Saturday, December 10, 2011

auburnscouting: the season

It was kind of fun trying to decide how to set up the run-up to the Peach Bowl.  Never got to cover UVA in a bowl before so I got all tingly.  I settled on a three-part series, and this is the first; on Fridays this month we will go over some aspect of the Auburn Tigers.  Today, the season; the following weeks, the offense and defense.  The game is on a Saturday, so that's perfect: the fourth week, I can do the game preview on Thursday like usual and then get drunk over New Year's.

Link in advance: all blog reactions are taken from the Auburn SB Nation blog, Track 'Em Tigers.  There's another Auburn blog out there, but I checked it out and the second-to-latest post is a sneer at our supposed inability to sell tickets.  So no linky.  Let us see how the football season went down from the Auburn perspective:

(P.S. before we start, because this is an interesting tidbit: UVA will be in orange jerseys for the Peach Bowl.  If it seems weird that that would be news, it's the SEC's turn to be the home team, so Auburn will be in blue.  No white for anyone.  I like it, as long as we're not also in orange pants.  Now back to the show.)

-- Game 1: #23 Auburn 42, Utah State 38 (1-0)

The story: It took one half of football to realize that this was gonna be a very different team than last year's national championship version, and a second half of football was necessary to avert disaster.  Utah State led Auburn 21-14 at halftime and 38-28 with three and a half minutes left, after a clock-chewing 65-yard touchdown drive that saw the Aggies convert a 4th-and-8 from the Auburn 10, and punch in the touchdown two plays later.  But Auburn scored quickly and recovered an onside kick, leading to a game-winning drive to rescue themselves from what would've been a nasty upset.  Utah State outgained Auburn 448-364 and 227-78 on the ground, and converted three of three fourth-down attempts.

Gene Chizik said: "Offensively and defensively we're a long way off of being able to win very many games right now."

Blog reaction: "By mid-afternoon Saturday, Auburn people knew what coaches surely have known for weeks: The party is over. All good times must come to an end; but this hangover is likely to require more than a few Tylenols and a long nap. ...  On Saturday, Gene Chizik and company came face-to-face with a near death experience."

-- Game 2: Auburn 41, #16 Mississippi State 34 (2-0)

The story: Auburn rediscovered their rushing game, with Mike Dyer tearing the Bulldogs up to the tune of 150 yards and two touchdowns, but for the second week in a row it came right down to the wire.  To the very last play, in fact; Mississippi State's Chris Relf looked like he was headed for the end zone and a potential game-winning TD (the Bulldogs would've gone for two) but was upended less than a foot from pay dirt.  It was a back-and-forth game with each team recording a pick-six.  Quarterback Barrett Trotter, Cam Newton's replacement, had a second straight efficient day throwing the ball.

Gene Chizik said: "Are we a great football team right now? No. Not even close. But the identity of the team is starting to form week by week because they will fight. They will not look at the scoreboard, and that's been one of the trademarks that we've really tried to instill in these guys that we are not looking for the scoreboard until it says 0:00 because everything else in-between does not matter."

Blog reaction: "What fans witnessed on this hot, humid afternoon epitomizes everything there is to love about the game and Auburn football.  On a day when Miss State and its fans arrived in swarms for its coronation into the SEC elite, Auburn and its band of no-names picked up its 17th straight win."

-- Game 3: Clemson 38, #21 Auburn 24 (2-1)

Game story: Tigers vs. Tigers.  Early on it looked like Auburn would notch another point for SEC superiority, holding a 14-0 lead at the end of the 1st quarter and 21-7 midway through the 2nd.  But it was all Clemson after that; the ACC's Tigers tied it up by halftime, and dominated the second half to strike a blow for the Atlantic Coast.  This was the Sammy Watkins debutante party - Auburn had no answer for him whatsoever, and he had his season high in catches and yards with 10 and 155 respectively, on national TV no less.

It was a second terrific game for Mike Dyer, but Barrett Trotter was only 12-for-25 against the Clemson defense.  Travante Stallworth led the team in receiving for the second time in three games, but he would disappear after this game, catching just three more passes all season.  And on defense, Auburn gave up 624 yards.

Gene Chizik said: "The first quarter is probably the best that we've played. After the end of the second quarter, I felt like we were a very below average football team."

Blog reaction: "It's time for some Auburn people to face reality. This team is not winning nine games. It's not defying the odds on the way to Atlanta.**  Intelligent Auburn people know it. For our less intelligent brethren, we need to do a little education. Roof is not stupid and Malzahn is still among the best offensive coordinators in the country. Nothing has changed."

