If you’re like me–and from what I’ve read in my comments section and the other Auburn-centric places around the Internets, you are–the moments immediately after Neiko Thorpe’s tackle of Zeke Markshausen on the Auburn 2 (the 2!) were seriously, seriously weird. Auburn had just won the game–the battiest, most back-and-forth, wildest and wooliest game they’ve played in years. It was on New Year’s Day. It came against a quality team. There should have been nothing but joy, the kind of pure and unbridled joy we experienced two years and a day ago when Kodi dashed into the end zone to beat Clemson.
But there wasn’t, at least not for me. For starters, the last few minutes had already conditioned us to celebrate cautiously–we all had to wait to find out if there was some new horrible pain the game could inflict. Then we could start celebrating. That pause didn’t lend itself to joy. Then there was the mountain of frustration that had built up over the course of the game, the kind of mountain that usually crumbles as soon as the game end in victory but this time … didn’t. Not quite.
For a few reasons. Like watching a warrior like Ben Tate come within an eyelash of going out with not one but two backbreaking plays that came within an eyelash of costing Auburn the game singlehandedly. Like the combination of rotten luck and questionable officiating (more on this in a sec) that had snatched the win out of Auburn’s hands at the last possible moment a half-dozen times already. Like the avalanche of penalties that showed that Chizik and Co. still have a lot of work to do in that nebulous field of “discipline” (though I don’t think you can blame the coaches for seniors who we all know know better acting the fool.) Most substantially, for me, like the fact that Auburn’s offense had once again been presented with opportunity after opportunity after gilt-freaking-edged opportunity to seize the game by the throat–just as they had against Georgia, just as they had against Alabama–and by God refused again and again to take it. Even after Thorpe had brought Markshausen, I couldn’t quite brush all that aside.
Not yesterday, anyway. Today, it’s different, though.That stuff doesn’t matter any more. Or at least, it doesn’t matter much. For two reasons:
1. The Todd Van Emst photograph that heads up this post.
2. The most unbelievable statistic to come out of a game that produced any number of eye-popping numbers: Northwestern took 115 offensive snaps, and Josh Bynes, Craig Stevens, Daren Bates, and Neiko Thorpe–the same Neiko Thopre that made the game-saving play–were on the field for all 115.
115. Remember the Tide slugfest, how exhausted the guys seemed to be at the end? The Tide ran 67 plays that game, or only 58 percent as many as Northwestern ran this game. Remember the Arkansas-Kentucky 7-OT classic from 2003? Neither team topped 103 plays. For the ‘Cats to have run 115 plays is a joke. For four of Auburn’s players to be on the field for all of them is just about beyond belief. For one of those four to have his head on straight enough to realize the ‘Cats were faking the FG and his body to have enough energy in it to shrug off the block of a player much larger than him and bring down the ball-carrier … what on earth do we say about that kind of effort? What kind of reward do we offer that kind of sacrifice?
We offer the photograph, that celebration, the unbridled joy that maybe we didn’t get but they most certainly did and even more certainly deserved. Some games–the Iron Bowl, most notably–are about more than the team. They’re about the team and the fans and the Auburn community and Auburn history and a hundred other things besides. A bowl game, though, is about the players, I’d say–they’re the ones who earned the right to play it, the ones who get the reward of the week in the destination, the older ones who will never play for Auburn again.
Those players went out and played their hearts out, just as they had all season, and four of them–Bynes, Stevens, Bates, and Thorpe, it’s worth repeating the names–played 115 snaps. If they were overjoyed at the end of that game, if Chris Todd and Antonio Coleman and Andrew McCain and Tommy Trott and Jake Ricks and Walt McFadden and even Ben Tate and all the other seniors got to walk off their final college football field as winners, if those players got the reward they deserved, then that’s all that counts.
We can worry about everything else later. For now, this team and those players are winners and always will be. That’s enough.
Other assorted observations
— If that’s the Darvin Adams we get all next year, we should start pulling together some gift baskets for the All-SEC voters. Nothing that he got his hands on got dropped, no amount of early contact could lodge a ball loose, no route was run with less than total sharpness. We should have one of those baskets already ready for Trooper Taylor, who took a player with zero career catches against I-A competition and turned him into one of the most productive receivers in Auburn history.
