War Eagle, Everybody! It's time now for the Acid Reign Report, on Auburn's MOST excellent win in the Outback Bowl! The Tigers survived every kind of adversity imaginable, to outlast the Northwestern Wildcats 38-35 in overtime! If there is anything negative to take out of this game, it's that Auburn showed a disturbing propensity to make bone-headed plays that kept letting Northwestern back in the game. Auburn had clear advantages at many positions, but we kept making mistakes. In the end, neither team really won. Auburn just survived at the end, in a war of attrition.
I have to issue a strong admonition against the play of a pair of seniors. True, Walter McFadden displayed the heart of a Tiger, fighting though pain to give us a chance. His personal foul/celebration penalty was a bit iffy, but still. Walt, hand the ball back to the ref and go to the sideline to celebrate, like you were taught! That mistake gave Northwester a short field, and set up a touchdown. Without that high-stepping, Auburn might have enjoyed a 21-0 halftime lead. Tate's mistakes were FAR more serious. He dunked the ball over the goal, into the stands. Rightly, he drew the flag. Again, Northwestern was set up with a short field, and erased a two touchdown Auburn lead in the 4th quarter. Tate compounded his mistake by fumbling the ball away on the next possession, allowing Northwestern to drive to a tie ball game. Auburn had basically won the wars in the trenches, and the selfish actions of two seniors put the outcome of the game in doubt. Boo! Come on, man! You're better than that!
On offense, Chris Todd came through in his last game. We knew we'd have to have a good quarterback game to beat Northwestern, and Todd delivered. He had no turnovers, and made clutch throw after clutch throw. Our running game was up and down. With the injury to Byron Issom, third quarter rushing production plunged. The messy sod may have had a lot to do with that. Outside cuts weren't possible, and Northwestern packed it in the middle. Darvin Adams was THE man! Northwestern doubled him all day, and he STILL kept getting open, or making the catches in traffic. We repeatedly got ourselves in third and long, and Adams kept moving the sticks. What a performance! The Wildcat offense produced pretty decent rushing numbers, but took two possible touchdown passes off the board with intercepted deep balls. Part of that is on receivers that didn't protect Kodi Burns on long balls. On long balls, the receiver HAS to get to the ball, or keep defenders from catching it, at the very least.
Auburn was in a tough matchup from the start, against Northwestern's spread attack. The Tigers were determined not to give up the easy rushing yards, and did a stellar job against the NU backs and quaterback Mike Kafka on the ground. NU finished with 89 rushing yards, and a 2.4 yards per carry average. For the most part, Auburn prevented the deep ball, but could not stop Northwestern from dinking and dunking their way down field. Auburn did make Northwestern pay, with 5 interceptions. Kudos to T'Sharvan Bell for filling in admirably at corner. Reserve D'Antoine Hood was more of a liability. Northwestern was able to get into his head a bit, and worked him for several big plays. Neiko Thorpe continued a season-long trend by getting beat deep once, but otherwise, he was a tackling machine, and saved the game at the end. Safety play was adequate, and a tip of the cap to Demond Washington. Walt McFadden was not the only guy who played on while hurt.
Auburn special teams were a huge part of the win. Other than the fumble on the kick return at the end of regulation, there was little to complain about. Wes Byrum won the game on a field goal, and was perfect on the day. Clinton Durst had probably his best day of the year, and coverage was better than usual. Wes Byrum added a LOT to kickoffs, with high, deep kicks. I SO wish we had used him more in this space, this season!
Unit grades, after the jump!
Defensive Line: A. This unit played admirably. While it was hardly a dominant performance, the mission was to stop the run, and keep Mike Kafka's scrambling from killing us. By all measures, this was a success. Kafka netted 54 yards, and was sacked twice by the line. The official stats show no quarterback hurries, and I have to ask, what game were those pencil pushers watching? Auburn generated a great deal of pressure, usually with only a 4 man rush. The line tallied 21 tackles against a pass happy team. Bravo.
Linebackers: C. Auburn stopped the run pretty well, but we could have used a lot more help stopping the underneath routes. It's perfectly legal to knock a slot receiver off his feet before the ball is in the air, but we have not learned that yet. To be a really good defense, those guys must FEAR running across the short middle. We're not there, yet. Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens played every every one of 116 defensive snaps, and combined for only 16 total tackles.
Secondary: C. Some folks might question this grade, but the fact is that Auburn allowed 47 completions for 532 yards. That's over 11 yards per catch. The 66 yard screen pass from Kafka to Dunsmore was probably ugliest tackling performance of the season. On the plus side, Auburn did pick off 5 passes, and made Northwestern pay for taking shots down the field. Walter McFadden and Demond Washington were troopers, and played on despite being banged up. T'Sharvan Bell provided much needed depth off the bench, and Auburn did survive the onslaught.