**note - meaning the SECCG, not the bowl game.

-- Game 4: Auburn 30, Florida Atlantic 14 (3-1)

Game story: A lackluster game against a really shitty team (FAU finished 1-11) saw a mildly disgruntled crowd at a not-full Jordan-Hare stadium.  Auburn led just 10-6 at the half, could never get its running game on track, and finished with 315 yards of offense - eight more than FAU.  Auburn's defense bent (a lot) but didn't break; the score of 14 was achieved with two field goals plus a late touchdown against Auburn's bench.  The defense gathered a pick-six in the opening minutes of the second half to gain a little breathing room, and by the beginning of the fourth quarter, the game was mercifully in hand.  Receiver Trovon Reed would miss the next month or so with a shoulder injury suffered in this game.

Gene Chizik said: "Gentlemen, what the fuck was that?"

Gene Chizik didn't say that. At least, not to the media. Chizik actually said: "We didn't play like we wanted to play the whole night, but we certainly showed a lot of improvement in my opinion."

Blog reaction: "An Auburn bowl bid seems highly unlikely at this point. On record as a defender of the Auburn coaching staff this season, Saturday was a step backwards. Who cares that the defensive stats were vastly improved. Against arguably the worst offense in college football, the Auburn defense continued to surrender way too many yards and miss easy tackles."

-- Game 5: Auburn 16, #10 South Carolina 13 (4-1)

Game story: Much-maligned thanks to the previous couple weeks, the Auburn defense stepped up to the task and helped Auburn to its best win all season.  Barrett Trotter only threw for 112 yards, and Michael Dyer needed a whopping 41 carries to grind out his 141 yards, but the offense came up with a game-winning drive in the fourth-quarter, and South Carolina's two-minute offense fell short.  Auburn picked off Stephen Garcia twice and held him to 9-of-23 passing, and also blocked a PAT. Trotter was also intercepted twice, and South Carolina actually came up with four interceptions overall, two of them coming when the Tigers tried to get fancypants with the play-calling.  Probably the biggest thing Auburn did, though, was hold the Gamecocks' all-world running back Marcus Lattimore to 66 yards.

Gene Chizik said: "At the end of the day, you're looking at one of the Heisman Trophy leaders and we said we had to stop him; and that happened tonight."

Blog reaction**: "A little bit of swagger returned Saturday night. It's something that should serve Auburn well going forward. Suddenly a team that was hoping for a bowl bid is now playing for much more."

**At first I clicked on the headline, "A Day To Remember."  That seemed like the logical place to find a narrative about a big win.  Nope: amusing colonoscopy story.  I think I like this blog.  Seriously.

-- Game 6: #10 Arkansas 38, #15 Auburn 14 (4-2)

Game story: For the second week in a row, Auburn went on the road to face a #10 team.  It didn't go so good this time.  Auburn led 14-7 after one quarter and spent the rest of the time getting smoked.  Barrett Trotter was a miserable 6-of-19 for 81 yards, and this game was the beginning of the end of his time as a starter.  Clint Moseley and freshman Kiehl Frazier were inserted at various points.

The run game was more than effective; Frazier, Dyer, and Onterio McCalebb combined for 47 carries and 257 yards, and Auburn racked up 291 total.  But the passing game was horrible, and the defense was bad; the backbreaker was a 92-yard TD run by the Hogs' Joe Adams in the third quarter to put Arkansas up by two touchdowns.

Gene Chizik said: "We did all the things tonight, all the classic things, that lead to losing. We turned the ball over on the road, dropped balls, guys who were wide open and we can't hit them, the ball going through guys' hands."

Blog reaction: "Now Auburn coaches face the inevitable fork in the road. We suspected the time was coming. The question is simple to ask, yet hard to answer. What does Auburn do about its quarterback situation? ... Things are not going to magically change in the coming weeks. Auburn caught a break in beating Miss State and South Carolina - teams that were far less than advertised in the preseason. The same may hold true when Florida comes visiting Saturday night."

-- Game 7: #24 Auburn 17, Florida 6 (5-2)

Game story: Trotter threw a touchdown pass in the first half and Auburn took a 7-6 lead to halftime, but that was one of only two Trotter completions in the entire half.  When the Tigers took the field in the second half, the reins had been handed to Clint Moseley.  Permanently.  Moseley was not exactly awesome, but the offense moved better than it had.

