War Eagle, everybody! It's time now for the Acid Reign report on Auburn's season-opening win over Arkansas State. The Red Wolves came in playing hard, with a quick-hitting "throw it in the flat" game plan, and took the early momentum away from the Tigers. The Tigers rebounded from adversity in the first and third quarters, downing State 52-26. Auburn had a number of new players on the field, and made the usual amount of first-game mistakes. The Tigers must correct those in a hurry, because they face a tough Mississippi State Bulldog team this Thursday night.
I suppose the biggest issues to come out of this ball game were ball security, and to a lesser extent tackling. Against a better team, a series like the start of the third quarter can blow a game. Had we kept possession and continued to play offense like in the first half, no telling what the final score might have been. Our tackling on the wide receivers could have been a LOT better. The schools don't publish stats on this, but the Arkansas State receivers had a ton of yards after contact. We've got to tighten up, because we're going to see a LOT of guys like Chad Bumphis (4 catches, 100 yards, two TDs) in the flat next Thursday. I'd also like to see a little better blocking on returns, and a little more consistency with punts.
Other than the fumbles, one has to be happy with the offense. We left about half the options under wraps in the play book. In particular, Arky State played a LOT of Tampa-2 coverage, with a six man stunting/slanting rush. The quick hitters to the tight ends and H-backs were there all night, and we never went that way. The Wolf plan was to double the outside receivers, and we seemed bent on throwing deep that way, regardless. I've got to hand it to Quindarious Carr, who twice beat double coverage to make a play on the deep ball. When was the last time Auburn had a serious deep threat who was going to catch it with defenders on him? Frank Sanders? Ronnie Daniels? Wow. Note to Gus Malzhan: screen to Fannin? That draws a LOT of attention. Fannin on the smash route to the corner? At least against Arkansas State, they didn't even have a man on it.
A lot has been made about Mario Fannin only getting thee carries, and fumbling one of those. Here's what I think happened. The game plan for this one was to run the ball, and work on base plays. We ran into a problem in camp with the injury to Ladarius Phillips. That left only one blocking H-Back, Eric Smith. What I think happened is that Mario Fannin, ever the team player, stepped into the breach. Most of his snaps were from his familiar H-back slot. He may not get 1000 yards this year, but I'm glad to know he's an Auburn man who will do whatever it takes for the good of the team. With Fannin leading the way, McCalebb and Dyer combined for 23 carries for 175 yards. That's not bad at all, and when combined with a running QB, we'll be OK here!
Even the most pessimistic Tiger had to be pleased with the opening performance by Cameron Newton. How can one argue with no turnovers, 13.2 yards per pass, and 11.8 yards per carry? Those are video game numbers! Philosophically, I cringed when he took off on a 3rd and 16 early on. I wondered if we were going to be saddled with the dreaded stereotype of the "happy feet quarterback." Strategy-wise, quarterbacks shouldn't run on third and plus ten. I don't think we've ever had one that can break a half dozen tackles on that play, though! Then there was the clock debacle at the end of the half. I'm not sure that really was on Cam. He checked down to Fannin on a short-side screen, and it ended up being a loss in bounds. You really wanted to take at least two shots into the end zone, then bring in Byrum. Someone should have called time the instant Fannin hit the ground. That's not just on Newton. The coaches never called timeout, either. Finally, there was the only sack on Cam on the night. We ran a bunch set to the right, with Cam rolling out behind it. Arkansas State ran a corner blitz from the left side, and the DB chased Cam down and sacked him from behind. Isn't someone on the line supposed to yell "fire!" when a rusher gets by unblocked? Can't let your QB get blindsided. Honestly, that's very few nits to pick with a first performance! This is going to be another very fun year to watch the offense.
