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Signs of Hope, Reasons for Despair

While the Wishbone hunkered down last weekend in anticipation of a 2011 style a$$-whipping Saturday evening, something amazing happened.   Down 9-0 and with things teetering on the brink of disaster, the Auburn defense stood up and punched LSU in the face and announced to the world “We are tired of getting pushed around!”

Signs of hope, indeed!

But then there was the other side of the ball.  And that brings us to a few words Van needs to get off his chest.  Yes, it’s Rant Time.

Van’s Rant of the Week  (Something we hope will not have to become a regular feature!)

If there was a trophy for games that provoked mixed feelings in my heart and soul, last weekend’s LSU game would likely retire that trophy.

The defense? As epic a “rise up and stuff ‘em” performance as we’ve seen since the Oregon game.  Simply magnificent.  The only thing better than seeing our guys hold LSU to a paltry 10 points on offense was watching as Auburn defenders not only tackled (!!) the LSU backs—they gang-tackled, figuratively “punched ‘em in the mouth,” and did everything but pull a knife or gun on ‘em on the way down.  Given the loose talk from last year’s game by LSU players about how soft the Auburn defense was, and how our guys would just get out of the way as they charged through, the events of September 22 made for a very, very welcome sight.

The special teams?  Not a great performance—not even up to their usual standards—but it should have been enough to get the job done.  Yes, Quan Bray’s fumbled punt in the second half provided LSU with the field position to eke out their margin of victory, but overall twelve points should have been a number we could top.

And that brings us to the weak link, the glaring flaw, in our team on Saturday night.  The offense.

Do I blame the players?  Not so much.

This offense has been called “predictable” numerous times this season already—and that’s one of the more polite things that’s been said of it.  “Bone-headed” might be a better term.

We can jump on Kiehl Frazier all we want, but his stat line read 13/22 for 97 yards; 4.4 average;  0 touchdowns;  2 interceptions.  That’s not Heisman-caliber by any means, but considering what we’ve seen earlier this year, it (like the special teams performance) should have been just enough.

No, the most glaring statistic for me is this:

Tre Mason:  9 carries, 54 yards;  6.0 average;  0 TDs;  long 26

Onterrio McCalebb:  11carries, 24 yards; 2.2 average;  1 TD; long 20

I like Onterrio McCalebb as a player.  There have been times I absolutely loved having him in our offense—many times.  But there’s no doubt that he is a special sort of player, and has to be used that way.  He is a home run hitter.  He’s either going to hit you a home run, or he’s going to strike out. And, using him the way he’s being used currently, he’s going to get you a lot more strikeouts than home runs.

In the LSU game, he totaled 24 yards rushing—but with one carry for 20 and the other ten going for a total of four.  Four!  (The surprise to me here was that the other ten went for positive yards at all!)

One sequence in the second half summed it up.  Auburn was trailing by two points.  We were moving the ball—I believe Frazier had actually completed a good pass to start the drive—and then we went to McCalebb on the end sweep four times in six plays.  He lost yards (or was stopped for no gain) all four times.  The drive died and we punted the ball away again.

We did not need a home run in that circumstance.  And we absolutely did not need a strikeout.  We needed a base hit.  Look at Tre Mason’s numbers and tell me the smart play here was not to try, at least one time on that series, for a base hit (first down) with Mason off-tackle or on the draw.

I understand that the thinking going in was, “If we run the sweep wide with McCalebb, it will prevent the LSU pass rush from coming up the middle hard and disrupting Frazier’s passing.”  Sure, I get that.  But you also have to establish a decent conventional run game—something Tre Mason has done quite well, in the limited opportunities he’s had to show it thus far this season.

(Here is a pair of bold statements for you:  If Tre Mason were being used correctly in this offense, he would gain a thousand yards this season.  As it stands, he will not.  And—if Mike Dyer was still playing on this team, and staying out of trouble, Auburn would be undefeated right now, or at least no worse than 3-1.  Do with those statements what you will.)  (John’s comment – Van and I will debate this last point next week)

When will I know this team is truly improving across the board?  When the offense does the sensible thing—or even the bold, clever thing—and not the obviously boneheaded thing.

Some have compared last weekend’s game to the early Pat Dye games in which Auburn would fight and claw and come up just short against a more powerful opponent.  I didn’t really see that.  For that to be the case, there would need to be a sense of general and overall improvement across the team—a sense that things were getting profoundly better and that we simply needed to catch a few breaks and then we could turn the corner and be playing for championships again.

What I saw was more akin to the 1998 Tennessee game, where Auburn brought a very flawed team to the contest, somehow managed to keep the score manageable (mainly due to strong defensive play), was in a position to win late, and came up short, largely due to weak coaching in at least one phase of the game.