— I know I’m going to be virtually alone in this amongst the Auburn faithful, but … I didn’t think the officials were that bad. The call of Adams’ 4th-and-4 catch was an awful botch job, certainly, and Auburn sure could have used the help from flags on the early contact plays with Adams I just mentioned, the contact with Durst, a hold here or there on Coleman or Carter that wasn’t called. But with the exception of the Adams failure-to-reverse, that’s still routine officiating stuff we’d gripe about after every game, and those kinds of calls helped Auburn as much as they hurt–witness the massive offensive PI flag against the ‘Cats that could have very easily flown on the Carr TD as well.
As for the late-game calls against Auburn–the Fairley facemask, the Kafka non-fumble, the Thorpe “batting” penalty, the Bell roughing-the-kicker call–every single one of those was the correct call. (The “batting” play looked like your garden-variety incomplete pass to me rather than a catch, but what Thorpe did was definitely illegal, and of course if he just falls on it it’s not an issue if they’d ruled it a fumble.) I wouldn’t dare call it a well-officiated game and maybe I’ll feel differently after watching it a second time, but I’ll still take those guys over the Kentucky crew.
— Todd’s line: 20-of-31, 235 yards, 1 TD, no picks. Great to see him go out by giving Auburn exactly what we wanted from him. At the same time … oh, what could have been if we’d gotten that same performance against ‘Bama.
— As maddening as the five consecutive Auburn possessions (spanning the second and third quarters) that crossed (or began) across midfield without putting a point on the board were, I think in the final tally we can’t be too upset with the Auburn offense as a whole. Remember that if you don’t count the end-of-half kneel-down or the two “possessions” in which the Auburn offense never actually saw the field (following McFadden’s pick-six and Washington’s fumble), Auburn’s offense only got 14 regulation possessions vs. 17 for Northwestern. Given the kind of field position Auburn had they should have turned those 14 into more than 28 points, but looking at that stat, the 5.9 vs. 5.4 yards-per-play advantage Auburn had, the perfect conversion rate in the red zone (at least in regulation) and the 5-to-3 turnover margin, I think you can make an argument that with the help of the NU kicker, Auburn’s offense was at least as efficient as Northwestern’s. Strange, looking at the total yardage numbers … but true.
— I know Northwestern’s DBs made a couple of great plays, but the bottom line is that Kodi put up two passes yesterday, and both got picked off. The Burnscat experiment had a couple of productive moments yesterday–the TD, another couple of productive runs (though unfortunately not the one from the 4 in OT)–but I still think we haven’t seen it repay the investment Malzahn’s put into it.
— The coaches deserve some stick for being so totally unable to play with a lead–that Auburn finished the season giving up 14-0 leads in three straight games is beyond frustrating–but it’s also worth remembering that this is now a two-year problem for this program. Of Auburn’s 12 losses in 2008 and 2009, they’ve held a second-half lead in eight of them.
— Fumble or no fumble, who else is excited for an entire season of Demond Washington returning kickoffs?
— It should tell you something about how Auburn’s recruiting has gone the past few years that on ESPN’s ticker-presented shortlist of Mel Kiper’s senior NFL prospects, Northwestern had as many players featured (three) as Auburn did. (Coleman, Tate, and McFadden were Auburn’s representatives.)
Ben Tate. Finishes his senior season fourth in the single-season yardage race and fifth in the all-time yardage record books at Auburn. Auburn. Wish his final game had gone differently, but there’s no way to shortchange that kind of a career. Hardly his fault the program around him had as many issues as it did.
Walt McFadden. As incredible as Adams was, I think McFadden’s impact–the 1-0 lead belonged to him and him alone–was even greater. He should have been the MVP.
Wes Byrum. Finished the season perfect on extra points and drove the pressure-packed OT kick smack through. If Auburn’s offense (and coaches) had given him more opportunities, he would have had a season for the ages. Hell, he did anyway.
Your bottom line
Think about how many high points Auburn gave us in 2008. I count .5 high points–the easy victory over a decent Southern Miss team.
Now think about how many we got this year: the bludgeoning of an even more decent Miss. St. team; the shootout with West Virginia; beating Kiffykins in Knoxville; upsetting Ole Miss; playing the pants off of Alabama; and surviving the ‘Cats to win a New Year’s Day bowl game.
That is a dramatic, dramatic improvement there, I’d say. So what happens next year if Chizik and Co. increase the number of high points in anything resembling a similar fashion? We can only dream.
It’s been a hell of a year. It could have been better, sure, but still, it’s OK … because next year will be better. It can’t get here fast enough.
