Nova soars at sunset!
War Eagle, everybody! It's time now for the Acid Reign report, on Auburn's 35-27 victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks at Jordan Hare Stadium. What a great game day it was! The never-ending summer weather made for yet another muggy, warm day in Auburn. I was a bit worried about the energy level, but once the sun went down, the intensity ramped up to familiar levels! A recent article by Ron Morris ranked the intimidation factor at each SEC Stadium, and Auburn ranked number one in his article. Tiger fans did nothing at this game to lose that ranking! It was a raucous, roaring environment in the stadium.
A special shout-out goes here to fellow TrackEmTigers.com bloggers War Eagle Atlanta and Aubtigerman. I enjoyed great hospitality at Auburntigerman's tailgate, and a special thanks for hooking us up with tickets! WEA and I enjoyed drinks and fine food at the Amsterdam Cafe while we watched and analyzed the Bama/Arkansas game on the TV. The "Ears of Steel" award goes to WEA for enduring my non-stop chatter the entire game.
If you attend an Auburn game this fall, make sure to visit the newly-opened Auburn Arena across the street from the stadium. It's a mighty impressive place. There's not a bad seat in the house, and EVERY seat is padded with armrests! It's going to be loud in there. There's nowhere for the sound to go! There is a great Auburn sports museum set up to walk through on the concourse, and there is tons of memorabilia to see, including Bo Jackson's Heisman Trophy. Best of all, I think they had the temp cranked down to about 60 degrees in there. Go there to cool off, if nothing else!
Earlier this week on TrackemTigers.com, Aubtigerman celebrated Shug Jordan's 100th birthday. It was nice to see the University follow suit at the game. There was a stirring salute on the video board. We all owe a great debt to Shug. Coach Jordan really laid the groundwork for modern Auburn football. I wonder what he'd think of a gameday now? It's certainly a lot different now than it was back when he retired!
Now that I have finished with prefaces, yes, there was an actual SEC game in Auburn this past Saturday. South Carolina came in sporting the league-leading freshman running back and the best rushing defense in the SEC. They left with neither, as Auburn dominated both lines of scrimmage. Ellis Johnson's proud Gamecock run defenders were gashed to the tune of 334 rushing yards by the Tiger zone-read offense. Freshman Gamecock tailback Marcus Lattimore was held to 33 yards on the ground, and 28 receiving yards on 3 catches.
The offense had a tremendous day. South Carolina never really stopped them. Only a handful of mistakes kept Auburn from scoring 50 points in this one. The Tigers punted only twice. We had a handful of drive-killing penalties on the line, but honestly less than usual amount. Ball security continues to be an issue, as three of our four scholarship backs put the ball on the ground. I think it's safe to say that Mario Fannin's shoulder is going to prevent him from reaching 1000 rushing yards as coach Curtis Luper predicted before the season. On the other hand, freshman Michael Dyer may well set an Auburn freshman rushing record.
From where I sat in Section 8, it appeared that our coaches stopped trying to pamper quarterback Cameron Newton, and let him play to his strengths. After Newton romped for a record 171 rushing yards against Arkansas State, the pundits opined that Newton would never produce those sorts of numbers against a good SEC defense. All Newton did against South Carolina is set a new school quarterback rushing record of 177 yards. Newton also played better than he did against Arkansas State, losing no turnovers. Finally, I had predicted that Ellis Johnson would call a lot of cover-one-robber defense, using the strong safety to spy Newton. He did not. Carolina used a lot of cover-two. You don't chunk bombs into cover two, and kudos to Cam for not once trying it. Johnson picked his poison, preferring to stop the Newton deep balls, in exchange for allowing Newton to take off.
The Auburn special teams this year seem to be a case of plugging leaks, and seeing new ones pop up. It's an improvement from last season, when the whole boat sank at times, but we may not see a tight all-around special teams game this season. Kick coverage remained excellent, we had a decent day returning kicks, we hit all of our extra points and we did not turn the ball over. Little else went right. Wes Byrum missed two field goals, and was erratic kicking off. Distance was poor on punts. We failed to take advantage of open grass on punt returns.