Which isn't saying much, at least as far as this game was concerned.  Defenses ruled the day; Auburn held the Gators to 194 total yards, and only got 278 of their own.  Half of that came on six plays; Auburn averaged 2.3 yards on the others.  The Tigers converted just one of 13 third-down attempts, but the defense played maybe its best game of the year, so it mattered little.

Gene Chizik said: "Dominant. I think that is the only word you could use. Probably 40 or 50 yards of their offense came on the last drive when we knew they had two scores. I couldn't be more proud."

Blog reaction: "There's been nothing pretty about the season except for the results."

-- Game 8: #1 LSU 45, #20 Auburn 10 (5-3)

Game story: Except for a few pass attempts by Kiehl Frazier, the job under center belonged to Clint Moseley; Barrett Trotter was relegated to clipboard duty and in fact has not thrown a pass since the Florida game.  It didn't matter here.  LSU registered about forty sacks (actually six) in a game that wasn't even as close as the final score - and the final score showed a five-TD loss for the Tigers.  The Auburn ones.  Man, I'm glad we have a nickname - two, actually - that nobody else has.

Gene Chizik said: "It's really difficult to really assess how [Moseley] did. Six sacks are unacceptable. You don't win any football games by allowing six sacks. That was an anemic job of protecting the quarterback. We have a lot of work to do and a lot of research to do to figure out how to stop the bleeding in that regard."

Blog reaction: "From the start, it was clear that LSU had the better team. Auburn's offensive line looked like a New Orleans levy trying to hold off Katrina. It's hard to imagine a better team in college football this season..."

-- Game 9: #23 Auburn 41, Mississippi 23 (6-3)

Game story: Moseley finally had a chance to get his feet under him, and the results were very positive: four touchdown passes.  He was helped by a 177-yard performance from Dyer, too.  This was a tie game at halftime, 17-17, and the Auburn defense probably needed a kick in the pants; whatever they got, it worked, because Ole Miss only racked up 38 yards in the third quarter and then threw 20 of them away on sack/IG penalty.  Auburn scored 24 straight points in the second half before Ole Miss tacked on a meaningless touchdown as time expired.

Gene Chizik said: "At halftime, we made a lot of great adjustments, adjusting defensively to some of the run game that we needed to get under control that in the first half got away from us a little bit. Coach (Ted) Roof and the defensive staff did a really nice job with that. ... The great thing about our team up to this point is that we haven't lost twice in a row. We have not let one loss beat us twice in a row and for a young football team, I think that speaks highly of them."

Blog reaction: "I remember it like it was yesterday. Sitting in a hotel in Atlanta on a cold December day, the news hit me like a case of malaria. Auburn had settled on Iowa State's Gene Chizik as its new coach. It was official: Auburn was circling the drain of college football.  On December 13, 2008, I wrote, 'To say this move (hiring Chizik) is shocking is an understatement. For many Auburn fans, this is a worst case scenario. There appears to be little logic in the choice.'  I've never been more wrong about anything in my life. ... Gene Chizik continues to be the gift that keeps on giving."

-- Game 10: #15 Georgia 45, #20 Auburn 7 (6-4)

Game story: Coming off a win and a bye week, Auburn had some hopes for this game; the result was their worst of the season.  The Bulldogs dominated every facet of the game, racking up 528 yards to Auburn's 195.  After Auburn tied it at 7 in the first quarter, Georgia rolled up five touchdowns and a field goal for 38 unanswered points.  Not much to say, because the game was just hideous for Auburn fans.

Gene Chizik said: "It was pretty evident what we couldn't do, and that was a lot. ... We didn't cover many people all night, couldn't stop the run and turned the ball over. That's why we got beat 45-7."

Blog reaction: "While basking in the glow of seven wins in nine years over Alabama, the Georgia rivalry has become a horror show for the Auburn football program.  With Saturday's humiliating beat down in Athens, Auburn has now lost five of its last six games to its second biggest rival."

-- Game 11: #24 Auburn 35, Samford 16 (7-4)

Game story: It was another bad day for the Auburn defense.  Some I-AA teams have the capacity to upset even quality I-A teams; Samford should not be one of them, but there they were in the third quarter, trailing the defending national champions by just 14-13.  Perhaps they were simply tired of facing teams named the Bulldogs.

Fortunately for the Tigers, Auburn pulled away late, and disaster was averted.  After Samford made it 21-16 with a field goal, a short kickoff and a long runback gave Auburn excellent field position in Samford territory, and they capitalized with a 22-yard TD run by the normally not-mobile Moseley; the game was essentially salted away after that.  They were aided by yet another 150+ yard day from Michael Dyer.