John Felton says
Did AU get a 4 star db recruit this Sat.?
Excellent work, Jerry, as it has been all season. I would describe you as a “manbeater”, but despite hearing that word two dozen times yesterday, I still have no idea what it’s supposed to mean.
I have just returned from “sunny” Tampa and the Outback bowl. I don’t know if I have ever been more proud of an Auburn Team. Yeah, they are not perfect, mistakes were made, but we have hope. My friend and I were comparing how we felt this time last year to now….no comparison, it’s great to be an Auburn Tiger.
Is it september yet?
I’m sort of hoping that in some alternate universe where Chizik speaks candidly in interviews he will say that in order to play competitively with this talent we have to accept the slop, or in order to turn this team into a USCw or an Oklahoma 2008 we have to instill aggressiveness that in the first year looks like a lot of 15 yard penalties and blown leads. Thats what I’m hoping… otherwise I’m not thrilled that Chizik’s first Auburn team just looked sloppy for stretches this season. But hey, Tubberville bored us to death holding on to 2 score leads, so I’m willing to go through these growing pains if it means having a team that doesn’t take its foot off the gas when we go up by 3 in the 1st quarter.
My only real comments about the officiating;
Where was Walter McFadden’s personal foul? High-stepping? Seriously? Sure, he started at like the 40, but that’s N’Western’s fault for not even trying to pursue.
There’s a reason why there’s Roughing and Running Into the kicker. I don’t care if he did get hurt. It was incidental. Is it automatically a personal foul whenever a player at any other position gets hurt?
And lastly, yes, Ben Tate can dunk the ball as much as he wants to. In fact, as soon as he saw the flag thrown he should have picked the ball up and dunked it again. Then picked up the flag and dunked it. And when Chizik started to shun him, he should’ve ran out there and took the ball off the kickoff tee and dunked it again. Ben’s earned that right.
John, not that I’m aware of–but if you know something different, do tell.
Dave, Spielman meant “a route used to beat man coverage,” i.e. something that would get NU’s receivers open against Auburn’s press. Hope that helps.
AubOrange, sorry, but I have to disagree with … well, everything. McFadden’s high-step followed by the little move in the end zone is a flag 10 times out of 10. There is a reason for “Running Into”–but it’s so when a player sort of bumps the kicker while standing up, it’s 5 yards. When a player collides with a kicker’s leg, that’s roughing, regardless of intent, for exactly the reason you saw–it’s easy as hell for those guys to get hurt in that situation. If Bell didn’t want the penalty, he shouldn’t have dove late into the kicker rather than across. And as for Tate, c’mon–you’re telling me that once a player has accomplished enough, he should just be allowed to do whatever he wants, even if it hurts the team–even if it costs them the freaking game–just because he’s “earned that right”? When, exactly, did he earn it? Are there other players who have earned it? Puh-leeze.
Jerry, you beat me to it. I was going to have to disagree with the Tate part as well. Tate’s earned the right to celebrate WITH HIS TEAM. Bynes, Stevens, Thorpe, and Bates had also earned the right to not have to defend a short field on that drive. And no matter what, NO player has ever earned the right to throw something in the coach’s face in the manner you described. Ben has been a fantastic running back at Auburn. Were it not for the horrendous offense of 2008, I’m pretty sure he would be much higher on Auburn’s all-time list at the end of this season. But he should have known better than to do that. He should have gone over to the sidelines and celebrated, and after the game was officially over he could have run over and dunked the ball through the goalpost to his heart’s content. And the McFadden play was the same thing. Showboating like that is going to get flagged EVERY time. I understand that it was McFadden and Tate’s last game at Auburn and they wanted to celebrate, but the manner in which they chose to do it was inappropriate and almost cost the team the game.
Said it on Track ’em, I’ll say it here
Mark Ingram would have been rejected by the crossbar
I don’t put McFadden’s penalty in the same league as Tate’s. McFadden had just made an incredible play on the ball and returned a pass 102 freakin’ yards, resulting in a 14 point (or at least a 10-point) swing. I will forgive some showboating after that…in fact I will forgive it with a smile on my face.
Tate, on the other hand, took a handoff around left end and went into the end zone after a 4-5 yard run untouched. It’s a play he should make 100 times out of 100. Dunking the ball through the uprights, when the game was still in question, followed by his fumble (due to poor ball protection), almost gave him the Goat of the Game award.
