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Replay Reax: Utah State

In somewhat of a revival and re-envisioning of a couple of past TWER series, we take some deep breaths, take some time to let the dust settle, and take in a replay of Saturday’s game before coming to some — hopefully — well thought out conclusions. Enjoy.

The Great Escape

Man, this was game a lot easier to watch the second time. It was also a lot easier to watch from the comfort of my couch, and not cooking in the upper deck of Jordan-Hare Stadium.*

We’ll start with the opposition: Utah State. In my game preview, I mentioned that I wasn’t sure if the Aggies had the tools to get to a bowl game this year or if they were headed for more 4-8ish mediocrity. After seeing this (twice), there’s no doubt in my mind it’s the former. Bobby Wagner was as advertised. So was Robert Turbin and Kyle Gallagher. Even with Cody Parkey blasting kickoffs through the back of the end zone, their special teams guy, Kerwynn Williams, impacted the game with his long, first-quarter touchdown run. Utah State won’t have much trouble navigating a Boise-less WAC and finding enough wins for a bowl this year, especially with all of their ll-WAC caliber talent.

The Aggies had the players — they have just as many scholarships as Auburn does, after all — but more importantly, they played extremely well and executed to near perfection. It’s not often, at the collegiate level, that you end the game with zero turnovers and just 38 total penalty yards and lose the game.

They also unveiled a new offensive strategy that would have had any defensive coaching staff scrambling — at least for a little while. Chizik said they expected to see a lot of option last Saturday. Even though they didn’t, they had good reason to expect it. The option was a big part of Utah State’s offense last year with quarterback Diondre Borel, getting their quarterback to the outside and pitching to different running backs and wide receivers out of their multiple formations. Last season, Utah State went east-to-west with the option ground game and north-and-south with deep, big-play passing. There certainly wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of bubble screens and short slant routes from them last year.

Combine that with the fact that they were facing a true freshman quarterback in Chuckie Keeton, whom they didn’t have any film of, and you can see how the coaching staff could be put on their heels schematically — at least for the first half or so.

In fact, I made several mistakes in the aforementioned preview. I mentioned that it could be a valuable learning experience for the young secondary to go up against such a veteran-laden receiving corps. I said that it would be good for the front seven to go up against five returning starters on the opposite O-line. I thought Auburn’s new offensive line could learn something going up against Wagner and the Utah State 3-4. What I mistook as nice learning experiences, were actually some very unfavorable match-ups.

But so much of what Auburn did Saturday hurt themselves, and so much of what Auburn did — or didn’t do — was inexcusable. There isn’t an excuse for allowing scoring drives of 15, 16, 14, and 14 plays, no matter who the opponent is. There isn’t an excuse for Tre Mason to run over and try to intercept a kickoff from Quan Bray, like he was playing Xbox.** There isn’t an excuse for allowing the same screen play that’s beaten you all day to gash you for 30 yards on their last scoring drive. And, honestly, it’s hard to say that “youth” is an excuse when you’ve got a true freshman like Chuckie Keeton on the opposite side that showed up to play on Saturday, to the tune of 246 total yards and two touchdowns.

Obviously the most glaring problem for Auburn was on defense. Schematically, playing way off the line of scrimmage, sitting back in zones, and playing read-and-react isn’t going to get Auburn very far, especially when they have a young secondary that is still learning how to make those reactions. Luckily, this the kind of thing that can be fixed. The read-and-react was a part of the game plan against Utah State because the coaches expected to see a lot of east-to-west option. I expect Auburn to be playing a lot more man-to-man—and a whole lot more aggressively against Mississippi State. The defense harped on it all fall camp; I don’t think that they were just blowing hot air.

Much more troubling on the defensive side of the ball was the physicality — or lack thereof — in the front seven. Auburn’s line was pushed around all game by Utah States’, and Auburn’s linebackers weren’t doing much more than being bowled over by pulling guards in the second level. Both units, the defensive line and linebackers, will improve over the season, but in the meantime Ted Roof and the defense are, again, going to have to play much more aggressively and try to make more plays to counteract their futility in every-down situations.

Specifically, Jake Holland needs to take it upon himself to fix the alignment issues that his defense had in the future, and Daren Bates needs to use his speed to fly to the ball, not just hang in the middle of the field. (Both of these— the confusion and the stationary tendency—could have been a result of Auburn’s zone scheme Saturday, however.) One bright spot I noticed for the defensive line was Dee Ford. Going into camp, I expected Ford and Lemonier to be a marquee position battle at speed rush end, but the starting spot was seemingly handed to Lemonier. Ford played well Saturday and you’d think he’ll be considered to be out there the first play against Mississippi State, but with as much as this defensive line rotates, it doesn’t really appear to matter much.

On offense, it’s hard to glean much from just 22:00 of time of possession, but obviously the running game has to improve. What’s starting to become a very troubling trend over the last three seasons has been Auburn’s struggle at running the ball—and, specifically, run blocking—against the 3-4 defense. I’m not sure if it’s a Jeff Grimes problem, and Auburn’s linemen are just missing their assignments, or if it’s just one of few natural flaws in Gus Malzahn’s spread attack, but it’s starting to become very prevalent…it even was last year, with that veteran offensive line.

In the short term, Auburn has to do something—like getting the ball to more play makers or at laest something to get it back on track. Because Barrett Trotter isn’t going to have the perfect stat line of 17-for-23 for 3 touchdowns and no picks every single game.

Finally, we get to the good part, and that’s the ending. As you can tell, there isn’t too much good to take from this entire game, but for those last four minutes, the Auburn offense looked like a well oiled machine. Barrett Trotter gets full credit for engineering that second-to-last drive, which was a thing a beauty, as it only took three completions to get to the end zone, and was that one sack away from being an example of flawless execution. That opened up the draw play for the final drive, where 4 rushes did most of the work on the 8-play drive.

We can only hope this coming weekend, and throughout the season, that if they’re not trying to drain the clock and hold on to a lead, the offense is in a position to work their magic again on those kinds of game-winning drives.

We don’t know much about the 2011 Tigers so far, but we’ve come to find that they’re pretty good in the last four minutes of a game. Hopefully, they can keep it close enough during the first 56 minutes.

Moving forward, Auburn did show a lot of weaknesses on Saturday, but they’ve got time — precious time — this week to fix what they can before conference play begins.

Contrary to what some Auburn fans will have you think after last Saturday, the sky isn’t falling. Not just yet.

But the SEC schedule is coming. Fast.

*It was actually a little cloudy a breezy for some time in the second half. But don’t tell that to my sunburns.

**I said then and there in the stadium that the coaches needed to take Mason out of the game, and not let him return any more kicks for the rest of the day. Mark it down as Reason #947 as to why I should never be a head football coach.

Photo via.

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