It took thirty years, but the magic spell Coach Dye cast to give Auburn perennially strong defenses has at last worn out. And now everything’s coming unraveled.
What seems to be the problem? What isn’t the problem? Youth and inexperience… lack of talent… lack of leadership… players out of position or making bad decisions… And all of this is most glaring at one position:
Linebacker is the clearly the weakest position on the team—by far. When was the last time we could say that?
Jonathan Evans is by no measure the greatest linebacker in Auburn history—but he had fifteen tackles the first two games and we missed him on Saturday.
Jake Holland shows promise, but at present he is making about one play out of every four he should. Daren Bates, likewise, may prove to be a terrific linebacker as he gains experience, but thus far he is proving to be a less-than-stellar tackler and his impact in games has been minimal.
Why are we playing so much nickel? Because we only have to play two linebackers in it.
Why is Nosa Eguae dropping back into the middle linebacker spot sometimes? Because he is a big guy who can tackle and he has a nose for the ball.
Justin Garrett is a 200 pound linebacker from Tucker, GA. He played a bit in the first game and could be a good player eventually. But he’s going to need some time in the weight room.
Kris Frost is the five-star linebacker recruit we snagged from North Carolina. What a help he could have been. But of course he was hurt in practice and is out for the year.
If there are any five-star linebackers on our wish list for the next recruiting class, they surely need look no further than the game tape from Clemson to see that early playing time possibilities abound on the Plains. Come on down, fellas!
As sad as it is to admit, we are now a long way from the days of Craig Ogletree, Quintin Riggins, Takeo Spikes, Karlos Dansby, Dontarrious Thomas, and all their great brethren. (Heck—did you know that Will Herring is starting for the Saints defense?) It’s going to take some recruiting and some hard work to build the LB corps back up to the heights it routinely achieved for so many years.
What about the Offense? Is it Helping or Hurt(ing)?
While it is not one of the top reasons for the defensive disaster, the pace of the Auburn offense does matter. The defense needs time not only to catch its breath but also to adjust to whatever the offense is doing. As Auburn fans have known for years, a slow-paced, methodical offense that eats the clock and wears down an opposing defense can protect its own defense by keeping those players fresh and off the field for much of the game. We knew we were giving up a great deal of this ability when we went to Gus’s offense in 2009 and, truth be told, many Auburn fans nursed either private or public concerns about it. After two years of fireworks and high scores, much of the complaining and the worrying went away—but it only took three quick games and three defensive atrocities to bring the criticism back.
There is no chance Auburn panics and goes to a complete slow-down, hand-off-forty-times-per-game offense (a la 2008). Gus Malzahn won’t run his offense that way and, if he is ordered to do so, will pack up and leave after the season. That being said, will Auburn run the ball more in the upcoming weeks? Yes, absolutely. For those who have forgotten how conservative Auburn was at the start of last season with Cam Newton, Auburn ran the ball 74% of the time the first 3 games of last season. This year the Tigers have run the ball a mere 59% of the time. Expect to see that number change over the next few weeks as Auburn attempts to get better production on offense.
In order for that approach to be successful, Auburn must give the ball to Michael Dyer. After the “What the heck happened our defense?” question, the second-most important question from Saturday was, “Why didn’t Michael Dyer get the ball more often?” And after scouring the Internet—that noted source of gospel truths, right up there with sheep intestines, Tarot, and the I-Ching—for clues, we have come to two possible conclusions:
A) Michael Dyer had some minor nagging injury that has been undisclosed. This is possible, given the lack of information that flows out the Auburn football program.
B) Auburn’s player rotation and play calling was horrible and idiotic was not terribly smart on Saturday. The one piece of Auburn’s offense that was working well on Saturday was Dyer. And yet he only touched the ball 16 times. In the middle two quarters of the game, as the defense melted down, the pressure was on the Auburn offense to get some sustained drives going, or at least to score points to keep up with Clemson. And during that time, Dyer was nowhere to be found.
We have all seen football games where the offensive coordinators got too cute and end up outsmarting themselves. Certain isolated plays aside, it’s difficult to remember a game where that has happened to Gus Malzahn—but you have to say that Saturday was it. Auburn should have run the stretch play to Dyer ten times in a row until Clemson proved they could consistently stop it or until we scored. But we didn’t and that is a mystifying situation.
Was Dyer hurt? He struggled with nagging injuries early in his freshman season. Rumors float about his attitude and his relationships with the coaches. Whispers grew louder when he was missing from several of the final practices in the late summer. And now this. Who can say? Who will say?
Mason shows promise but is smallish and a rookie. McCalebb is very good at the things he does well, but being an every-down SEC tailback is not one of those things. One way or another, Mike Dyer is the one moving part that absolutely has to work right—both for the offense and for the defense—or the whole machine that is the 2011 Auburn team grinds to a halt.
There will be a whole lot of eyes on him on Saturday and in the weeks to come.
Owl Soup: The Cure for What Ails Ya
If you could cook up a recipe for what Auburn needs to chow down on this week, then a nice, steaming bowl of Owl soup is just what you would make: a home game against a team that is absolutely terrible on offense. Auburn’s defense needs a chance to regroup and build confidence, so they don’t need to be facing Oregon, Arkansas or Oklahoma State right now. Ideally, they need to be facing…oh, I dunno… maybe the worst offense in all of major-college football.
And, lo and behold, who do we get? Florida Atlantic!
Despite having the legendary Howard Schnellenberger and his mighty suspenders at the helm for one last year before he retires, the fighting Owls from Boca Raton are last in Division-1 in total offense, averaging 92 yards per game. That’s it: they’re gaining less than twenty-five yards per quarter. (No wonder Howard’s retiring!) Admittedly, those meager gains came against Florida and Michigan State. But that number is still woeful, regardless of foes. They are an incredibly poor offensive team that has done us the added favor of producing two games’ worth of “how to successfully stop them” videotape. This is the sort of game Auburn needs in order to build confidence before the Murderers’ Row of October begins.
Get that pot a-boilin’ and toss in the Owls!
Wishbone Power Rankings:
1. LSU. The Bayou Bengals and their famously inebriated fans roll into Morgantown on Saturday night. And the Mountaineers now sell beer in their stadium during games. Talk about a recipe for disaster. The over/under for the game is 80. Arrests, not points.
2. Alabama. Waiting for them to be seriously tested.
The Very Good:
3. Arkansas. Ditto.
4. South Carolina. But, my goodness—Navy?! You needed nearly 300 yards of rushing from Lattimore to barely eke by Navy?
5. Florida. Yes, better coaching has helped this team. Brantley has a pulse.
6. Mississippi State. Still waiting to beat an SEC West team not from their own state.
7. Georgia. Richt is sending Houston Nutt a fruit basket for taking some of the spotlight off of him this week.
8. Auburn. And after that performance in Clemson, they might not even deserve to be this high.
9. Tennessee. It was amazing to watch them against Florida. They would make all these great plays, particularly with the passing game—and then you’d look at the score and they’d be down 20.
10. Vanderbilt. Welcome out of the basement, Dores! Yes, you are seeing that correctly—there are two teams below you in the rankings! This may be a first for the Wishbone.
11. Kentucky. Charlie Strong gazes at Florida and thinks: “There, but for some really bad karma, goes me.”
And finally—we had to create a new category this week!
The Amazingly Awful, So Bad You Just Lost 30-7 to Vandy Bad:
12. Ole Miss. In Oxford, the season is already technically over and they are in full-blown “search committee” mode.
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.
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