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The Wishbone: Roadkill

Auburn's offense needs some firepower of that magnitude.

Life on the road in the SEC is challenging, to say the least.  Last week Auburn, with its bevy of freshmen and sophomores, found out just how hard, as LSU hammered the visiting Tigers, 45-10.

It wasn’t pretty, as surely all of you know.  Auburn’s lone touchdown came very late, after the Bayou Bengals had subbed their way down to the local junior high school squad.

Nothing much worked at all.  Receivers were covered.  The running game was, for the most part, snuffed out.  Clint Moseley, in his first start at QB, exhibited a few signs that he might know what he’s doing back there, but it was hard to tell, considering the NFL-caliber defense he was operating against.  And, as against Arkansas, on those occasions when the offense would get something going, a critical mistake would set the Tigers back in the hole again.

Not even the tried and trusted (and much beloved) guaranteed touchdown-scoring cross-field throw to Lutzie.  Moseley seemed to have difficulty executing that play, which is not so surprising when you consider he had seemingly half the LSU defensive front dangling from his neck.  Now we know how poor Darron Thomas of the Oregon Ducks felt on January 10, as he sported his life-sized “Nick Fairley” necklace.

How sad has the receiving situation become?  Any guesses who the leading receiver might be, at this point in the season? Here’s a hint: He’s also the second-leading rusher.  OnnieMac himself, Onterrio McCalebb.  The player who is forever described as “a nice piece of our offense” or “a good change-of-pace guy,” and he’s our top overall weapon in the passing game and almost in the running game, too?  Heavens help us.

Is there any other position on the team that, given the fantastic recruiting work accomplished by this staff over the last three years, continues to seem so bleak?  Emory Blake was becoming the go-to guy this year, and yet he has never been what anyone would call the prototypical big-play wideout.  He’s more of a particularly gifted possession-type guy, in the mold of a Cris Carter.  And yet, compared to the rest of the receiving squad, he’s the second coming of Jerry Rice and Willie Gault.  So why don’t we have any other good, solid receivers?  This is something that must be addressed, and soon.

So the clash at LSU played out about the way it figured to: A big, tough, powerful LSU team, playing before a huge crowd (and a loud one—which affected our offensive line’s communications—even though it wasn’t played at night) soundly throttled the Tigers and sent them home smarting.

How did Auburn’s travel last weekend go from Club Med to something you would want to wash off the undercarriage of your car? And what does it mean?

It wasn’t Over When the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor!  First of all, the loss at LSU doesn’t mean we should panic or give up on these players or this team.  As we pointed out here last week, Auburn got crushed in Red Stick in 2009 and went on to great things (or at least to very surprisingly good things).  Outside of the Top 10 or so teams in America, something very much like that result would happen to everyone else in college football who ventured into Tiger Stadium right now.  (Those Top 10 teams would lose, too—they’d probably just keep it a bit closer).  Auburn has played the toughest schedule in college football so far this season, according to the Sagarin rankings—and it shows.

Trench Warfare.  Auburn got pushed around on both lines and that was the difference in the game. As the young but talented recruits that have come in get more time in the system and in the weight room this kind of thing won’t happen in the future.  (But we should take this opportunity to pause for a minute and appreciate just how great the 2010 offensive line was; that line helped Cam and company put up 400+ yards rushing on a similar defense.)  And seeing as how the offensive line was overwhelmed and unable to correct its mistakes during the flow of play, thanks to the bad communications, Mosley’s first start did not have much of a chance.  He kept at it, did not panic and didn’t make a lot of terrible decisions—only a couple of them.  He also showed on a few plays the poise and the arm strength that made everyone think, “Hmm… If he just had a little time and his top two receivers were healthy..!”

Narrow Margin.  We all knew that Auburn would somehow—miraculously, given all the youth on the squad—have to play a nearly flawless game to be in position to win at the end.  The Auburn defense was able to hang with LSU for a while, but the margin for error was too small and, all too soon, we blew right by it.   When a team as talented and well coached as LSU gets its drives extended for them by defensive penalties, pain will ensue.  (That one facemask penalty right before the half that led to the touchdown pass was the killer, though hardly the sole example.)

Not So Special.  The special teams needed to be really and truly special against LSU and they were not.  Punts, kickoffs, returns—all were mediocre at best on Saturday.  It was a good enough effort to win if every other phase of the game had been solid, but the kickers and returners couldn’t do all the heavy lifting themselves.

It wasn’t Just Us!  In its last four SEC games, LSU has outscored its opponents—Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn—by a combined score of 159-35!  And they were chanting “We want Bama!”  If nothing else, this makes us feel good about the days ahead.