Gene Chizik said: " I can make all kinds of excuses about how at times we didn't play well. I can pull them out of the kitchen sink now, but the reality of it is there were times where they played really well and there were times where we didn't."

Blog reaction: (whatever it's Alabama week)

-- Game 12: #2 Alabama 42, #24 Auburn 14

Game story: Last year, Auburn's title hopes looked shot at halftime of the Alabama game; they fixed that problem with a comeback that no doubt will live in semi-immortality in Auburn lore.  This year, the Tigers again found themselves down 24-7 at halftime of the Iron Bowl, and an 83-yard kick return for a TD by Onterio McCalebb to start the second half got people wondering if we were in for a sequel.

It wasn't to be.  Alabama responded with a field goal, and then two touchdowns in the fourth, to put away the henceforth scoreless Tigers.  Auburn couldn't do anything about Heisman candidate running back Trent Richardson, who piled up 203 yards.  And Clint Moseley only tallied 62 yards through the air.  For the second straight year, the Iron Bowl winner went on to play for the national title, but the script got flipped on Auburn in 2011.

Gene Chizik said: "It's been a lot of ups and downs this season for 12 games, and we've had some really good things occur in our 12 game season, and we've had some disappointments. This is certainly one of the huge disappointments."

Blog reaction: "From the start things never felt right. Not since the lowly days of the Doug Barfield era has a lead up to the Iron Bowl felt so hopeless. As ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit noted on air Saturday morning, there were few believers among the Auburn faithful.  Of course, it didn't take Danny Sheridan to tell Auburn fans what was ahead. The reality had set in weeks ago. Alabama's manhandling of Auburn was the most complete beating Auburn has taken at home in a generation."


So, what lessons have we learned?

Well, Auburn fans, and probably the pundits as well, will point out that Auburn has generally faced a much better level of competition than UVA has.  True; there was nothing like LSU or Alabama on our schedule, and the closest we came to a Georgia or an Arkansas was Virginia Tech.  Florida State has talent approximating what UGA and Arkansas bring, but probably is not coached as well.

The counter to that is that in the games where Auburn was playing really bad competition, they mostly stunk.  They won, but they stunk.  Florida Atlantic racked up 20 first downs after getting one the previous week.  Ole Miss was tied at halftime.  Samford was behind by one in the third quarter.  Utah State was up by ten with 3:38 to go.  Auburn pulled out wins in all of these, but none can be said to have been inspiring.  They also generally got blown out of the water by all that great competition.

In general, they appeared to have all the hallmarks of a very young team.  Like duh.  They graduated Cam Newton and Nick Fairley and pretty much everyone else that was any good, and started a bunch of young dudes in their places.  It showed.  Horrible performances at times; and then again, holding the electric Marcus Lattimore (pre-injury) to 66 yards.  And a dominant performance against Florida.  (Florida's offense sucks this year, but still.)

Auburn spent most of the year ranked, but largely, I think, due to a predisposition by the media to rank SEC teams.  (They were never really punished for the parade of ass-beatings they received.)  I don't think they deserved to be ranked, and my Blogpoll ballots showed as much.  Today, neither Virginia nor Auburn is in the AP top 25, though Virginia has five votes from somewhere.

It was kind of a tumultuous season.  Quarterback controversies, the firing of the defensive coordinator, and a general feeling that the offensive coordinator eventually will move on to a head coaching position.  (Gus Malzahn did supposedly interview for the UNC job before they hired Larry Fedora.)  Auburn never lost consecutive games all year, and after the Arkansas loss in early October, didn't win consecutive games either. Starting with that game, they alternated results.  It resulted in a lot of up and down feelings.

To compare with UVA's season, the best win between the two teams is the South Carolina one for Auburn, followed by UVA's win over FSU.  Both were on the road.  Besides that, Auburn's only wins over winning teams were those over 6-5 Samford and 7-5 Utah State.  Auburn beat four bowl-eligible teams and three with winning records; UVA beat three and two, respectively.  The Tigers didn't lose any games they shouldn't have.  Came close, but didn't.  It's sort of an unimpressive 7-5, but you might say the same about UVA's 8-4 if you didn't take the change in QB philosophy into account.  By contrast, it's much harder to say if Auburn's QB switch improved matters.

Next week, we'll tackle the Auburn offense.  (Geddit?  Tackle?)  Gus Malzahn is a hurry-up, no-huddle, spread kinda guy, making things interesting for the UVA defense.

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