We saw easily the best special teams game in the Chizik era against Arkansas State. Last year, you held your breath every time Auburn kicked to the other team. This year, we had some pretty aggressive coverage. There are plenty of things to work on, of course. The fumbled kick return was the most damaging thing, but there were other problems. We let a kick return get outside for a pretty good gain, and kicker Cody Parkey had to make the tackle. Punting was inconsistent. Shoemaker hit a 45 yard rainmaker early, then followed with a short one. The last two were very high, but only went 39 yards or so. I suppose Auburn fans are spoiled in the punting department. We've had SO many great ones who could consistently hammer 45 yarders. Just in the past 20 years that's included Terry Daniel, Jarrett Holmes, Damon Duval, Cody Bliss, and Clinton Durst. Wes Byrum was perfect on place kicks. Byrum handled the first two kickoffs, and averaged hitting it to the goal line. Cody Parkey took over at that point, and averaged only the ten yard line. Most of them ended up near the five, but there were a couple of miscue kicks that dribbled down the field short.
Easily the most disappointing aspect of this game was the Auburn defense, particularly the secondary. Some of that was the scheme in the first half. After a blown coverage and 61 yard pass given up in the first quarter, Auburn looked intimidated, and went to soft zone. Even when the Tigers showed man, they bailed backward at the line, giving up the short pass. With two veteran safeties, there was no better team on the schedule to practice man coverage. Instead, we gave up a ton of yards and let the Wolves stay in the contest. I think even coach Chizik got irritated by it, and was in Ted Roof's face during a long segment on camera near the half. We can talk about new formations and unknowns with the new Huge Freeze run 'n' shoot offense all day. Fact is, we knew six months ago that we were going to see a quick, short passing game. We knew juco transfer receiver Dewayne Frampton was going to be trouble. Neiko Thorpe was picked on a LOT, but my goodness! We've got to let him play! If we're going to get quick passes, we can't line him up with a ten yard cushion. Thorpe was often trying to make the tackle fighting through a block. There seemed to be bull-headed insistence on playing a standard 4-3 defense in this one, no matter what. Against 4 wides, you've got to go nickel, or even dime. In the second half, we got T'Sharvan Bell out there and those prolific Red Wolf numbers went down. I also think we need to see a lot more of tackle Jeffery Whitacker. Arky State realized quickly that they were going to need a double team block on him. We need more of a push in the middle, and we've they guy to do it, now.
It was not all bad for the defense, though. Our D-line manhandled their o-line. The quick passes and sweeping runs minimized the damage, but we had linemen in the backfield all night. Carter and Fairley were particularly troublesome. The Wolves had a handful of damaging run plays, but Lawson and Robertson were limited to 65 yards on 23 carries. That's a big improvement for a defense that gave up over 4 yards per carry in 2009. Aaron Savage had some rust, but flew all over the field making hits. He's really going to be an asset back at safety. Zach Etheridge also showed early rust, but got better as the game went one. Had a particularly brutal tackle on a quick out on a possession play. I still worry about his speed against fast slot guys, but as far as delivering punishing hits, he's still the same Zach! Linebacker play was still somewhat spotty. For the most part, plays in the middle were snuffed out, but we did have a few missed tackles. Honestly, with the disruption with Stevens being out, this unit did better than I expected. Consider: we went with Bynes, the notoriously flaky Freeman, and Bates, who had played NO linebacker AT ALL before August. They'll only get better.
Unit grades, after the jump!
Defensive Line: B. Points off on a couple of plays up the middle for big gains. Points off for getting in the backfield, and not getting the ball carrier down. Otherwise, this unit won big. Antoine "Hot" Carter led the way with 2.5 sacks, 3.5 for a loss. He was around the corner on the tackle most plays. Nick Fairley had a good day with 4 tackles. The "strong" side of the line wasn't as effective. Tackle Zach Clayton managed one assist and one QB hurry, and end Michael Goggins had just a single assist. I liked the job Nosa Eguae did off the bench. He showed power as well as speed off the edge, contributing two tackles and a half sack. Eguae also blew up two sweeps without getting in on the tackle. Freshman Corey Lemonier has ridiculous speed. He had two QB hurries in limited snaps. Getting pressure against a quick passing offense is tough, but Auburn managed it well in the second half.