Punting: A. Some of Clinton Durst's punts were less than 40 yards, but they were all pretty high. Northwestern managed just one return for 1 yard, and Durst killed 3 of 6 inside the 20. That's a pretty good day! Compared to the Northwestern punting day, we blew 'em away.
Punt Returns: C. We didn't return any punts, but we did hang around several bouncing balls, which was dangerous. I suppose I should be happy. Most games, we've dropped a punt, this season. Northwestern relied on rolling rugby punts, or ugly squat line drives. They managed only a miserable 31.6 yard average.
Kick Returns: C. Most Saturdays, you'd be fine with a 25.0 average on kick returns. Demond Washington more or less did it by himself. Blocking was not very good, and that's disappointing after we had done better the last half of the season. Letter grade off for the fumble on the last return. That was critical, and if Northwestern had a better kicker, that would have cost us the game.
Kickoffs: B. I'm not sure what happened to Morgan Hull. Wes Byrum handled every kickoff, and boomed 'em for a 66 yard average, and got 'em high and deep. Here's my vote for him kicking off full-time, next season! Coverage was spotty as usual. Northwestern came in with pretty average return numbers, but we allowed 'em 23.2 yards per return. The thing that hurt the coverage team the worst was the personal fouls not of their doing, that forced us to kick off from the 15 yard line twice.
Placekicking A+. Byrum was perfect, as usual, and nailed the game-winning field goal. What a year! Wes was perfect on extra points, even in a near record-breaking season for touchdowns. And Byrum finished hitting 15 of 16 field goals! War Eagle, Wes Byrum!
Offensive Line: A-. Some folks might have expected a more dominant performance, but Auburn held their own pretty well against a pretty stout front. Northwestern's terror of a defensive end Corey Wootton was held to no sacks and one tackle. Chris Todd was sacked 3 times, but he held the ball forever. Auburn managed 4.9 yards per rush, and 5.9 yards per play on offense. Those are pretty solid numbers, and you don't do that without good line play.
Receivers: A-. Some would argue that Darvin Adams was the only guy available, but I understand Todd's thinking completely! Adams was a terror. NU KNEW he was getting the ball. They assigned two and even three defenders to stop him, and STILL couldn't do it. Adams had to beat jams all day. His cuts are like razor blades. He's tall, and fast. And man, if that ball gets in his zip code, he catches it. Even if he's being ROCKED. Blake and Zachary caught screens, and Quindarious Carr made a great snag on a deep ball. Zachary had another big run on the reverse. Points off on a dangerous Tommy Trott drop. Never tip it up in the air!
Running Backs: C. You'd like to award a team with 190 rushing yards a better grade here, but no. Take 50 yards off for an end around, and 130 on 38 carries is a lot more pedestrian. We moved freshman Phillip Lutzencirchen to fullback for this game, and he wasn't quite decisive enough on who to block. Runs to the corner were dicey, with slippery turf. The great backs find a way to turn the corner in the mud, but we could not in this game. Letter grade off for Ben Tate's fumble. Ouch. Blitz pickup was spotty, too. If you're a protection back standing around not blocking anyone, and your quarterback's being pounded by a linebacker or safety, that's NOT good! It's mostly a recognition problem, not an effort issue.
Quarterback: B. When an Auburn starting QB comes out of a game with no turnovers, that's great! Let's here it for Chris Todd! Unfortunately, wildcat QB Kodi Burns chunked 2 interceptions on two tosses. Both of those were decent passes, but thrown into traffic. Chris Todd was also guilty of holding the ball too long on multiple occasions. He took a really hard shot on one sack, and still held on. Todd looked pretty sharp throwing, for the most part, and bailed us out of numerous third and longs.
To finish this season with an Outback Bowl win over a quality opponent like Northwestern is huge. It was hardly a perfect game, but to see Auburn out-play a good Big 10 opponent bodes great things for the future. The myriad mistakes are worrisome, but this is a team that never gives up. Perseverance will take one a long way!
Auburn has its work cut out for the next season. There will be holes on the defensive line. The loss of Ben Tate will be bigger than most folks realize. For the third off season in a row, the quarterback race will be huge. By all accounts, Auburn will have an infusion of young talent coming in via the recruiting trail. There will be excitement, but it's got to be tempered with realism. We will see these young men make mistakes, as well as brilliant plays.
For the most part this season, Auburn men have conducted themselves with honor and class. With their "never say die" attitude, and the great schemes of the Auburn coaching staff, this team that was picked last in the SEC West has finished with 8 wins, including one on New Years Day! War Eagle! War Eagle to all! And a happy new year!