(LSU cruises past Auburn, 31-10.)
War Eagle, everybody. It's time now for the much belated Acid Reign report, on Auburn's 31-10 loss to LSU, in Death Valley. The game was a chance to take advantage of a struggling LSU offense, and get back into the SEC Western Division race. Instead, Auburn regressed for the third week in a row. All was not gloom and doom, in this one, though. Auburn fared decently on both lines of scrimmage. Where Auburn and LSU diverged was in the play of skill folks, on both sides of the ball. There is no quick fix for this Auburn football team, either. Auburn will lose a number of key players over the next two graduating classes, and will have to look for replacements among incoming freshmen to fill many of those spots. Such is the fate of an SEC school with only 74 scholarship players. We'll continue to cheer on our beleaguered Tigers, regardless.
When you take a 31-10 beating in the SEC, there is usually plenty of team-wide blame to go around. This week, the most glaring culprit would be the lack of offensive production. When Auburn rolled up 469 yards against the Monte Kiffin/Tennessee defense, I opined that one could get a lot done on offense, if the two outside receivers could occupy four defenders downfield. Auburn's wideouts have not occupied even two defenders downfield, in the past three weeks. Arkansas, Kentucky, and LSU have felt free to blitz corners and cover with safeties, or to cover man to man, and blitz safeties. As a result, Auburn is now attempting to run the ball against more defenders than blockers on most plays. Production has plunged. The question becomes: whom to blame? Have the receivers stopped getting open? Has the quarterback lost the ability to throw to them? Or are the wrong plays being called? Gene Chizik and Co. aren't saying.
Through three quarters against the LSU defense, the tape showed the LSU defense often giving the Auburn outside receivers a LARGE cushion, sometimes as much as ten yards. We did not attempt a simple hitch, or wide receiver screen, THE WHOLE GAME. Maybe it was called, but we never saw it run. We ran lots of screens to backs, and suffered a HORRIBLE day blocking on the perimeter, but that's a different issue. Auburn didn't ATTEMPT a pass towards a wide receiver till a one-yard check-down dump off to Zachary, with 3:30 left in the first quarter. Auburn MIGHT have called a downfield pass play on the next drive, on 3rd and 7. Against a 7 man rush, with 6 blockers, Chris Todd held the ball, fumbled, and LSU had it at the Auburn 16. What was called, we have no clue. The short pass was there, as both corners bailed backwards. You have to fast forward to the early second quarter for the next involvement of the wide receivers. On first down, Todd had ALL DAY to throw on a play fake, then tried to force one into to double coverage to Jay Wisner, on the short side, AFTER Wisner had run out of real estate. Interception. Todd's next two wide receiver attempts came on 3rd and 17 (out of bounds towards Emory Blake), and 3rd and 20 (again to Blake, basically thrown away.) Todd had another sack-fumble during this stretch.
In the third quarter, we didn't pass towards a wide receiver till third and goal at the 7. It was to Darvin Adams, of course, on an out run short of the goal line, into double coverage. Incomplete. Next drive, trailing 24-3, we faced a crucial 3rd and 4. Corners bailed at the snap. Todd tried the out and up to Zachary, couldn't get by the defender. Out and UP?!? We haven't completed a hitch pass in three weeks, and we expected LSU to bite on an out and up? Before we get it back again, it's 31-3. Next possession, 2nd and 17 we tried to pass. Seven man rush, Todd got sacked again. PLENTY of cushion on Zachary to the wide side, but we don't even ATTEMPT to zip it out there and get some of the yardage back. Next drive, Todd's last, we don't attempt to go downfield again till 3rd and 8. A sack off the corner blitz, leaving Zachary and a TON of room over on the wide side with a safety 15 yards back. I have to wonder, at this point. Is it the play calls? Is it Todd not pulling the trigger? We've GOT to get the wideouts involved again, or we'll get blown out on Halloween, against Ole Miss. Cornerback is the weakest point of the Ole Miss defense, and we MUST exploit that! Whether it's Todd, or Caudle, we MUST gun that ball in there, and make plays on the perimeter! Of all of the things to be angry about in the 2009 Auburn/LSU game, the lack of passing to the wide receivers stands out the most, to me.
