The bartender at the Embassy Suites Downtown St. Louis told me the game wasn’t over, but I wasn’t much inclined to listen. He hadn’t been paying attention. He was just making sports small talk. No, the game wasn’t technically over, but I’ve watched enough Auburn football to know it was over in ways other than the technical sense.
The score was 21-6, half the third quarter already gone. Auburn was punting the ball back to Oregon, who’d had eight possessions thus far and taken five of them inside the 10. Bo Nix was 6-for-20 with a pair of quintessentially true freshman interceptions. The Tigers’ two second-half possessions had covered 12 yards in 9 plays. I tweeted the game felt like a return to 2015 because it felt like a return to 2015: the error-prone first-time starting quarterback, the defense wobbling even when it wasn’t being hung out to dry by the offense and special teams, a determined running back scratching for every yard he could even as those yards weren’t nearly enough.
Then everything changed, because — for lack of an even pithier summary — Derrick Brown, KJ Britt, Boobee Whitlow and a host of other Tigers reached a level of play too elevated for it not to change.
“I told you!” the bartender said, giving me a high-five after Nix’s game-winner. “Anything can happen. It’s not over ’til it’s over!”
At the close of last season, my hot take regarding Gus Malzahn’s tenure at Auburn was that its fate, too, had already been decided. Sure, he survived this past offseason, he may survive this coming one, maybe even the one after that. But an Auburn coach who’s lost as much support as Malzahn has will be fired sooner or later, if for no other reason than so the program can move past worrying about how much support the coach has. There’s only so much discussion you can have about a coach’s future until you have to fire him just to end the discussion.
One game hasn’t changed my thinking that much. But maybe I’m wrong. I was wrong Saturday night. I will give that bartender his due, as uninformed as he may have been, as cliched as his conclusions were. It really isn’t over ’til it’s over.
Thanks for the timely reminder, Tigers.
Scattered Friday afternoon thoughts after a second viewing of the game this week:
— No doubt Oregon could have put the game well beyond Auburn’s grasp by the end of the third quarter, but the postgame narrative in some quarters didn’t give Auburn enough credit given that it’s just as true the Tigers could have already taken the lead by the same juncture. The Ducks only scoring 14 points on their first four red-zone possessions isn’t great, but it’s still better than Auburn scoring 10 on their first four.
Of course, a certain fumble that turned an Oregon possession inside the 10 directly into an Auburn possession inside the 10 complicates things, but still: Auburn finished with more first downs, twice as many rushing yards, more total yards and a better yards-per-play average, and more possessions inside the opponent’s 40.
Duck blundering or no Duck blundering, punt coverage aside, Auburn was the better team.
— (Yes, that’s a colossal “aside.”)
— It feels like amidst the shots of joyous Pat Nix and Burcham’s call and general BOMANIA that Malzahn hasn’t gotten enough credit for the sizable cojones necessary to have Nix make that pass in the first place.
I’m not sure of the exact percentage of coaches who’d turtle up 1. with a true freshman QB in his first start 2. who’d already thrown 2 picks 3. comfortably inside field goal range 4. with no timeouts, when a sack potentially ends the game 5. and an offensive line whose pass protection had been, uh, on the shaky side. But I bet it’s a two-digit number that starts with a 9.
The smart call — just as it was for Les Miles 12 years ago — was to go get the game-winning touchdown if you can, and not bother with a 40-some-odd-yard field goal attempt. But this is football coaching — just because something’s the logical thing to do doesn’t mean it’s not also the ballsy thing to do.
Gus did it, and it won the game.
— (That Gus immediately followed one of his best crunch-time decisions in ages by infuriatingly kicking a 742% useless point-after rather than going for 2 is so on-brand for Gus it hurts.)
(Also, Gus, please have Joey Gatewood carry the ball inside the 5 before Eli Stove does next game. Thanks so much.)
— It’s been said, but it can be repeated: Whitlow had his best game as an Auburn Tiger and looks like a player who’s leveled up from last season. He was a damn inspiration in the second half.
— I like the part where Auburn loses Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams and immediately replaces them with KJ Britt and Owen Pappoe.
— My hunch is that Oregon 2019 is a better team than 2018 Washington. And still: for all the excitement and joy and instant-classicness and all, I’m not much more optimistic about Auburn’s outlook for the season than I was before the game.
Nix’s ceiling is Pikes Peak high, but those won’t be the last “oh, right, he was playing high school ball 12 months ago” interceptions he throws. Until Schwartz gets back — and to an extent, even after he does — Auburn’s receiving corps still feels like “Seth Williams, and some likable well-above-average guys who do their jobs well but don’t keep opposing coordinators awake at night.” Until Shivers proves otherwise, same goes for Whitlow and the RBs. And here (along with a clip of Whitlow getting snowed under after gaining a half-yard) is your offensive line:
This will probably still be a really good offense! I liked (most of) what Malzahn and Dillingham did Saturday! If Nix cuts down on the mistakes, Whitlow stays healthy, and Schwartz comes back as a more complete target than he was last year, who knows!
But for the time being, this offense — particularly with this offensive line — looks like the offense of a team that maxes out at 9-3. Which is good! Auburn’s schedule is stupid! 9 wins would be an important achievement!
Regardless, here’s something I’m extremely confident in: between this defense, and Nix growing into himself, and Boobee, and the little signs of the return of the old “damn the torpedoes” Gus, I’m going to have a metric crapton of fun watching this team no matter what its record. And I’m not going to let any worries over what happens at season’s end, against Auburn’s archrivals, or even next month ruin that*.
*Offer not valid when Auburn’s down 24-21 to Tulane early fourth quarter