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The Wishbone: In Stark Need of a Win

Dan Mullen hopes his new offense will confuse Auburn!

What did we learn from Saturday night in Atlanta?  Several things:  1. The Moe’s in the Peachtree Center Food Court isn’t there anymore;  2. “Stormtrooper” is still a fan-favorite costume after all these years;  3. Humidity sucks;  4. MARTA sucks; and  5. There is still plenty of quality “Hard Science Fiction” literature out there to be found, despite the recent proliferation of “vampire/zombie” and post-apocalyptic fiction.

Wait, wait, wait.  Those are actually things Van learned at DragonCon on Saturday.  Here are some things we learned not at #DragonCon but at #DragonBowl on Saturday night:  1. Food in the Georgia Dome still isn’t great; 2. “Orange-clad peckerwood” is still a fan-favorite costume for Clemson fans after all these years; 3. Humidity sucks; 4. MARTA sucks whether you’re going to a convention or a game; and 5. There is still plenty of poor-quality play waiting to be had from Clemson, to keep you in the game with them, and therefore they will probably drop three or four games this year and almost lose to Maryland again.

But enough about spaced-out SF fans and drug-addled Clemson mascots.  What did we learn about our own beloved Auburn from the first game of the season?  With a new offense and new defense, what do we know about Auburn now that we didn’t know before?  Is Auburn more prepared heading into SEC play after a game against a top 20 team or is Mississippi State more prepared after a home game against a bad I-AA (or Football Bowl Subdivision or whatever they are calling it now) team??

How did Auburn’s new offense do?

If you could use one word to describe the Scot Loeffler offense after one game, what would it be?  We saw I-formation with new fullback Jay Prosch (footnote: our condolences to Jay and his family) crushing linebackers in his path, one-back formations, shotgun formations that seemed familiar and even a few designed quarterback run plays.  The offense was multiple and more “pro-style” than what Auburn has been running.   Each play had a huddle and there was no mass “meerkat” look-over to the sidelines to change the call.  (Though we did see that—and the “hand the ball to the ref after the play” maneuver—from Arkansas State in their first game under new coach Gus Malzahn at Oregon later that night!)

The key to the 2011 matchup with Clemson was third down plays and that again was a big issue for the Auburn offense on Saturday as they only converted 37% (4 for 13).  Auburn had chances on third down plays to keep drives moving – open receivers, running lanes, etc.—but those chances were squandered.  In order to do what is was designed to do, this Auburn offense must get better on third down.  This lack of success led to Auburn losing the time of possession battle to a team running a hurry-up offense –something that is not easy to do.  The Auburn defense did give up a ton of yards in this game, but for this team to be successful the Auburn offense needs to hold onto the ball for longer stretches of the game.

Another issue was red zone offense.  While Auburn scored each time it got close, four field goals aren’t going to do it against many teams.  Who can make a play when Auburn gets close?  The Trovon Reed catch out the back of the end zone was one of the key plays in the game; he was open and Frazier threw it a little too far. Reed needs to focus on the boundary so he can give Frazier a target in the end zone.  On the other hand, Reed probably won’t make that mistake again. These kinds of mistakes combined with the penalties in the red zone held Auburn back and must be corrected.

How did Kiehl Frazier do in his first start as quarterback?

Which statistical line below is that of Frazier in the Clemson game Saturday night?

A)  11 for 27, 194 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception

B) 13 for 23, 112 yards with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions

C) 11 for 20, 155 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception

D) 14 for 21, 192 yards, with no touchdowns and no interceptions

Tough question?   The correct answer is A.

Answer B is the stat line for Tahj Boyd in his first serious game action.   Answer C is Jason Campbell at Syracuse as a young quarterback.   Answer D is Aaron Murray of UGA in his first ever road start at South Carolina.    The point of this exercise is not to give up on Frazier after one game.

Frazier had several plays where the receivers were open and he had time to throw, and he just missed them.  A 40% completion percentage won’t cut it, especially in this offense.   Fortunately, Frazier has the talent and the quarterback coach to correct those mistakes.   If he hits most of those open receivers this game has a different outcome.   Additionally, his running with the football was not an asset in this game.  He was sacked twice.  Other than those two plays he ran the ball (on purpose a few most times, most of the time when forced out of the pocket) and gained a net negative nine yards for the day.  Frazier needs to be a change of pace runner to keep the defense off balance.   When the Auburn defense was collapsing the pocket on Boyd, he made plays and got first downs.  Auburn needs Frazier to do the same.

The interception he threw was basically an “arm-punt” (Trademark of the “Solid Verbal” Podcast).  It was third and long and Auburn wasn’t making a first down.  Having said that, it was a terrible pass into double coverage that should never have been thrown.

