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The Wishbone: Bengal Jambalaya and Gator Etouffee

Say what you will, a win over Florida is a win over Florida.

And on Saturday, Auburn got a win over Florida.

Was it pretty?  No.  It was, in fact, pretty darned ugly.  The Tigers scrapped and clawed and did the little things they had to do to get it done.  It wasn’t “3-2 over Miss State” ugly, but it was pretty darned close.

In fact, Auburn’s wins over Florida in the Nineties and beyond have always involved the Tigers doing the little things right—particularly when it comes to special teams.  The 1993 win was sealed with a last-minute Scott Etheridge field goal, and the 2001 win with a last-second Damon Duval boot.  The 2006 “Pontiac Game-Changing Play of the Year” was a punt block returned for a score by Tre Smith.  The huge 2007 upset in the Swamp came courtesy of a last-second Wes Byrum kick—or actually two of them, given that Urban Meyer called time out just before the first sailed through the uprights.

So the Gators got the boot again and Auburn’s record against them climbs to 4-1 in this century.

And now the scene shifts to Baton Rouge—and the house of horrors that Tiger Stadium has become for Auburn over the past decade or so.

Auburn fared pretty well against LSU in Baton Rouge in the 1990s.  Of course everyone remembers the infamous “Earthquake Game” in 1988 that basically knocked Auburn out of a national championship matchup with Notre Dame.  After that, though, the Tigers turned things around in Death Valley.  Terry Bowden’s first squad in 1993, under the leadership of senior QB Stan White, secured a big 34-10 win.  The 1995 team suffered Auburn’s only loss in LSU’s stadium that decade, as Pat Nix fell victim to the infamous “phantom whistle” blown by a fan and was sacked at a critical moment.  Two years later, Dameyune Craig led a ferocious comeback to defeat LSU, 31-28, despite the eight-million-yard effort churned out by Bayou Bengals RB Cecil “the Diesel” Collins.  And in 1999, in Tommy Tuberville’s first season, his Tigers smacked their Cajun cousins in the mouth to the tune of an astounding 41-7 (and famously smoked cigars afterward).

This brings us to an interesting factoid that came to light as we researched the LSU series: Gene Chizik, by losing the 2009 game to the Bengals, became the first Auburn coach since Doug Barfield (1980) to drop his first game versus LSU.  Pat Dye, Bowden and Tuberville all handled the rival Tigers in their first matchups.

Auburn losing to LSU in 2009 should have come as no huge surprise, however.  The orange and blue Tigers simply haven’t fared very well in Death Valley in quite a while.

The 2001 contest, delayed until after the Iron Bowl due to the 9-11 attacks, became a de facto SEC West Championship Game, with the winner going on to Atlanta.  LSU prevailed in a contest that got somewhat ugly in Nick Saban’s first try against Auburn in his own stadium.

The 2003 Auburn-LSU game, played at night, is still known to many as “Black Saturday,” as the soon-to-be National Champs handed the good guys a 31-7 defeat.

In 2005, the agony for Auburn came courtesy of otherwise dependable and sure-footed Jon Vaughn missing five makeable field goals, the last in overtime, and any one of which would have won or at least continued the game.

Les Miles established his certified insanity for the first time in the 2007 game, when he called for a pass on the last play of the game, rather than kicking a much higher-percentage field goal for the win.  Auburn had dominated for long stretches of the contest, but said last-second pass of course connected and LSU pulled out a 30-24 win.  A loss and LSU would have never been named National Champions—not that they ever should have been, with losses to Arkansas and Kentucky, anyway.

The 31-10 loss in Baton Rouge in 2009 has been noted, and that brings us to the present—and Auburn’s attempt to break the string of unfortunate outcomes as the away team.  So: What is to be done?  Where do we start?