Auburn's defense was hardly stellar, in this game, either. Except for one play against LSU running backs, Auburn played well. Containing the Quarterback on the scramble was a different story. It's been a sore point all year, and Auburn's woes in that department are not even new to this year. What is alarming from this game is the 7.5 yards per pass given up. Neiko Thorpe and Walter McFadden got worked over, in this one. McFadden managed one great pass breakup in the 3rd quarter, but he was beaten by Brandon LaFell, spun around, for a second quarter score. LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson was able to loft the ball up to covered receivers, confident that his man would come down with the ball. Auburn is running with receivers, but is not making the play when the ball gets there. That's something to work on. Tackling and pass rush continue to be problematic, but the defense enjoyed a healthy infusion of Eltoro Freeman and Antoine Carter. Those guys have missed most of the year, and appeared to be much fresher and aggressive than the rest of the defense. Next week, it's incumbent upon Ted Roof to utilize these guys to get into the Ole Miss backfield, and work on Jevan Snead. Secondary tackling remains poor. There was one LSU touchdown where Antonio Coleman and Zach Etheridge had Jefferson bracketed. Coleman left his feet, leaping at the pump fake, and Etheridge took a short angle. Jefferson sprinted into the end zone, on what should have been a sack. The icing 69 yard run in the third quarter was on Neiko Thorpe and Darren Bates. Neither guy was blocked. They got split up the back side on that run, and were left standing slack-jawed. The defensive mistakes in this game are correctable. The real enemy is fatigue. Most of these guys have played nearly every defensive snap of the season. Relief isn't in sight till mid-November, unfortunately.
Special teams continue to earn the "special" label, and not in a good way. We had another fumbled punt. We can't manage 40 yards per punt, anymore. Return blocking remains non-existent. Net kickoffs continue to get worse. We averaged only 26.0 net yards, in this game. LSU averaged starting at their own 44 yard line. We'd have done better kicking every kick out of bounds.
Unit Grades, after the jump.
Defensive Line: B. We had decent gap control, and a good spark on the pass rush from Antoine Carter. Auburn didn't get enough heat on first-down play action, but that's understandable facing a deadly backfield like LSU has. Where Auburn loses points is on the scheme: We continue to drop defensive ends into pass coverage, and it's pretty much been useless against SEC opponents. Asking an end, even a guy like Antonio Coleman, to cover Trindan Holiday or Keiland Williams, is ridiculous. We'd be better served rushing the passer.
Linebackers: B-. We continue to miss tackles, but with the addition of Eltoro Freeman to the mix, we were pretty solid against the run, for the first time all year. The linebackers forced LSU to throw it to move the ball consistently. Unfortunately, LSU did quite well through the air. Points off on repeated loss of contain on quarterback Jordan Jefferson.
Secondary: F. Take away one rip-out on a long pass by Walter McFadden, and this unit was pretty helpless in coverage. We couldn't chase down Jordan Jefferson on scrambles, couldn't contain Sheppard beyond the tackle box, and couldn't knock the ball away from LSU receivers. The secondary did make 23 tackles, but well over half were assists. Considering that LSU completed 22 passes, that stat isn't very good.
Punting: C. Clinton Durst killed 3 of his seven punts inside the LSU 20, and did manage one spectacular 58 yard rain-maker. ON the other hand, we were treated to a shank and a slice, at critical times during the ball game. LSU did not manage a single return. We'll grudgingly take a 39.7 yard net, against LSU.
Punt Returns: F. Poor decisions all around in this one, and again, no blocking. We let one easily returnable punt hit and roll, fair caught another with room, then fumbled one in traffic. The fumble was particularly ugly, because Phillip Pierre-Louis did not use proper form. He tried to short-arm the ball with a defender right there. Had he stepped up and caught it into his body, he'd likely have drawn an interference flag.
Kick Returns: C. We actually blocked a wee bit better, this week. Mario Fannin had one of his trademark "run into the first guy down, and fall" returns, but Ben Tate, Phillip Pierre-Louis, and Demond Washington all had decent distance returns, getting yards after contact.
Kickoffs: F. Again, I suppose I should be thankful that we didn't give one up for a score. Still, a 26.0 yard net HAS to be one of the worst figures of the year, in the NCAA! I am NOT a fan of our current sky-kick and prayer style!