Linebackers: B+. Points off on a few big running plays allowed. Some will question this grade, but the linebackers took away the run and the tight end. Kedric Murray had two catches for nine yards. Arkansas State rushed for only 43 yards on 35 carries. The linebackers carried their mission out with a vengeance. Should they have helped more on the outside passes? Maybe. You've got to line one up out there for them to have that sort of impact. I thought the effort of the backups was good, too. Jonathan Evans looked solid. He made a key stop on a third down screen pass. Jessell Curry made his debut with a couple of jarring hits. I was worried about Darren Bates in his first start. All Bates did was rack up a team high ten tackles. All in all, it was a very solid performance at linebacker.
Secondary: C-. We didn't give up a long bomb in this one, but plenty of short passes, and a couple of early strikes down the middle. Savage, Etheridge and McNeil looked a step slow early, but you've got to credit Savage for great closing speed as the game wore on. The Wolves didn't go after Demond Washington much, hitting only a few short ones in front of him. Washington put the receiver on the ground every time. His only miscue was allowing a 61 yard pass and run early. Washington was in man coverage, and left his man to chase the QB. I guess that was from playing safety at the end of last year! It was a big mistake, but he did not repeat it. He was not bad at all in his first start at cornerback. Neiko Thorpe on the other side had a decidedly rougher evening. Again, a lot of that was the scheme. We let them throw the quick outside passes, often with a blocker in front, and Thorpe had little help. He was left to fight off a block and make the tackle. When we finally let him press in the second half, he made some plays, including knocking a 4th down slant pass out. Got some good minutes out of backups Mike McNeil and T'Sharvan Bell also. Nice to see some depth in the secondary! This grade is somewhat unfair, because I think the players were victims of the scheme for much of the game. We've got to do a better job of adjusting coverages based on what the other team is doing. We've got the players and the depth to be aggressive. There's no excuse for sitting back in soft coverage, and giving up 10 play drives. We've got a good enough offense to survive giving up a big play. What we can't do is park that offense on the bench for long stretches.
Punting: B. A 39.2 yard average isn't "B" material, unless you kill most of them inside the 20. Ryan Shoemaker had one. When you hold the other team to 7 total return yards on those four punts, you've done a great job. That's a 37.5 net punting average, and we'll take that every week!
Punt Returns: B. Oh, how nice it is to see every punt fielded, and no fumbles! Quindarius Carr looked pretty good back there, managing a 9.4 yard average on five returns. With better blocking, that number could have been a whole lot higher. There's a lot of room for improvement on blocking those returns. The plus on blocking is that we didn't get any of those ubiquitous "block in the back" calls.
Kick Returns: C. Turning the ball over on a kick return is always at least a letter grade. It means that not only have you just given up a score, but the other team immediately has the ball in the red zone again. Critical mistake. Better to just down the ball, than to give up a turnover. That said, Demond Washington did average 25.2 yards on five returns. That's pretty good. We had spotty blocking, but again no "block in the back" penalties.
Kickoffs: B. We appeared to be on the way to an A+ early in this category, as Wes Byrum kicked it three yards into the end zone, and we stopped the return man at the 13. The numbers steadily went down the rest of the game. Byrum gave way to freshman Cody Parkey in the second quarter, and we were no longer reaching the end zone. Parkey hit several kicks inside the ten, but also had an ugly bouncer that luckily the State return man fielded with a knee on the ground. Bonus to Parkey for getting return man Roderick Hall down after a 40 yard return in the second quarter. Coverage was a lot better for the most part than last year. Even including the 40 yarder, Auburn gave up only 18.4 yards per return. Spearheading the coverage and making plays were Emory Blake and Craig Sanders. I wonder how much the new "wedges are illegal" rule helped us? The first man down got to the runner quickly all day.
