War Eagle, everybody! Facing the first SEC game in the Gene Chizik era, the Gus Malzhan offense came through again, posting almost 600 yards on the night. The 2009 Auburn/Mississippi State game was a far cry from the 3-2 slug-fest of a year ago. This time, the two teams combined for 910 total yards, and Auburn won where it counts, 49-24.
The Bulldogs had few answers for the Auburn offense, which posted 589 total yards. The passing game, plagued by dropped balls, didn't fare quite as well as last week against Louisiana Tech, but it was adequate, with no interceptions, and 8.0 net yards per pass. The running game thrived again, picking up 395 yards, an average of 6.6 yards per carry. McCalebb and Tate were AGAIN both over 100 yards. Darvin Adams picked up 5 catches for 115 yards, despite two drops.
The Auburn defense had some problems with the MSU rushing game, giving up 4.3 yards per carry, but they limited dual quarterbacks Chris Relf and Tyson Lee to 1.38 net yards per pass, which was the difference in the ball game. Auburn's REALLY mixing up the coverages well. They change up basically at the snap. Show cover two, zone blitz. Show man, drop into three deep. Show cover one, go cover-zero and get a safety free at a dead run at the QB. If there's a flaw, it's gap control on those man coverages. MSU averaged 8 yards per carry on QB keepers. You've GOT to figure the West Virginia and other teams will test this...
On special teams, Wes Byrum nailed all of his extra points, and the combination of Byrum and Morgan Hull had a decent game kicking off, with only one ball kicked out of bounds. Otherwise, it was a terrible special teams night for the Tigers. Auburn kick returners danced around for 20.8 kick return yards per return, but punt returns were awful once again. Demond Washington averaged just 2.7 yards per return and we had ANOTHER fumble, there. Auburn kickoff coverage was subject to poor tackling, giving up 27.4 yards to Leon Berry. Clinton Durst had a rough night punting, averaging only 35.8 yards per punt. One was blocked, and returned for a Bulldog touchdown. After a solid year last season, Auburn fans were left cringing in their seats late in this game, in kicking situations.
Fortunately, the Auburn offense was way too much for the Bulldogs to handle. The Tiger attack offered up no fumbles, no interceptions, no sacks, and 83 plays for 589 yards. As much as it might surprise folks who watched Auburn last season, the offense was the difference, this time, turning a potentially close game into a blowout.
Grades, after the jump!
Stats from all outlets, are pretty spotty, tonight. We've got tackles recorded by Aaron Savage on the official Auburn website, we've got Rollinson completing 6 passes on ESPN's box score, and errors galore. All I can go by, it seems, is what I saw. Auburn beat a determined MSU Bulldog team 49-24, in a game not as close as the score indicated.
Defensive line: A. Missing in action, this week, was Nick Fairley. I'm not sure, what happened there, but he didn't start, and didn't record any stats, after a stellar game against Louisiana Tech. Mike Blanc filled in in the middle, and the Auburn rush did an adequate, if not spectacular job. Some folks might question this grade. After all, the starting unit recorded 1 sack, 1.5 tackles for loss, and two QB hurries, total. What's the deal? 16 total tackles, minimal gap control problems, and even a big interception pick-six in coverage by Antonio Coleman help this grade. And Coleman wasn't alone in pass coverage. Goggins had a pass breakup, too. This was a marvelous game up front, in terms of controlling a dangerous running spread offense.
Linebackers: A. Again, there was a huge amount of responsibility placed on a thin Auburn linebacking corps. They had to fill inside gaps, AND contain on the corner, and they had to do it with suspect numbers. Eltoro Freeman made a good first impression on the field, racking up six total tackles, and rattling the QB once. Craig Stevens was his usual self, chalking up 7 tackles, including two for losses. Adam Herring had 4 stops, including 1 for loss. Josh Bynes was the real story, with a lead-tying 8 tackles, and key plays on key downs. But you MUST look at linebacker coverage. Tight end Kendrick Cook, no catches. 3rd wide receiver O'Neal Wilder, 1 catch for 25. Tight end Marcus Green, 1 catch for 3 yards. In short, slot receivers were SHUT DOWN, something that has not happened in many years on the Plains! In addition, MSU's tailbacks, a group former Tiger coach Greg Knox called "the best unit he's ever seen!" (Better than Carnell and Ronnie?) managed only 4.4 yards per carry.
