and sprinted past every white-jerseyed Bengal on the field. If you look at the charts, you see that Auburn on the whole owned first and second down in the second half, but Cam got a little help this time around. I think that LSU decided they were just tired enough of Newton emerging from behind Big Snacks that they were willing to risk the jet sweep. Whoops. Instant seventy yard touchdown versus eight or ten yards a pop – if you were a defensive coordinator, which play would you sell out to stop?
Moreover, our offense is more than Cam-o-rama, and the Tigers have done a lot of different things this year for which they aren’t getting too much credit. Throwing the long ball. Pounding it up the gut. Zipping around the edge. The screen game. The intermediate passes. Every one of them has been run effectively and every one of them has at some point gone for a touchdown. And I think that, while we currently hang our hat on Cam or Dyer between the tackles, there are aspects of this offense that are being forgotten. Not by Auburn’s coaches – they’ll pull the little constraint plays out of their pocket whenever the defense lets ’em. Not by opposing defensive coordinators, either. These guys aren’t stupid; they read the paper. They other aspects of Auburn’s offense have been forgotten by the people who haven’t been paying as close attention to our Auburn Tigers.
So it’s not that Auburn is a one-trick pony. The truth of the matter is that we are lethal enough in all aspects of the offense that Cameron Newton is the least dangerous option. And apparently, opposing defenses would rather we crash up the middle with God2illa eight or ten plays downfield than (evidently) score immediately on a single long run or a bomb over the top. I’m cool with that. Especially when those handful of times we commit to the constraint plays, Auburn flat out-muscles or outruns practically an entire defense.
War Damn Eagle!
Brief note on Cam’s passing vs. Cam’s running – I did a sort of game progress line for all his rushes and all his passes (with sacks counting as passes.) He’s actually fairly balanced :
defense and special teams
I contemplated not even splitting the defense and special teams out for separate analysis, given that these phases of our game were fairly lackluster. What’s more impressive than what they did was what LSU didn’t do: break a huge return from Peterson, kill us with the passing game. But truth be told, these two phases of the game had serious help. For one, we punted three times all night long, and of those three punts, one was not returned, one had a return of one and one had a return of 18. On any other night, Petey might have broken one. Jefferson and Lee were like our defense’s twelfth and thirteenth men. More often than I’d like to admit, LSU receivers were open, painfully open, but it didn’t even seem that the quarterback was trying to lead the receiver appropriately. The ball would hit the turf, be jarred loose, get tipped and intercepted. All of which created opportunities which – hate to admit it – Auburn’s defense could not create for themselves.
That said, our defensive line is blowing my mind on a weekly basis, chiefly – in contrast to the Auburn lines of late – the defensive tackles. Fairley is a monster who lives solely on the fresh blood of quarterbacks, and in my recent memory, I can’t recall any other player who tackled with such joyous ferocity, such sheer violence. And Blanc, though not quite the technician that Nick is, has been clogging his lanes and forcing the O-line to protect across the breadth of the interior. And they’ve been used very creatively, such as when Fairley lined up at the backside end position and totally embarrassed the left tackle for a sack. I wish I could say the ends have been up to quite the same standard. You don’t hear quite so much out of them, and the most I heard out of Eguae last Saturday was the handful of offsides flags he drew. But at least he’s hungry. And, again, the front seven has sent a skill player whimpering to the sidelines in pretty much every game so far. First-string quarterbacks beware – we are comin’ for ya.
Ole Miss hasn’t done much all year long, they have a quarterback who can run but has always been somewhat suspect in the passing game, their three interior offensive linemen are freshmen, and they allowed three touchdowns and nearly 200 yards to Knile Davis whom we throttled. All good signs, right? The Tigers just have to get through this coming week and then we get to pound a cupcake before squaring off with the Dawgs – right?
In related news, Masoli only threw for 327 and three scores last weekend. Proceed with the countdown. All groups assume attack coordinates.
Everyone knows this is a trap – the potential exists for Masoli and crew to go Mallett all over our reeling secondary, especially without Savage’s experience, and while we didn’t sustain any horrific injuries against LSU, goodness knows we must be banged up and downright tired. Auburn is due for a letdown. The players have to know. The coaches have to know. Everyone. Please, Auburn, hold on to that fire, that man-do-I-love-running-you-over, hope-you-like-the-flavor-of-turf attitude. We can’t sink down yet. We have to keep up the pace of annihilation. I don’t have the heart to think we leave Oxford defeated… but it wouldn’t surprise this Tiger fan to have several minor heart attacks at the hands of one certain former Duck.
Here’s our game progress line, season-to-date, with the LSU line updated and Ole Miss’s in there for good measure :
* I know what you’re thinking, and the University of Alabama is not a rival but an enemy, for reasons I’ve explained in the past.
John 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.