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The Wishbone: A Tale of Two Barbecues

Shootin' for Swinenfreude.

Because his allegiance to the readers of his pulp and science fiction novels is almost as strong as his allegiance to Auburn, Van had to miss the live broadcast of the South Carolina game on Saturday and watch it later that evening.  During game time he was, in fact, emceeing an event at St. Louis’s “Archon” convention called “Starship Smackdown.”

Little did he know that, even as he was bringing the wacky/nerdy proceedings to a close, the Auburn Tigers were likewise engaging in some Gamecock Smackdown.

Later that evening, Van looked on in awe and near-disbelief as the recording played itself out.  It all seemed somehow unbelievable—as if the science fiction events of the day had not ended when he’d left the convention center.

And yet, there it was: Stephen Garcia morphing into Jar Jar Binks and tripping all over himself in comical fashion; the Auburn defense “Hulking out” and giving SC fits; Auburn’s DBs making like X-Wings and swooping in to disrupt the proceedings of Steve Spurrier’s passing game Death Star.

Thanks to a strong running game, a dramatically improved defense (revealing shockingly dramatic improvement), clutch plays down the stretch and the generosity of Stephen Garcia and the Williams-Brice stadium timekeeper, Auburn escaped with a huge SEC road win against the Eastern Division favorites.  How did it happen?

Defense, Auburn, Defense.   The Auburn defense played so much better than in previous weeks.  The Tigers came in with a clear directive on defense:  Stop Lattimore.   And the defense succeeded.  Tackling was better (not great, but we had nowhere to go but up), players were in position, and containment was good.

Thus Marcus Lattimore, in all likelihood, will end his South Carolina career never having beaten Auburn—the school to which he very nearly committed.  (Someone on Twitter argued that Lattimore could face Auburn again because Auburn could still get to Atlanta, to which Van replied, “Auburn is not the team I’m referring to as not getting to Atlanta this year!”)

Some feel the desire to sort of stick it to former Auburn RB Stephen Davis over this (after the Carolina native and former Auburn great reportedly encouraged Lattimore to choose SC over Auburn).  Ehh.  Bygones, and all that.  Davis had every right to give Lattimore the benefit of his experience and counsel.  It worked out the way it did.  Let it go.

Barring some unexpected development in the next year or two, Lattimore has joined Tim Tebow and Emmitt Smith on the list of famed offensive SEC players who never managed to beat Auburn in their careers.  Let’s just soak that fact up and enjoy it for what it’s worth.

Trust our Coaches.   The Auburn coaches have received a lot of grief this season.   And at times like this all fans need to remember:  These guys are really, really good and they know what they are doing.   And one of the things that the Auburn coaches do better than anything is to focus on the games that matter.   They don’t care if we look bad in beating Florida Atlantic or Utah State.   The game planning and preparation they put in is mainly for the SEC games, and you could see a vast difference in the result on the field this week.

Some people are probably saying, “Why not prepare that way every week?”  But everyone, especially college football teams with NCAA limits on practice and meeting times during the week, only have so much time available to prepare for games. So would you rather that Auburn spent more time preparing all year for Alabama than any other team, or spent the same amount of time on each game so that we can look better and more convincing in a win over Florida Atlantic?  It is not a hard choice, but it’s easy for fans to forget when watching ugly, early-season, out-of-conference games.  Let’s all try to remember.

Dyer Necessity.  As a certain column-writing duo pointed out last week, Mike Dyer needed to get the ball more often for Auburn to have a chance to win.  Clearly, the coaches were listening—he carried it forty-one times!  He took a beating on Saturday, even suffering what looked to be an extremely painful ankle injury at one point, but he just kept getting back up and kept smashing his way back into the center of the South Carolina defense to get hit again.  Dyer showed amazing durability, toughness and effort as he kept surging straight ahead for yards.  His performance wasn’t as dramatic as those of some Auburn running backs we’ve seen over the years, but it deserves recognition for the sheer magnitude of guts and determination on display.  You knew Dyer was going to get the ball.  The crowd knew it, the South Carolina coaches knew it, the defensive players knew it—and they still could not stop him.  He kept banging out 3-4 yards per carry, and that was critical because it kept Auburn out of 3rd and long situations.