A Tale of Two Defenses

Here are the statistics from two defenses.  As will rapidly become apparent, one is bad and the other is good:

Team A

Rushing defense:  226 yards allowed per game (116th in the nation)

Total Defense:  477 yards allowed per game (116th in the nation)

Scoring Defense:  31 points allowed per game (93 in the nation)

First downs:  27.5 first downs allowed per game

Sacks:  0.75 per game (116th in the nation)

Team B:

Rushing defense:  123 yards allowed per game (42nd in the nation)

Total Defense:  307 yards allowed per game (19th in the nation)

Scoring Defense:  19 points allowed per game (18th in the nation)

First downs:  14.6 first downs allowed per game

Sacks:  2.66 per game (22nd in the nation)

Many of you reading this are thinking “Team A” must be Auburn because our defense has been pretty weak this season.   But the answer is that both teams are Auburn in 2011.  Team A is Auburn over the first four games.  Team B is Auburn over the last three games.  We broke it out that way because the defensive improvement Auburn has shown is real and it is significant.  And the last three games have all been conference games.

One of the things about young football teams with good coaches is that they get better as the season goes along.  And Auburn’s defense is clearly getting better.  Players are learning from their mistakes, and coaches are learning what players can do in games and using them in the right situations.  Success has bred some confidence, and the Auburn defenders now believe they will get off the field on third down, instead of allowing drives to continue.  This defense will still have some rough patches down the road, but it should continue to improve and gel as the season goes along.

The changes to the Auburn offense have helped.

Anyone who has watched Auburn over the last three seasons can see the difference.  Gus Malzahn has reined in the offense and has become more conservative in the last three weeks.  The pace has slowed down, pass attempts have dropped and passing on first down is forbidden.  As has been said in other places, it is a Tuberville-ian move—slow the game down to protect a struggling defense while they get it together.

Part of the change has to do with Auburn’s lack of impact receivers, what with Emory Blake and Trovon Reed still out with injuries.  Part of it has been to build on what Auburn does well: run the ball with Mike Dyer (and Onterrio McCalebb and Keihl Frazier).  And part of it has been to protect the defense and control the clock more.  In the first four games Auburn averaged 24:02 in time of possession (!!), but in the last three games Auburn has averaged 33:01.  Some of that is running more and some of that is not attempting to push the pace like we did the Tigers did in the first few games.  (Some of it is also the defense improving and getting the other team off the field on third down!)

Now to the important questions: Why?  Why is it happening?  Did Coach Chizik tell Gus to make these moves to protect the defense?  Or is Malzahn just trying to win games and use what he has available to him in the best way he can?  At times recently the Auburn offense has clearly exhibited the approach of, “What can I call now to gain three yards?” rather than the more wide open, attack-the-whole-field offense we have seen in the past.  Does it matter as long as Auburn wins?  Only if Malzahn is happy with it—or at least okay with it, under the circumstances—and doesn’t feel that he isn’t being given the freedom to run the offense his way.  Given the limitations of the players he has available on offense right now, it’s hard to imagine that he feels it’s the head coach that’s constraining him.

Gator is Best-Served Fried

We always suspected that Gators had a hard time fielding punts, what with those stubby little arms and legs.  Now we know for sure.

Auburn-Florida was an ugly, hard to watch football game.  Neither offense was any good for most of the night—though, to be fair, both had to work around numerous injuries to key players—and both teams missed chances and made mistakes.  Having said that, a win is a win and a conference win is gold.  (And a win over Florida is gold in Ft. Knox.)

On the most controversial call of the game, we were surprised that McCalebb did not draw the punt-fielding interference penalty.   Coach Muschamp certainly didn’t seem particularly pleased about it. But as Florida showed as the game went along, they couldn’t catch a punt whether McCalebb was nearby or not, so let’s not make too big a deal about that call.  Steven “Steamin’” Clark* was a huge factor in the game.  He is having an All-SEC caliber season, pinning opponents deep, kicking long when Auburn needs it and kicking high to allow the coverage to arrive and limit returns (or to scoop the ball up in Florida’s case).   Once again, Auburn is taking advantage of what it does well—punt—to play field position and win.

The shift of quarterbacks after halftime was necessary.  And while Moseley wasn’t Danny Wuerffel coming on in relief, he was good enough to help earn the win with a couple of key throws in the second half.  There has been some discussion that Trotter should start against LSU, but we disagree; Moseley has earned the start, even if it comes in the house of horrors on Lake Ponchatrain.

(Thanks to “AUBlog” on Twitter for this little bit of trivia and cautionary note: The last Auburn QB to get his first start on the road was Jeff Klein, against Tennessee in 1999.  How did that go?  Van was there and remembers very well: Klein’s first pass—the first Auburn play of the game—became a Pick Six for the Vols.  Fireworks booming above Neyland a mere five seconds into the game?  Ugh.)