Some said prior to Saturday that to beat LSU we would need a performance of the variety made famous by Tommy Tuberville’s squads: come out of nowhere and take down the heavily-favored foe.  Indeed, had Auburn won the game, this season would have resembled nothing so much as a Tuberville season at Auburn, with a loss to a lesser team followed by an epic upset of a better team.

This time, it was not to be, and my disappointment was profound for days afterward.

I’ve come around a bit since then.  I’ve tried to focus on the positives—the defense, obviously, and the positive environment the star recruits at the game experienced.  But then there’s still that offense—“Loeff Miserables,” as we dubbed it last week—and I really don’t know what to think about it.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Why Saturday Night was Important

It was great to see Auburn stand toe to toe with a top ten team and be in the game.  That hasn’t happened since the national title game against Oregon. (If only there were a book where we could read about that game and that season…!)  In 2011 Auburn was not competitive in those games and the cry and focus of the fans was, “no more blowouts – stay in the game with the top teams in the SEC, with a chance to actually win them.” And that is what happened Saturday night.

In the 2011 game in Baton Rouge, Auburn was pushed around and intimidated by LSU’s physicality.  In the 2012 game Auburn did plenty of pushing around of its own.  This Auburn team needed to show its fans, the rest of the SEC and especially itself, that it could play with a level of intensity and physicality to match the other top SEC schools.  And it did.

Defensive Improvement

As we requested a few weeks ago in discussing our desire for Auburn to actively try get called for some ‘piling on’ penalties, Auburn needed to bring more people to the ball every time on defense.  And Saturday night that happened.  In the Clemson game those extended runs by the running back were the result of Auburn failing to bring enough tacklers to the ball.  That wasn’t a problem this time.

This will be something to watch going forward, but we suspect that this Auburn defense may be better against traditional, I-formation offenses and less effective against spread offenses.  (Did you notice how LSU tried to go to 3-4 wide receivers more often as the game went along?  They wanted to get Auburn out of our base defense and then run against our nickel defense.)  Auburn was not physically pushed around by the LSU running game and the coverage was generally good.  The defensive line in particular was impressive in this game.  In the first three games of 2012 the defensive tackles were often pushed out of position or moved away from the line of scrimmage.  In this game the Auburn defense tackles held their own (at the minimum) or controlled the middle of the line for large portions of the game. And that’s against the pretty powerful LSU run game.

And we had some young player sightings too!  Joshua Holsey playing great defense on the long LSU pass into the end zone late in the game.   Both Erique Florence and Robinson Therezie showed up on defense and played.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Auburn has a week off to recover and prepare for the one team that has stunningly disappointed its fans even more than the Tigers have—Arkansas.  (Well, yes—there’s also Wisconsin and Colorado and… you get the picture.) We will have plenty of time to discuss the Hogs next week.  But Auburn needs to spend this week finding ways to boost offensive production and consistency.  To continue Van’s analogy above, less swinging for the fences and more getting singles and moving runners over.  We believe that Auburn has the personnel to do this.   But the design and the execution have to be better on offense for the record to improve.

Never, Ever Forget

Even in the lesser years, Jordan-Hare Stadium is a tough place to play at night.  Lots of people around the country want to say “Auburn sucks and since LSU was in the game with them then LSU clearly isn’t very good.”  But coming into J-H at night is not an easy task, especially for new quarterbacks.  LSU’s Mettenberger had not started an SEC road game and it showed.   And Les Miles knew it – he played super conservatively and let his defense win the game rather than letting Mettenberger lose it.

The Wishbone Power Rankings

The Elite:

Alabama
LSU  (They dropped to 3rd nationally behind Oregon—we’ll take that as a commentary on LSU’s performance—and Oregon’s—rather than a criticism of Auburn as a weak opponent!)

The Very Good:
UGA
South Carolina  (The East is suddenly somewhat interesting again…)

The Good:
Florida  (reality check coming in two weeks against LSU)
MSU
Tennessee
Auburn (Welcome back to the Good, good guys!)
Texas A&M  (Can the new guys get their first conference win against John L. Smith and the Hogs this weekend?)

The Not So Good:
Missouri  (They look good at times, but can’t quite get it done. They’ll go for their first-ever SEC win on October 6, when they face the team just below them here.  Aaaaaand then they play Alabama.  Oh well…)
Vanderbilt

The Wretched:
Arkansas
Ole Miss  (Can the new Hugh Freeze offense do anything against Bama????)

The Lost to a Big Red Blob:
Kentucky  (What’s the opposite of a Hilltop?  A malarial swamp?)

 

Related: The Top 5 Auburn Bye Weeks of All Time.

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 are waiting for you here.

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