Placekicking A+. Wes Byrum was perfect on two kicks. We're not giving him NEARLY enough opportunities. He's performing at an All-SEC level, but won't get noticed with only a couple of kicks a game.
Offensive Line: B+. Points off on an Andrew McCain false start. He's officially taken the false-start poster-boy status away from Lee Ziemba, in 2009. The play was a bad call, due to a defender being in the neutral zone, but still. You can't move before the snap! Period! Auburn's line actually held their own quite well against a good LSU front, in this game. LSU had to outnumber our blockers, to stop the running game, and didn't get much pressure on Todd unless they blitzed.
Receivers: D. This is an awfully harsh grade for a unit without even a single drop. A lot of it likely had to do with the scheme, but these guys never got involved. Tommy Trott made one good 15 yard catch, but otherwise seemed to whiff on every screen block he attempted. We ran one end around to Zachary, into the boundary, for a big loss. Nice plays at the end of the game by Blake and Lutzencirchen to get us a TD, but that's trash-time stuff. We've GOT to get more out of these guys, whether it's blocking on screens, or simply executing a 5-yard hitch route. We've got NOTHING going on the outside right now, and defenses know it.
Running Backs: B. There is only so much a back can do, outnumbered in traffic. Eric Smith continues to function well as a lead blocker, and as a screen receiver. Kudos to Tate, Fannin, and Smith for hanging onto the ball and not fumbling. Points off on a couple of pass protection gaffes. Hideous job on 3rd and 1 on the first drive, on Tate and Smith. It was a wingback, under center formation, with a quick snap. Both guys were leaning to the right, telegraphing the play. And Smith fell down on his block. Tate was stacked up with no chance, on that one. We didn't pick up the corner blitz terribly well, in protection, either. Note to Gus: sit Onterrio McCalebb down, till his ankle heals. A slow, 160-pound back won't do, in the SEC.
Quarterback: D-. Again, I have to wonder if it's the scheme. Chris Todd doesn't seem willing to try anything towards a wide receiver, till it's third and long. Holding the ball on all-out blitzes is a big no-no. A senior should at LEAST toss it up, down the sideline, and give his receiver a chance. Heck, the way we're punting, we might be better off with an interception! Kodi Burns had the chance to make opponents respect his arm in the Wildcat, and missed a wide-open Fannin. Neil Caudle looked good, late. He's got an arm. Made some tough throws in traffic. Maybe not the wisest throws, but he was at least trying to get something done downfield. Caudle did make a wrong read on the read-option, when he was in there. Ended up being a blocker. Should Gus and Gene yank Todd? Debate will rage, all week. I'm not sold. It sure seemed to me that the play caller was afraid to test LSU's corners, this week. If we're going to keep Todd back there, we need to let him chuck it. He's not a runner. If we want to just take sacks, heck, let Ben Tate run the wildcat. If we want to take Chris Todd's starting job, we need to at least give him a chance to fail. As much as I hate to say it, we're calling plays scared, right now.
Auburn's divisional championship chances are officially gone, as of this week. I think the most important thing, from this point forward, is to develop our schemes, and our young players. I'm not in favor of burning redshirts at this point, but I think snaps for guys that are going to lose a year anyway, such as Neil Caudle, should be a priority. We've already burned a year on DeAngelo Benton, Emory Blake, and Travante Stallworth. Put 'em out there, and throw the ball to them. Run Jonathan Evans in at linebacker every other series. Let Eltoro Freeman run wild. Get T'Sharvan Bell, D'Antoine Hood, and Mike Slade some snaps. We may well lose to Ole Miss, Georgia, and Alabama. We're going to have to get some young guys ready, for the future. Most importantly, it's up to us supporters to NOT jump off the bandwagon, in these difficult times. None of our coaches deserve to be fired, at this time. They are doing the best they can, with a limited stock of players.
Honestly, I'm looking forward to Halloween hosting Ole Miss. I've watched a decade of Houston Nutt. I KNOW what he'll do. He's going to load the box, and GET AFTER the QB. We have a GREAT chance to open it up, and make some plays. We can use our newfound players Eltoro Freeman and Antoine Carter, and heat Jevan Snead up. I think Auburn has a great chance at pulling the upset, next week in Jordan Hare! War Eagle, everybody! Don't get down on your Tigers! Beat Ole Miss!