Rumble in Red Stick

News flash: LSU is playing at a very high level right now.  The defense is fast and all the players are excellent tacklers.  The offense is moving the ball and not hurting the team, as it has tended to do in past years.  (LSU is fourth in the nation in turnover margin, with sixteen takeaways and only three turnovers on offense in seven games.) In the past you could play tough defense and wait for LSU to self-destruct; this season they aren’t doing that.  Instead they are strangling teams with excellent defense and imposing their will with a strong running game.  For Auburn to have a chance to win this game on the road, they are going to have to raise their own level of play in every area.

(It doesn’t hurt that two of their best players have been suspended for this game, including their top running back and their top honey badger.)

What’s the recipe for Auburn getting out of that humid little town with a victory?  Play good defense against the run and don’t hurt ourselves.  Keep it a low-scoring defensive struggle and then try and steal it at the end.  The hardest part will be getting first downs on offense without taking chances, because the LSU defense is waiting for teams to take chances. Getting Blake back at receiver would be huge for this game, as he could provide a real option for taking advantage of play-action passing.  (He appeared for a handful of plays against Florida but was a non-factor, and remained questionable as we went to press.)

On defense this should be similar to the South Carolina game: stop the opposing tailbacks from running the ball.  Yes, Jarrett Lee is playing better than Stephen Garcia was, but allowing LSU to run is always a sure recipe for failure.   Ware and Ford are typical LSU tailbacks—big, productive runners.  (Fortunately, they’ll be without one of them—but the other is perfectly capable of inflicting massive damage.)  And last week LSU brought in noted bar-brawler Jordan Jefferson in the second half and he ran 14 times for 77 yards in an offense that will look quite familiar to Auburn fans.

Obviously LSU’s defense will be its usual Great Wall of Screaming Death, badger or no.  Points for Auburn will be at an absolute premium.  Chizik and Malzahn will likely pull out all the stops, run every bizarre trick play conceivable (in addition to the normal variety of “trick plays” that constitute half of our base offense), and go for it on numerous fourth downs.  Even so, every little point we can eke out will be vital.  The real question is, can Auburn’s defense work a similar feat on LSU’s offense—at least, enough to keep the game close and make the upset a possibility?  It will take a Herculean effort.  But it can be done.

And, hey—the game’s at 2:30, not 6:30.  That’s worth at least a few points for the good guys, right?

The Wishbone Power Rankings

Paul Finebaum used his inexplicably-granted column in Sports Illustrated this week to inform the country that the SEC is “down” this year.  Wow.  Thanks for that flash of insight, Paaawwwwl.  (As TheAuburner pointed out on Twitter, the fact that half of all SEC teams lose their games against other SEC teams clearly indicates to Finebaum that the SEC is mediocre.)

The Elite


LSU.  Remember what Les Miles always says, kids: grass is for eating, not for smoking.

The Very Good

Arkansas.  Can anyone else on their schedule—aside from LSU—beat them?  Will they finish 10-2, with that sterling record only good enough for third in the division?  Are they looking at the Capital One Bowl in a 10-2 year?  Yow.  It wasn’t even four years ago that LSU was winning a national championship with two losses.

The Good

Auburn.  We did not expect to have beaten both South Carolina and Florida at this point—particularly after the performances earlier in the year.  But there’s tough sledding still ahead.

Georgia.   Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the dirtiest team in the SEC.

South Carolina.  Without Lattimore, dreams of an SEC East repeat may be gone.  Not that they were looking too good even before that.

Florida.  A really good team until they force the other guys to punt.

The Mediocre

Tennessee.  About to face Alabama, and with their best players out.  Not good.

Mississippi State.  Still winless against the SEC West.

Vanderbilt.  If nothing else, you guys got the talk radio in Georgia blazing hot this week.

The Wretched

Ole Miss.  No, Admiral—it’s really not much of a trap.  Not at all.

Kentucky:  Our campaign for Randall Cobb to go straight into the Football Hall of Fame continues.

* Yep, there’s the Def Leppard dead guitarist reference again.  Maybe we should change our nickname for him to Steve “Mr.” Clark, after the deadly special forces assassin guy from the Tom Clancy novels…

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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About Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer

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