Barrett Couldn’t Share It.  The Auburn passing game did not have one of its better days.  The reason is that the South Carolina defensive line is really, really great.  Alabama’s defense is far better overall than South Carolina’s, yes—but we’ll take those four guys on the Gamecock defensive line over any in the SEC right now.  Whenever Barrett Trotter dropped back to pass, he was instantly under pressure.  That, combined with the injury to Emory Blake, led to a lack of success in the passing game.   (All of which made Dyer and our next point even more important.)

In Goes Frazier.  Despite calls from Auburn fans (including some members of John’s family), Keihl Frazier at full-time quarterback was not the answer.  And Auburn is clearly not in “play for next year” mode, as some have called for.   But playing Fraser now is clearly not wasting his freshman season, either.  He was a tremendous asset on Saturday.

With Barrett Trotter at QB, the outside sweep runs to McCalebb are easily defended, since no defense fears Trotter running straight up the middle.  Frazier is another story, though.  With him under center and McCalebb coming around on the sweep for the handoff with a running start, the defense once again has to pick its poison.  Frazier made good choices with his limited (but expanding) opportunities and made the plays to get Auburn some key first downs.  Those plays are getting him game experience—and in SEC road games, which is invaluable—but not by putting the whole burden of carrying the offense and making all the plays on the young freshman.  It looks as if Malzahn has found a nice formula; we’ll see how this aspect of the offense continues to unfold.

Pinning Them Deep.  Auburn punter Steven “Steamin’” Clark* and his coverage unit had an outstanding day.  When most fans think of winning the special teams battle they think of a big kick return or a blocked punt, but the terrible field position that South Carolina was stuck with for most of the day was a huge factor in the game.  Maybe the biggest factor, considering the way in which the game developed as a low-scoring, ball-control contest.

And now to turn our attention from chicken fingers to pulled pork:  It’s Arkansas Week!

First, if you are not familiar with the odd history of this rivalry, please consult one of our most acclaimed columns, last season’s magnum opus, “The Hawg Hex—and How to Break it.

Next, get ready for quite a change from last weekend.  Defending this year’s South Carolina team and this year’s Arkansas team could not be more different.   To stop the Gamecocks, Auburn needed every defender to key on Lattimore.  To stop this Arkansas offense—first in the SEC in passing offense, total offense and scoring offense—even after a bad day against Alabama’s defense… what do you do?

That’ll Do, Little Pig.  Arkansas is once again last in turnover margin.  Auburn’s defense must create turnovers to take away drives from the Hogs.  The Tiger defense showed some ability in this area (nine turnovers created, which is actually more than the number created by what we are told is the greatest defense since the Maginot Line up there in western Alabama).**  Last year, Razorback turnovers in the second half helped Auburn pull away, and they can again this year.

Auburn’s offense will have to produce long drives that lead to touchdowns.  Unlike the Carolina contest, this will most assuredly not be a low scoring game.   In fact, the Auburn-Arkansas rivalry is beginning to resemble nothing so much as the Auburn-Florida State series of the mid-1980s: bring your track shoes and a calculator!  Auburn is going to need to score 35 points to win, so the pressure is on the offense this week.  The good news for the Auburn offense?  The Arkansas defensive line is last in the SEC in sacks and next to last in tackles for losses. So, unlike the South Carolina game, Trotter should be able to work from the pocket without having Melvin Ingram already there waiting for him when he finishes dropping back.  Arkansas is tenth in total defense and eleventh in passing defense: Auburn can move the ball on this team and score points.  (Texas A&M had 338 yards against the Hawgs last week—on the ground.)