Placekicking A+. Wes Byrum was perfect again, hitting all of his kicks. There appeared to be a timing problem on Auburn's second PAT, but Byrum improvised and booted it in flat-footed. He seemed to be limping a bit after that, and it may have contributed to the decision to use Cody Parkey on kickoffs. We certainly hope Byrum's ok! He looked good every kick attempt after that.
Offensive Line: A-. I think most folks hoped for a more dominating performance, but Arky State threw a LOT of odd looks and stunts at us. At times, there were linemen loose in the backfield. The most glaring one was when tackle Dorvus Woods crushed Terrell Zachary in the backfield on an end-around. The Wolves sometimes got pressure on passing downs. In the end, though, the line didn't give up a sack. The one State sack was a corner blitz, and that doesn't count against the line. For each stunt that caused us problems, there were two or three plays where the defense was roasted for big plays. The line paved the way for the team rushing for 7.5 yards per carry and 606 total yards. There was one false start called on Lee Ziemba. What's ironic is that it appeared to clearly be a problem with the snap count, as half the team moved. Wasn't Ziemba's fault, but I guess he's got the SEC zebras looking for him!
Receivers: A-. Wide receivers were mostly used as blockers in this one, and they did well. The most encouraging thing was the emergence of Quindarius Carr as a deep threat. We've been waiting a long time for that sort of thing! Darvin Adams uncharacteristically had several balls hit him that weren't caught. Adams got no help from the officials, though. Apparently, it's fine with Rogers Redding's buffoons for DBs to wrap an arm around Adams before the ball gets there. Let it happen more than once!
Running Backs: B-. Easily the most frustrating play of the day was Mario Fannin's first carry of the second half. He FINALLY gets to carry it, and there's no blocking. Fannin gets swarmed in the backfield, ball comes out, and we're all getting that sick South Florida feeling again! I really hate it for Mario. Dumb play all around. Points off on the Eric Smith holding penalty, too. Can't do it on a sweep right in front of the linesman! Otherwise, the backs played WELL. It's hard to argue with the average. McCalebb and Dyer provided an elusive punch. Dyer can move the pile, too. I was worried about McCalebb's speed this year, and he might well be a step slower. However, he made up for it with more power. He handled a number of tough hits well, too. Fannin was a weapon downfield. SEC defenses: leave him open at your own risk! Walk on Davis Hooper proved to be a tough inside runer in the final minutes. Gashed out a couple of clock-killing first downs.
Quarterback: A. We had an absolutely sensational game here. Only miscue was the screen before half. I've already touched on Cameron Newton's ridiculous performance, but how about Neil Caudle coming in and launching a good bomb to Adams? It fooled the TV guys, and we were debating about who had thrown it for several minutes on the open thread! Should have trusted my first instincts. Barrett Trotter got some minutes late, mostly handing off to Davis Hooper. He was allowed to throw once, and did a great job on the pump fake, and slant to Derek Winter. Good ball movement.
When you look around the SEC, and see the blow-out scores Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina posted, you worry. I think Arkansas State was a bit tougher than any of those opponents, though. At least we didn't lose to Jax State! There are mistakes to fix, but we didn't look inferior to Arkansas State in any department, and that's the way it should be.
The biggest worry going forward is our defensive strategy. This must improve against Mississippi State, or we may be looking at a game with a hundred points or more scored. We're going to have to let our corners play, and deal with the results. With the quick-strike offense, we're going to have to take a more aggressive stance, and get the other team off the field.
Offensively, we need to take better advantage when the entire front seven blitzes, and the secondary bails. We had 15 yards of open space past the line that we really never exploited against the Red Wolves. Here's hoping we held that back, to better befuddle the Bulldogs. And WE MUST NOT FUMBLE!
The 2010 season opener is in the books, and Auburn defeated Arkansas State in a blowout. We look forward to the SEC opener in just 4 days! War Eagle, and we'll be eager to see what transpires in Starkville.