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Sunday knee-jerk: Four horses

Run, run, run

I fully support Cam Newton’s Heisman campaign. I am glad our AUfficial site has Cam2Newton.com. The Superman t-shirts are entirely deserved (and would look great on you or a loved one). He amazes in a way no Auburn player has amazed since Bo. Barring injury, he should win the Heisman Trophy, a statement–a fact–so obvious an overwhelming majority of college football fans who don’t root for Auburn would agree with it. He is the best player in college football, and if you want to pin Auburn’s 8-0 record down to one single factor, it is the confluence of his seismic talent with the equally seismic talent of his offensive coordinator. 526 total yards against LSU begins at the intersection of God2illa and Gustav.

But it doesn’t end there. It continues with Mike Dyer and Onterio McCalebb. It continues with Nick Fairley, playing at the highest level at which I can remember an Auburn defender playing. It continues with with hands of Darvin Adams and the elusiveness of Terrell Zachery. It continues with their blocking and the blocking of Kodi Burns and Emory Blake; McCalebb’s touchdown run belongs to them even before it belongs to himself.

But most of all, it continues with–left to right–Lee Ziemba, Mike Berry, Ryan Pugh, and Byron Isom. How many games have they started by now? More importantly, how many have they started together?

I don’t know. But Saturday was the greatest of all of them. Their team ran for 440 yards against the best defensive line in the SEC. That line knew what was coming: the inverted veer, the buck sweep, Newton into the middle, again and again and again. It did not matter in the slightest. Ziemba and Berry and Pugh and Isom threw them around like so many blocking dummies. Again, and again, and again. Malzahn and Newton are driving the sled. But what makes it go are the four horses to which it’s been harnessed, the four horses that have been pulling Auburn forward for years. Saturday, they pulled Auburn further than they ever have before.

Maybe I should say “five” instead. Brandon Mosley has been outstanding at right tackle, the handful of penalties notwithstanding; you don’t put up the kind of numbers Auburn is putting up with four excellent linemen and guy who’s only OK. We should also take a moment to praise Jeff Grimes, the biggest unknown on Chizik’s staff when hired and frankly a guy we wished had been Stacy Searels. This season, both Grimes and Searels had the opportunity to put together lines of tremendous experience and great talent; Searels has had to juggle and tweak and bench while Grimes’s charges have made Auburn the No. 3 rushing team in the country, tops among any team not running the triple option. Which coach has been the better this season is not even an argument.

But what makes Auburn’s running game not just good, not just special, but dominant, unstoppable, championship-caliber–whatever adjective you can think of applies after yesterday–is Ziemba and Berry and Pugh and Isom. Individually, they’ve each been remarkable. The four of them together … well, they’ve been dominant, unstoppable, championship-caliber. 440 yards rushing against LSU, folks. That’s how good they’ve been.

And the AUfficial photo gallery from their greatest performance, a performance that even LSU fans are calling “one of the best performances for an offensive line in the last 10 years of college football,” doesn’t feature one picture of any one of them.

That’s the way it goes for the offensive line, even on a day like yesterday. But that doesn’t mean the day–as glorious, as thrilling, as exhilarating as any this football team has experienced in a long, long time–wasn’t theirs. They let Cam borrow it from to time. But it belonged to the four horses up front.

Other assorted observations

— In some ways, I feel like beating Arkansas and LSU was the easy part. Focusing on Ole Miss in the middle of Newton’s Heisman ascension, the team’s BCS ascension, the already-building hype for the Iron Bowl to End All Iron Bowls … that is going to be hard. Auburn can win in Oxford, even without being at the very top of their game. But if they aren’t, they can sure as hell lose in Oxford, too. Gene Chizik has earned a lot of his paycheck already this season. But he’s going to earn an even bigger chunk of it this week and the next few.

— Auburn averaged 7.7 yards a play yesterday without completing a pass longer than 17 yards. That’s just ridiculous.

— The Mrs. WBE during the game: “It seems like Auburn’s defense just has those two good players.” I sighed and admitted that wasn’t inaccurate. But both Fairley and Bynes are so, so good that as long as the rest of the defense is just OK, Auburn will be all right on that side of the ball.

LSU’s offense is such a mess on so many levels, I can’t say I feel like any huge strides were taken yesterday; the safeties were still totally lackluster in run support, chances for truly big plays (Bates’ tackle of Jefferson, Thorpe’s dropped pick) still went begging, the defensive ends are still mostly MIA. (Carter and Eguae combined for one solo tackle, two assists–at least Carter’s came behind the LOS–and one QB hurry. At this point, I’d kind of like to see what Lemonier could do playing starter’s snaps.) But there also weren’t the kind of massive breakdowns we saw against Arkansas and Kentucky. There were enough tackles, enough coverage, enough pressure. They were OK. And Fairley was Fairley, Bynes was Bynes, and everything was all right.

— Look, no one’s got more sympathy for Mario Fannin than I do. But enough is enough. That fumble might not have led directly to points, but it flipped the field position that Auburn had worked so hard to dig themselves out of right back to LSU. And a few backed-up drives later, the double-pass finally forced Auburn to pay. That touchdown was on Mario. If Dyer–who, by the by, ran for 100 yards on just 15 carries–is healthy, there’s just no reason to let Mario to carry the ball anymore. The risks are too great for the reward.

— Hey, remember when we were all furious because Auburn only beat Mississippi State by three on a Thursday night in Starkville? Yeah, that anger makes a whole heck of a lot of sense in retrospect.

— A friend of mine said after the game that this season was even more fun than 2004. I can’t go that far, personally; if it feels that way, it’s probably because (the LSU game excluded) the 2004 team just crushed people, whereas this team feels the need to play down to the wire each and every week. Not to mention that we all love watching offense, and as breathtakingly efficient as the ’04 group was, this offense has substantially more flair for the spectacular. (It also has God2illa.)

But I’ll say this: as things stand today, this season is more thrilling. This season is, truthfully, more memorable. After the season we endured only two years ago, and that so many of these players endured only two years ago, and how many doubts this staff and this program has faced ever since, this season is even more satisfying.

That could all change in Oxford this week. But as of today? That’s how I see it. That’s what this Auburn team has made me feel.

Photo by Van Emst.

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