Secondary: A. If nothing else defensively was apparent last Saturday, it's clear that Auburn has a pair of outstanding corners. Walter McFadden and Neiko Thorpe HANDLED the outside receivers, forcing State to look elsewhere for big plays. Leon Berry had 60 yards, but a fair amount of it was on sneaky plays out of the slot. Brandon McCrae had 3 catches for 33. Super-de-douper all-freshman signee prospect Chad Bumphis had a total of 8 yards. Zach Etheridge had 8 tackles, McFadden 7, Thorpe 7, and free safety Darren Bates had 3. That's pretty sure tackling, and this bunch limited Bulldog passers to a pedestrian 6.2 yards per pass, 3.8 yards per pass net.
Punting: D-. Clinton Durst never had a chance, in this one. Our ridiculous spread punting formation was exposed, in this game. When possibly the worst team in the SEC manages to shoot gaps, and race around the back protection guys for a block, you've got problems. It's time to get back to a regular lineup, a step and a half Saturn-V punt, and solid coverage. These sneaky rugby punts might cost us a game in the future, against good athletic SEC teams. Durst's net was ony 17.4, a grade only saved from failing because Durst killed two inside the 20. If there's any positive, it was guys like Josh Harris running bouncing red zone punts down inside the 5 yard line. Please, Mr. Boulware, let's shore up our protection, this week?
Punt returns: D+. Let's see, six punts, only three fielded, one of them fumbled, and 2.3 yards per return. Again, we survived the fumble with no turnover. We were relieved and excited by the 3 fair catches. War Eagle! Sad to say, this was actually an improvement over game one.
Kickoff Returns: C. If I graded solely on blocking, this would be an F. But Mario Fannin and Onterrio McCalebb were stalwart, refusing to go down, and somehow, despite numerous hits, they managed 21.0 yards per return. Bravo! Come on, up men! Block somebody, willya?
Kickoffs: C. On 8 kickoffs, Auburn averaged nearly hitting it to the goal line, with generally high kicks, and all to the sideline. One, by Morgan Hull, actually went out of bounds. Ooops. Still, we had State return men bottled up near the goal line, in the corners. And yet, a true freshman, Leon Berry slashed, broke arm tackles, and abused the Auburn return coverage unit for 26.6 yards per return. Good thing we didn't save this performance for Phillip Livas, last week, eh?
Place kicking: A. It's hard to argue with 7 of 7 on PAT's, but some of 'em just squeezed inside the uprights. Are Wes Byrum's kicking troubles over? We're not convinced, just yet.
Offensive line: B. I'm not going to name names, but we continue to be slowed by key penalties at critical times. It was the same player, both times. And it's sad, because I'll bet if you averaged up cockroach and rodeo blocks for the game, that penalized player had more than the rest of the line combined. Complaining aside, it's pretty exciting for a fan, to watch this line. We get a pretty heavy dose of inside runs in this offense, that appear to go nowhere. I'm typing out "second and 12" on the screen, and it turns out that the carry picked up 5 yards. That's some pretty dominant line play. It's taken at LEAST a six man rush this year, to put any pressure on Chris Todd. This Grimes guy is a keeper. They don't even look that good to casual observation, but our quarterback has yet to be sacked, we haven't thrown a pick, and we have yet to see an Auburn three 'n' out this season. Amazing, really.