So the old, beat-up pickup truck with Louisiana plates and the faint aroma of jambalaya and corn dogs emanating from the cab has run us over and chugged on toward the Bama state line.  We’ll see what happens when it rolls into Tuscaloosa in a week or so.  (It won’t do above thirty even on the Interstate.)  So—what now?

Mon Calamari: A Healthy Snack Alternative

Yes, we know they’re now the “Rebel Black Bears,” but you can’t convince us that it’s purely coincidence you can pull out the letters blACK BeARs from that name.  The question this week is, when the good Admiral brings the Mississippi fleet out of hyperspace and they suddenly appear just outside the Auburn end zone, will Ted Roof have the defensive shield switched on or not?  (It’s probably too much to ask that Gus have the Death Star’s planet-buster dish operational as well, given the state of our offense of late.)

What can we say about this epic clash of “Meh?”

Win or Die.  It’s not quite as bad as when Saddam’s boys used to take their losing soccer coaches out behind the stadium and shoot them in the head…but you have to think that Houston Nutt is coaching for his job in this game.  Truth be told, it’s probably beyond saving, anyway, but if he beats Auburn and Mississippi State he can show something when they come to drag him out behind Vaught-Hemingway.  In other words, Nutt and his staff are desperate men, and desperate men are dangerous.  So are cornered Black Bears, no matter how much you have to close one eye and squint with the other to see a bear and not a big alien fish-guy.  The fan base is brutally unhappy and unexcited about the future.  Egg Bowl aside, if there’s a game left on the schedule that they can win and that they’d love to win, this is probably it.  So we’d better be ready.

Almost the Worst.  Looking at the statistics from conference games, it’s easy to see why Ole Miss’s record is so bad.  The only categories where the Calamari are ranked in the top half of the SEC are net punting and punt returns.  Otherwise, the average rank for Ole Miss is 11th (to which Black Bears everywhere say, “Thank you, Randall Cobb-less UK!”)   Total offense?  They’re 11th.  Total defense? 11th.  Rushing defense?   228 yards allowed per game, which translates to—you guessed it—11th!  (The only important questions here are:  How did we not get to play this year’s Kentucky team and is this Kentucky team the worst SEC football team in the last ten years?)

So Close!   In last week’s surprisingly close game against the Hogs, Ole Miss turned everything over to young quarterback Randall Mackey, who handled the ball himself on 60% of the plays, throwing it 30 times and running it 13 times.  In contrast, their leading running back only carried the ball 14 times.  So Auburn must prepare for another mobile quarterback.   The Auburn defensive ends had a poor game against LSU and must rebound with a strong effort of pressuring and containing Mr. Mackey.

Dyer Possibilities?  Ole Miss is particularly weak against the run, and that should allow the Auburn offense to establish some momentum with Dyer and McCalebb, which should then enable Clint Moseley to have success with the play action pass.  (And aren’t we all interested in seeing how Moseley fares against a defense not currently leading the NFC South?)  That is assuming, of course, that someone on the Auburn team other than McCalebb actually plans to catch a pass this week.

If you look up the “2011 Auburn passing game” in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it only has two words printed on the page:  “MOSTLY HARMLESS.”  In order to have a chance to beat Georgia and Alabama, Auburn will need its air attack to graduate from “hummingbird” to “rabid vulture,” or at least “angry sparrow” level.  There’s certainly a greater likelihood of that happening this wee than last, anyway.

The Wishbone Power Rankings

The Elite

LSU.  That’s right, LSU first.  We think it’s pretty obvious.  But, yeah, we’ll be tuning in next weekend, just like everyone else.

Alabama.

The Very Good

Arkansas.  Still locked on course for the Capital One Bowl.

The Good

Georgia.   At least until the annual Mark Richt horror fest that is the Cocktail Party.  (And if UGA can’t beat Florida this year…maybe they ought to consider moving to the West, where they’d only have to face the Gators every few years.)

Auburn.  As soon as we get the pickup truck tire stains removed from Aubie’s fur.

South Carolina.  Hey, everyone knew a team from South Carolina would have a great season in 2011… oops.

Florida.  Even though Open Week University held the Gators offense to negative yardage.

The Mediocre

Tennessee.  Way to hang with Alabama, Mr. Orange Pants.  Honestly, it was sort of like watching a car wreck in extremely slow motion: There was Dooley, driving along happily with a 6-6 tie—and then that semi came out of nowhere and just blindsided the Vols, as Dooley ever-so-slowly deflated.

Mississippi State.  Kentucky at Lexington?  Hey—the Other Daws should get a conference win this week!

Vanderbilt.

The Wretched

Ole Miss.  Can they move up out of this category this week??

Kentucky:  Can we just play Jax State every week?

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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