The Auburn secondary continued to have coverage issues, but South Carolina will be one of the best receiving corps Auburn will face this season. Only Arkansas and Alabama have similar talent across the board. Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery was a particular nightmare, picking up 192 yards on 8 catches. Auburn rotated guys on him, but he still got his yards. Credit the Auburn front seven for making it tough on Stephen Garcia and the Gamecock offense. The Tigers plugged the run effectively, and collapsed the pocket repeatedly. For the third week in a row, the Tigers beat a pretty good quarterback into 4th quarter submission. I'm sure we'll still see opposing quarterbacks scrambling and keeping the football, because we give up a few yards that way. Still, the message is clear: do that, and your quarterback will be a bruised sitting duck by the 4th quarter!
Unit Grades, after the jump!
Defensive Line: A. There might have been a few minor quibbles and mistakes, the biggest being a couple of offsides flags. Considering how good the line has been at jumping the snap count, a flag every now and then might be the price we have to pay. Two players deserve particular praise on the line. Nick Fairley continues to play at an awesome level. He's a genuine terror up front. A big salute to Nosa Eague. The move to start him worked well. One of my concerns going into this season is that we didn't appear to have any big run-stopping strong side ends. Carolina immediately tried to run right at Eague, and it didn't work. Former starter Michael Goggins was more effective being brought off the bench as a pass-rush specialist. We also got good bench work from tackle Jeffery Whitaker and Corey Lemonier. The D-line is winning games for us, right now.
Linebackers: B. There was good play at times, and sometimes not. You've got to give Josh Bynes a lot of credit. He's playing at an All-SEC level, and is really holding things together well. He's done a great job at setting the line and the pressures, too. I loved watching him fade back on that Tampa-2 pick late in the game. It reminded me of Travis Williams, who used to do that on the 2004 defense. Other backers Craig Stevens, Darren Bates and Jessell Curry had contain problems. Those guys spent too much time diving at Garcia's legs and missing. It's important to remember that Garcia is a big QB with good scrambling capability. He's made other linebacking corps look bad, too.
Secondary: C+. Coverage issues continued, although this was the unit's best game to date. South Carolina really has a good receiving corps, and Garcia bought a lot of time scrambling. It was inevitable that someone was going to get lost in coverage on those scrambles. Auburn tried everything against Alshon Jeffery. The player I think covered him best was Neiko Thorpe. Most folks will remember Neiko getting cooked on the early TD, but that was the only time Jeffery got by him. Neiko played pretty lock-down otherwise. Great knock-away on a slant in the 2nd half. T'Sharvan Bell turned Jeffery loose down the middle for a 69 yard catch and run. It scared me to death at times when we'd put the freshman Chris Davis out there with Jeffery. It looked like a full foot of height difference. Roof tended to roll the safeties to that side when Davis was out there. One other thing that was well illustrated is that Zac Etheridge is not as fast as the rest of our secondary. Jeffery really made a good running move on Etheridge on that 69 yarder. Etheridge won't give up on a play, though, and he'll take your head off. Zac made that tackle on the sideline, and didn't give up the TD. We had no one who could consistently cover the Carolina fullbacks or tight ends. I'll have to tip the hat to Darth Visor for not calling more flat routes to those guys.
Punting: D. We punted twice, nearly got both blocked, and averaged only 34 yards.
Punt Returns: C. Quindarius Carr let one short one hit, returned one for ten yards, and fair caught one back pedaling with PLENTY of room to run. No turnovers, though. I'll take it!
Kick Returns: B. Demond Washington continues to be effective, and uses his blocks to milk a good bit of yardage out of his returns. Washington managed a 25.3 yard average on three returns. Carolina wised up, and started kicking short to Onterrio McCalebb, who only managed a 19 yard average on 2 returns. McCalebb didn't follow his blocks as well, running east and west rather than getting upfield like Washington does. Still, no turnovers and decent field position most of the time is a good thing.