Pigs on the Wing.  Like most Auburn fans, we felt confident that the Auburn defense would take over when Ryan Mallet was knocked out of last year’s game.  But Tyler Wilson quickly remedied that for Arkansas, erasing any good feelings with his excellent play.  After his 501-yard torching of future SEC member Texas A&M last weekend, Auburn should expect what we saw from Wilson last year: a quarterback who fits that system well and can make all the throws to the best group of receivers in the SEC (and probably the country).  However, on at least half of his pass attempts against the Aggies, Mr. Wilson was hit or knocked down.  Auburn’s defensive line needs to be ready to come after him hard; Bobby Petrino would clearly rather have an extra guy out in the pattern than his quarterback standing up at the end of the play, and Auburn needs to make them pay for that choice.

 Let’s Be Special.  As in every game this year, Auburn will have to make some plays on special teams to win. It probably won’t be a field position battle like last week, but someone else is going to have step up in special teams and make plays—maybe Tre Mason with another kick return masterpiece?— for Auburn to have a chance to win another road game.

Other Notes

– Clemson is good.  Auburn’s loss to them—our only loss in the last 20 games—looks better every day as Cousin Cracky’s troops have since beaten FSU and Virginia Tech (in Blacksburg).

– After Dyer, Emory Blake might be the most irreplaceable player on offense.  No word has come out about the extent of his injury, but Auburn needs Mr. Blake in the passing game against the better teams in the conference.   The other receivers are good complementary players at this stage of their development, but Blake is the Man.

– After the game, Lutzenkirchen stated that the offense keeps several plays handy, all of which they are confident will score a touchdown.  How great was it when they held up an Oregon-style play-calling card with Cam’s smiling face on it, and rolled out the “Beat Bama, against-the-grain, pass back to Lutzie for the TD” play from last year?  A great stroll down memory lane.  And it worked again.

Wishbone Power Poll

The Elite

1. LSU / Alabama: Watching these two defenses play against a true freshman quarterback is like watching someone club baby seals.

The Very Good

3. Auburn:  Hey, our Tigers won the game, so we’re jumping them all the way up here.  Sue us.

4. Arkansas:  501 yards and a huge comeback to welcome Texas A&M to the conference.  But don’t panic, Aggies—the Hogs aren’t generally like this every year.

The Good

5. South Carolina:  Adios, Stephen Garcia!  How many Spurrier QBs has Auburn been responsible for knocking out of the starting lineup over the years??  (And do you think Alshon Jeffrey will be terribly upset about this?)

6. Florida:  How hurt is Brantley?  If he is out for the season, the Gators drop a few spots.

7. Georgia:  Still trying to get a bead on this team.  Since they don’t play anybody, it’s not easy.  The showdown with Tech at the end of the season should surely be interesting, though!

The Mediocre

8. Miss State:  Did the Dan Mullen Era peak last year?  Will his seat start getting warm soon??  Who saw this coming?

9. Tennessee:  Another team we’re trying to properly gauge.  How much will we really learn from a game between UT and UGA?

The Bad

10.  Vanderbilt:  Well… it was fun while it lasted.  But hey—you’re still ahead of UK and Ole Miss!

11. Kentucky:   We dare you to watch the Kentucky offense for an entire game without turning away or changing the channel.

The Really, Amazingly Putrid

12. Ole Miss:  Attention Coach Nutt—Jermaine Whitehead would not have saved your job.

* That’s a Def Leppard reference, youngsters.

** No, that’s not a typo—we know our history, and we hope the Alabama defense ends up working out just about as effectively in the long run as the Maginot Line did.

Related: Otis Mounds tells Arkansas homecoming queen to shut up, wins game.

Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.

John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.

Previous Wishbone columns can be found here.

Order Season of Our Dreams — every “Wishbone” column from the 2010 preseason through the fabled Date in the Desert, plus a stadium full of extras.

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