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The Wishbone: Auburn Finds a Way

Photo: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports
U Za Man!

It was an interesting question, and one we’d barely had a chance to contemplate as week 3 dawned on the Plains:  What would happen when an SEC team took away Auburn’s running game and forced Nick Marshall to make plays to beat them?  We found out the answer—or at least one answer– last Saturday night and the results were as good as or better than anyone could have expected.   Marshall was excellent down the stretch for Auburn and got the job done, hitting a variety of receivers and also scrambling for critical yards and first downs as he moved the team more than eighty yards for the winning score.

Now a new question arises:  Can Marshall do the same thing again, but this time for the majority of an entire game?  Because against LSU in his first start on the road in the SEC—in Death Valley at night, no less—that’s what he’s going to have to do if Auburn is to have any chance of winning.  No more overthrowing wide open receivers streaking toward the end zone; no more dropping the ball and hoping he can pick it up again and throw (no matter how well that happened to work the last time); no more completing deflected passes to himself and running for long gains (ditto). To beat the Bayou Bengals in said bayou, the good Tigers will need for everything to be clicking, and on all cylinders, and any other positive metaphors and similes you care to throw in.  And that’s just on offense, because we’ll need the defense to similarly rise to the grand occasion.

It’s a lot to ask from a young team leaving the nest for the first time this year.  A lot indeed.  Can they do it?  Can they succeed?  Can they go into the valley of the shadow of Les and pull out a miracle win?

This is a strange series—perhaps the strangest series Auburn plays, what with barns burning and earthquakes quaking and interceptions…um…intercepting, and on and on.  In short—anything can happen when these two things meet.  The very fabric of the space-time continuum can halfway unravel—and that’s in an uneventful AU-LSU clash.

The opportunity is there.  Anything can happen.  We shall see what actually does.

Which brings us to:

A Brief History of Recent Auburn Visits to Red Stick, aka Baton Rouge

Here are some links to visual highlights (or rather lowlights) of our Tigers’ visits to the other Tigers’ lair, just in case you’d like to remind yourself of the trend our team is seeking to reverse on Saturday:

2011 Auburn at LSU

2009 Auburn at LSU

2007 Auburn at LSU – You’ll remember this one for LSU’s miracle catch with one second to go– and Les Miles’s crazy decision to pass at the end of the game, instead of kicking it.

2005 Auburn at LSU – Auburn’s Kenny Irons runs for 200 yards—yaaay!– but kicker John Vaughn misses 5 field goals—ughh!

2003 Auburn at LSU – The original “Black Saturday,” which you will mostly remember for the poorly-coordinated 2003 Auburn offense:

2001 Auburn at LSU – LSU’s Nick Saban opens the game with an onsides kick. LSU scores.  After tying the score, Tommy Tuberville responds with an onsides kick that fails. Things didn’t much improve from that point.

So there you go, Tigers of the orange and the blue: a whole world of bad mojo, nasty karma, and Black Saturdays to erase.  No pressure!!


The Gus-AU-Meter: Auburn hits 70 plays, finally!

Progress! Progress!!

A Tale of Two Halves:

In the second half of the first three games last season:

17 total drives by the opposing team.  10 led to scores or scoring chances (2 missed field goals, 2 field goals and six touchdowns.)  Auburn caused one turnover and forced 4 punts.

In the second half of the first three games this season:

19 total drives by the opposing team.   Auburn has allowed four scores (3 field goals and a touchdown, all in the third quarter.)  Auburn has forced nine punts, forced two turnovers and caused three turnovers on downs.

In the first half of games this season:

Opposing passers completed 66% of their passes for 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions and a 130 quarterback rating.

In the second half of games this season:

Auburn is holding opposing quarterbacks to 49% passing, zero touchdowns and 1 interception with a quarterback rating of 81.  (Just a quick reminder that the best pass defense in college football last year held quarterbacks to a 95 rating over the course of the entire game.  If Auburn played that level of pass defense the entire game, this team would be ranked third in the nation in pass efficiency defense.)

There is Something Different about This LSU Team…….