Place-kicking: C+. Wes Byrum ran hot and cold in this one. Some of his kickoffs reached the goal line, and some didn't make the 10. Honestly, I remembered it a lot worse than the 65 yard average shows on the stat page. Auburn stoned Carolina on the returns. Teams have learned to watch out for Craig Sanders as the wedge buster. Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, those double teams on Sanders resulted in Demetruce McNeal flattening the return man 4 times. With all of Carolina's speed, they managed only 20.5 yards per return. I've seen lots of negative press on Wes Byrum's chip shot clank off the upright in the third quarter, but you must remember that everybody misses a shot now and then. Byrum has made so many in a row that I think the miss shocked folks. The 53 yard attempt that was missed should have never been tried. Considering that Wes wasn't consistently getting kickoffs to the ten, asking him to hit one from that distance in a breeze was a bit ridiculous. The way our line was blowing folks off the ball, we should have gone for it on 4th down there.
Offensive Line: A-. Now that's more like it, guys! I counted off on a few errors, such at the false starts and the ineligible down field on Brandon Moseley. Moseley did a pretty fine job in his first start, overall. That was a pretty mean Gamecock line, and they got bulldozed across the board. Lee Ziemba was a monster down field pancaking folks in this one. Newton had time to throw. South Carolina appeared to get a push up the middle from time to time, but if you count bodies they pretty much had to blitz a linebacker to get it.
Receivers: B. We had some pretty nice use of sharp underneath routes, and good hands most of the time. Cam threw a few hot balls you'd have liked for the guys to bring in, but more times the receivers pulled in stuff that may not have been quite placed correctly. Phillip Lutzenchirchen's TD catch was amazing. It looked like it was overthrown out of the endzone. Lutz twisted up to get it, and got his feet down. That's a pretty amazing play for a big tight end. How about Emory Blake? I think that was the best bubble screen TD run I've ever seen!
Running Backs: C+. Three fumbles, two lost is the major factor in this grade. I'll give Dyer the benefit of the doubt, because it was his first in four games. Anytime you get hit so hard that you flip, the ball might come out. I really felt bad for Mario Fannin. His fumble didn't even look like a particularly hard hit. Fannin's a team guy with a variety of skills, but he's likely to be most remembered in Auburn history for his fumbles. Fannin was mostly used as a decoy after the fumble, in Auburn's version of the jumbo set. Aside from the turnovers, Dyer and McCalebb ran well again. It looks like those two are set to be our "thunder and lightning" combo going forward. Eric Smith as a pass protector on long yardage downs has worked pretty well, too.
Quarterback: A. Other than a few slightly off passes, there's little to complain about here. Newton was the best player on the field, hands down. I wondered where the Gus Malzhan passing game went, this year. It was back, last night, and the result was the best offensive game of the season. The missing element from Cam's game prior to this contest was the short passing game. Cam proved he can do it, against South Carolina. Cam also proved that he can put up ridiculous rushing numbers against a good SEC defense, too. Most of the time when you have a new quarterback with great running ability and questionable accuracy, you worry about turnovers. Cam had none this game. He hasn't fumbled all year, and he's taken plenty of hits. 3 interceptions in 4 games puts him among the SEC leaders in protecting the ball. We've really scored landing this guy at Auburn. I'm not ready to tab Cam as the best Auburn quarterback ever, but he's officially in the conversation now.
A big War Eagle to the team for a convincing win over a ranked SEC opponent. This is a major step, make no mistake. I thought the coaches called a pretty good game, but I do have a few quibbles still. The 53 yard field goal attempt was a big one. Also, we used a LOT of what I was calling the jumbo set, or perhaps it should be called the "Tebow set." We had Mario Fannin and Eric Smith up in obvious blocking back stances. On those downs, I think everyone knew Cam was going to run it. Credit the blockers, Carolina never stopped it. The one time we threw from that package we slipped Lutz into that backfield. In the future, teams will be wary for that. A big hats off to the Auburn coordinators. I thought they both called a great game. All of those fair-weather fans who think Ted Roof is an idiot should re-watch this game. When Roof's got some depth, he's dangerous, I think.
Congratulations to the Tigers. We are 4-0, with a great chance to push that to 6-0 before Arky and Ryan Mallett come to town. If we manage to arrive at that big game undefeated, there's a good chance we WON'T have to face the Razorback aerial assault with an 11:00 AM kickoff.