How did the new defense do?

The Brian Van Gorder era at Auburn did not start out well.   We have both high hopes and complete faith in the Mustache Man (said John’s wife, after seeing him on the sideline: “He looks like he belongs in the 1970s.”), BUT, giving up 320 yards to anyone is unacceptable.  Yes, Andre Ellington is good and Clemson’s offense is well-designed.  But that wasn’t the best offensive line Auburn is going to face this year, or the second best.  So the run defense needs to tighten up considerably if this team is to have any chance of success.   Players were out of position.   Tackling was very poor—seeing Andre Ellington do his “Mike Dyer against Oregon” impersonation once was bad, but when he did it a second time while Auburn defenders watched and did not gang-tackle him was inexcusable.

Photo by Josh S. Kelly

This is the biggest concern about the 2012 team right now: SEC teams will be lining up to run the ball down Auburn’s throat.   Immediate improvement is required, whether through coaching, playing different players, or whatever.

The bright spot on defense was the pass rush, as we thought it might be.  Auburn had four sacks and five tackles for losses against Clemson and about 15 other plays when it SHOULD have been a sack or a tackle for a loss.   Auburn’s defensive ends brought great pressure, and against a less mobile quarterback this will result in a large number of sacks or hurries, but Boyd did a great job moving in the pocket and his running in the second half won the game for Clemson.  We did like how aggressive Van Gorder was on defense – it seemed like a lot more blitzes than last year.

Overall the defense was a mixed bag.  The run defense was poor, the pass rush was good and the pass coverage was mediocre.  Despite that, Auburn was winning 19-16 in the fourth quarter.   The defense did its primary job of keeping Auburn in the game and giving them a chance to win.

Things will get better as the season goes along.

What about this Saturday against Mississippi State?

1) Dan Mullen was rubbing his hands together and laughing maniacally while watching Andre Ellington Saturday night.  Expect the run.  Ladarius Perkins was the “outside running back” last year and Vic Ballard was the “inside guy.”  Ballard is gone and Perkins is trying to be the every-down back.  Perkins did rush for 84 yards against Auburn last year.  As a team MSU ran 63 times for 356 yards last year in this game.  They plan to try to do the same thing this year – holding down the rushing attack is the most important challenge for Auburn in this game.

2)  The Chris Relf era is over.  Do you miss it?  The new MSU quarterback is Tyler Russell, who did not play against Auburn last year.   Russell is more of pocket passer than Relf but is much more accurate.   Expect a slightly more traditional offense from MSU this year and less of the Mullen Florida-Utah spread quarterback-run offense.   Russell is a young quarterback and is not as mobile as Boyd was.  Auburn needs to get in the backfield and make him uncomfortable in the pocket.  This is doable and we have a lot of confidence in it happening.

3) The best one-on-one matchup of the week will be Emory Blake against MSU cornerback Jonathan Banks.   Banks is the best cornerback in the SEC in 2012 and he has the size and speed to take Blake out of the game.  Someone else at wide receiver MUST step up this week for Auburn to win the game.  It doesn’t matter who it is – Trovon Reed, Quan Bray, Sammie Coates, etc.—but someone else needs to make some plays in the passing game this week for Auburn to win the game.

Other games to watch this week:

Florida at Texas A&M:  The Florida offense is not good.  That sentence could be from any of the last few seasons, including this one.  Really- when was the last Florida receiver who scared you?  The matchup of the wide open passing of the Aggies offense against the Florida defense will be fun to watch though.

Georgia at Missouri:  UGA is missing several defenders on suspension and is walking into a game against one of the best offenses in the conference.  The rest of the SEC will get to learn about James Franklin (he is very good) and the team that most of us didn’t want.  (Van notes: HEY!)

We are calling it now – BOTH NEW SEC TEAMS WIN ON SATURDAY.

Wishbone SEC Power rankings:

The Elite:
LSU, Alabama

The Very Good:
Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas

The Good:
Tennessee, Texas A&M, Missouri, Florida, Auburn, MSU, Vanderbilt

(A real logjam at that position this week, mainly because it’s early yet. Separation will come.  And hey, have we ever ranked Vandy this high before?)

The Not-So-Good:
Ole Miss

The “Should be Relegated to Conference USA”:


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.

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.

Related: Shug—”The cowbells have no place in football.”

Keep Reading:

Shug Jordan dug the heck out of houndstooth
* Jaime Edmondson sports Auburn shirt in Cam Newton’s Pants photos
* Apple CEO Tim Cook only writes personal email replies to Auburn fans
Playboy in Jordan-Hare… 1994

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