Receivers: B+. It's hard to give this grade, after Darvin Adams lit up the Bulldog secondary for 115 yards. There were other great catches, including a monster fake block, spring-open deal by Jay Wisner, and a tremendous comeback, leaping grab by Terrell Zachary on a ball basically thrown up for grabs. Again, downfield blocking was good, especially by Tommy Trott. He just BURIED a guy on Ben Tate's big burst for the game-clinching TD run. Still, drops hurt. Adams was Todd's primary target, and he dropped at least two. Stallworth had a drop. We still need a bit sharper routes, but you can't argue with any of these guys' efforts cracking on folks, downfield.
Running Backs: A. No fumbles, this game, and again with great protections. Blocking was good again by Fannin and Douglas. Running might have been better. State has a faster, more aggressive D. I think McCalebb found that out, and was a slight bit more limited in his 16 carries for 7.1 yards a carry. I have to admit, though, that big 48 yard burst that gave Auburn the lead back for good, was a thing of beauty. Ben Tate THRIVED on contact, and got stronger and stronger as the game went out. When they sprinted up to the line in the 4th quarter, and Tate knifed through the D for 35 and a score, it was over. Eric Smith, after his one-game absence, had both good blocking plays, and good running plays. If we have depth issues, it's not at running back!
Quarterbacks: B-. We had too many throwaways, and a sub-par 45 percent completion percentage. While Auburn rolled on the ground in this game, the above number gives cause for concern. Particularly troubling is the fact that at least two completions in this total were sailer-balls just thrown up for grabs, that actually worked. I guess have to be fired up about the 3 QB TDs on the ground, and the Wildcat TD pass to true freshman tight end Phillip Lutzencirchen. Still no sacks, and no interceptions. But dang, these numbers worry me. We've got some tough games ahead. We'll need better than 45 percent, I think.
I'll have to admit, I expected a big offensive game against La. Tech. I did NOT expect a 49 point outburst against the likes of Carl Torbush, even if he only had 4 starters returning. If I had been told that Auburn would only complete 45 percent of its passes, I would have said that 49 points was crazy-talk! The pessimist in me didn't want to believe it, but this Malzhan single-wing/shotgun/dipsy-doodle/nosebleed drive blocking offense now has me convinced. Auburn might be two or three wins ahead of where I predicted them, at the start of the season. I laughed when La Tech got tired in the 4th quarter. MSU was whoofing before then. Ben Tate's TD run late was a thing of beauty, mostly because the Bulldog guys were too gassed to come up out of their stance, and chase him. I've still got to figure that the LSUs and Bamas of the league won't get this tired, but I could be wrong.
Defensively, we've still got a few holes, but some real speed and talent, too. We might be somewhat lacking in depth in the front seven, but we have two corners that have, so far, taken the outside receivers out of the game. 9 on 9, inside the tackle box, definitely works to an Auburn defense's favor!
The pessimist in me is REALLY worried about the special teams. Yes, we have SUPER kickers and punters. No, the spread punt thing got exposed, this week. Getting folks downfield to cover is useless, when you expose the best punter in the SEC to brutal hits and blocked punts. Sorry. Let's shore that thing up, and protect Durst so that he can hang 'em, again, shall we? Coverage is really spotty. Return blocking is nearly non-existent. I guess the reason we haven't had one of those ubiquitous block-in-the-back calls, is because we don't hit at all, in the return game.
Auburn faces a huge step up in competition, this week. Despite a lackluster showing a week ago, West Virginia has some of the best talent in the country, coming to Auburn this weekend. What was a green D last season, is now veteran. There are some questions up front for the Mountaineers on offense, but they can hurt us on the edges with Noel Devine and Jock Sanders, and a new/old veteran QB with a tremendous arm. We can't surrender on special teams, not against this bunch. It's a great challenge for Gene Chizik and Auburn, and I'll be surprised if we aren't an underdog at home, in this one. It's time for Gene Chizik and company to prove the nation wrong again, as they have the first two weeks. War Eagle, and isn't it great to be 2-0, or what?