In the past few years the LSU offense has been as well coordinated and creative as a group of four-year-olds playing soccer.  But something changed in the off-season: LSU brought in a new offensive coordinator in the person of former NFL coordinator and former college head coach Cam Cameron.  The 2013 LSU offense takes the same basic approach we have come to expect from the Bayou Bengals (smash you with a pool of physical talented tailbacks and then hit big plays to athletic receivers when you focus too much on the run), but it is much better designed and executed.  Some of the change is that Zack Mettenberger is playing much better than he did last season.   In 2012 he was very ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ and against Auburn in Jordan-Hare he was terrible.  In the Alabama – LSU game he was excellent.  In 2013 he has been consistently excellent.  Mettenberger has not thrown an interception and is completing 65% of his passes for 11.5 yards per attempt.   Last year Auburn could line up and simply stop the run and hang around in the game.   With Mettenberger playing better and a better coordinated offense, we’re thinking that strategy probably won’t work in 2013.

Keys to the game:

1)     LSU has been prone to mistakes this season.  They are 11th in the SEC in penalties and have turned the ball over in every game this season.  Young, inexperienced players have made key mistakes in each game, leading to big plays for the opponent.  Auburn needs to capitalize on these mistakes when they happen.

2)     Auburn must win the special teams battle.   Auburn’s special teams have been excellent this season (from the two point conversions to kickoff and punt returns to the kicking and punting).  LSU is 13th in the SEC in kickoff returns allowed so Tre Mason should have an opportunity to do some damage and give Auburn good field position in this game.  Several years ago Auburn came into this game and the LSU kick coverage unit was hitting so hard that it was clearly intimidating.  That can’t be allowed to happen this time.

3)     Can the 2013 version of the Gus Malzahn offense run the ball on SEC defenses?  This is the biggest question facing this Auburn team the rest of the 2013 season, and it must be asked after the shockingly poor rushing performance the Tigers turned in against MSU.   Here are the rushing yards per carry against SEC defenses for the Malzahn offense in years without Cam Newton at quarterback:  2009– 4.7 yards per carry, 2011– 4.08 yards per carry, 2013– 3.3 yards per carry (in one game).   Auburn must run the ball effectively to have a chance in these games.   Against LSU last season Auburn averaged 2.8 yards per carry.  Yes, that was with the Loeffler offense (as an Auburn fan when you say that now you have to spit, as in, “the Loeffler offense [spit]”), but it was this same group of players for the most part.  Can Auburn run the ball against LSU and have any success??

4)     The big plays all have to work on offense.   In each of the three games this season Auburn has had multiple big plays that it just narrowly missed on hitting.  The most obvious are the deep passing plays but there were also running plays that were one more decent block or cut away from being a long touchdown.  In order to go into Baton Rouge and upset LSU Auburn needs to succeed on 100% of those big play opportunities.  This 2013 Auburn offense isn’t going to drive up and down the field on LSU so a few big plays will need to be the difference in the game.

5)     When LSU’s defense breaks through into the backfield (and it will at some points during the game), Nick Marshall needs to make them pay for it.  If you look back at the last few games in this series, Auburn quarterbacks who lacked mobility and stood in the pocket got crushed by LSU defenders again and again.   Marshall can avoid that rush and take the ball upfield for positive plays.  Cancelling those negative plays and turning them into positive ones could be a big difference from past games in the series.

The Wishbone Power Rankings

The Elite:
Alabama  (A Nick Saban defense gave up the most yards in school history but they managed to survive.)

The Very Good:
Texas A&M (Florida’s polar opposite – all offense, no defense.)
South Carolina

The Good:
Ole Miss (They get a week off to recover from beating Texas and to prepare to face Alabama. We wish them well.)
Florida  (Will beat UT on Saturday, but it will be ugly as usual.)
Auburn (Auburn won an SEC game. Now can Auburn win an SEC road game for the first time in almost 2 years?)

The Not-So-Good:
Vanderbilt  (Can Vandy catch Spurrier and company with a hangover from the UGA loss?)
Tennessee (Yikes! Thanks for representing the SEC so well in PAC-12 country!)
Missouri (Still checking the mailbox for that Big 10 invitation…)
Arkansas (SEC football in New Jersey this weekend! Yeehaw!)
MSU (Dan Mullen kicks a rock in disgust.)

The Wretched:
Kentucky (But they did give Louisville a bit more than expected on Saturday, so maybe there are signs of life..!)

You can listen to Van and John’s even more in-depth analysis of Auburn’s performance against Mississippi State / preview of the LSU game here.

Photo: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

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 The Wishbone’s Decades of Dominance: Auburn Football in the Modern Era.

Keep Reading:

* Football rankings guru Richard Billingsley says Auburn should claim century-old crown: ‘My national championship for Auburn in 1913 is a very valid national championship’
* Auburn wore green jerseys TWICE in the 1930s
* Auburn coach car endorsements of yesteryear
* Gus Malzahn in college
* That time a cow won Miss Auburn

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