Looking forward to Spring 2010…the era of Kodi-wildcat is over…lost two scoring drives to his floaters though I can’t give him 100% of the blame. Despite the fact the passes were obviously short, Fannin never broke stride to go after passes…the difference between a running back as a pass receiver and someone like Adams or Zachery….guarantee that if A or Z were the targets the outcome would have been different….they both know how to go get the ball and don’t just wait for it to arrive. The coaches owed Kodi for the way he handled losing the QB job but the debt has been paid and time to move on to a more dangerous wildcat runner.
WBE — Just like you said in this very article, bowl games are for the players. And more importantly, the senior players. Take 15 yards off his career total. He’s still a beast, and still the main reason we won as many games as we did this year. Hell, let’s say he did break the defense’s back on the next drive — take a touchdown off his resume, and he’s still great.
You know what, even if he did it seven times, and lost the game for the team himself, I wouldn’t even care. Because he WON the game for the team against Tennessee and Ole Miss, and the team LOST the game for HIM against Arkansas.
Obviously I’m exagerrating, and I was exagerrating when I say he should dunk the flag and all that. But I loved that he did it, because that’s what he wanted to do.
And yes, you CAN earn that right. It’s simple math. When you’ve amassed 1,300 yards in a season, you can take a 15 yard penalty or two or three. And he only did it once. It’s certaintly nothing anybody should be up in arms about, or even mentioning.
You know, I have a bad feeling that if McFadden, or AC, or Josh Bynes, somebody that’s “supposed” to have that “swagger” did it, some folks would be celebrating it.
On that note, I still don’t see the McFadden flag. Seriously. Maybe it’s because he started at the 30. But he did the same stuff on his Ole Miss pick six. That’s not 10 out of 10 times. I’ve seen much worse without flags, and if you say you haven’t, then you need to open your eyes.
Ted — With Newton coming in, it does look like Kodi’s taken most of his last snaps under center. But you never know; Malzahnn can’t get enough weapons. I’m still looking forward to him as a receiver, and I mean that. People joke about his interceptions and whatnot, but he did show us something while running that wildcat (and in one of his catches the other day) — the dude can break some tackles. Seriously, he always falls forward for an extra four yards, when other receivers with more speed and less size couldn’t. Imagine a little bubble screen to him on the goal line. It would work every single time.
On the roughing the kicker call,
Bell didn’t really collide with the kicker.
Bell took the correct angle for a perfect block, he dove, and collided with the ground.
The the ground was in such poor shape that he slid into the kicker.
I didn’t get it. I know exactly what those two rules are in place for and the 5 yarder should have been called from my point of view. It’s a totally vulnerable position to be in, but it was a fluke that he was injured.
He was barely contacted and it was by complete accident.
Don’t want to get into the penalty debate – I’ve got another question that I am positive this learned group can address. What’s the record for the number of offensive plays in a college football game and in a bowl game? I’m surprised that no one has brought this up with the 115 plays that NW ran.
One side note-maybe the 11am kick monkey has been tossed off our backs? More personal for me, the HD projector I installed after my basement flooded before the UGA game is now off the snide. Had been 0-2.
Hey, you’re right, that’s a two-game win streak with early kickoffs. w00t.
Good to hear about the projector jinx getting de-jinxed, too. Every little bit helps.
What a crazy trip to tampa! I returned to a death in the family so I haven’t had a chance to comment on anything yet. As far as the celebration penalties are concerned I have this take on it…I love emotion and I want us to have some serious swagger as long as it doesn’t shift momentum. Any PF penalty immediately shifts momentum by flipping the field before a play is even run (at least with our kick coverage). I wasn’t super mad at walt because that was one hell of a play and it was early enough that the game was still wide open. Tate on the other hand did his celebrating on a run of the mill play and while it put us up 14, we were in a dogfight and needed every advantage we could get.
Running into kicker…poop happens. I applaud the effort and hopefully next time he gets the ball. I want a dominant kick blocking squad that can scare a kicker into missing.
Fairley facemask…no one was more pissed than he was. It is easy for us to look at the whole field and say all he had to do was dance around in front of kafka until he threw the ball away but that goes against everything he is coached on. He didn’t mean to grab the mask, he was going for the shoulder and the qb turned his head or at least that is how it looked from where i was sitting.
Things are looking great heading into next year…WAR EAGLE!
Trackin’, I’ll just add that anyone who’s upset with Fairley for that play is a buffoon. The very definition of bad luck.