Relf goes oh-for-Auburn.
AP Photo/Mike Kittrell, Mobile Press Register
War Eagle, everyone! It's time now for the Acid Reign report on Auburn's big win over Mississippi State. Dissed, ridiculed, criticized, bumped out of the AP poll and left for dead, the defending national champion Auburn Tigers outscored the 16th ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs, 41-34. Chris Relf and Vic Ballard bashed the Auburn defense to the tune of 531 total yards, but it was not enough against an opportunistic Tiger team. It seemed against Memphis that the Bulldogs might be exploited with a good running game, and Auburn pounded it for 235 yards on the ground. It was just enough to knock out a win. The Tigers have won 17 straight games, and are the defending national champs. We'll see if national writers have the vision to put them back in the top 25 where they belong.
Barrett Trotter looked like a quarterback getting his first SEC start with a stare-down, hesitating pick-six on the hitch, but it was the mistakes of veteran quarterback Chris Relf that were far more numerous. Relf could not make consistent throws on his deep balls. Just about all of them were incomplete. Add in an ill advised slant that was tipped up and returned for an Auburn score, plus a stumbling run that came up short at the end, and it was clear that Chris Relf could not get his team over the hump.
Auburn gave up a lot of yards, but they hung tough when it counted. The defensive line looked a lot better than last week, but the biggest improvement was seen in the secondary. Safeties and corners were really aggressive, flying up to help with the running game, and going with tight coverage. There's plenty of improvement needed, of course but this group is starting to get how to play tough. They'll face a similar two-headed threat in Columbia in two weeks, but Steven Garcia is a much more accurate passer than Chris Relf.
Auburn special teams continue to be special, with no gaffes, great coverage, and plenty of distance both punting and kicking. Tre Mason is a weapon on kickoffs. It was great to see Craig Sanders and others up to their old tricks in kick coverage. On the few non-touchback kickoffs, MSU return men were limited to a 16.3 yard average.
Unit Grades, after the jump!
Defensive Line: C. We had pressure, we had some stops in the middle, but there were still plays where the line was manhandled, particularly late in the 4th quarter. Somehow, the starters managed to get a push in the middle the last couple of plays. Defensive ends were dangerous, but prone to losing contain. After the starting MSU left tackle went out, the Bulldogs were purposefully running and rolling exclusively to the right side. That showed a healthy respect for Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford.
Linebackers: C+. Again, not a great performance, but this unit cut way down on missed tackles and assignments. The presence of Eltoro Freeman was a big boost. There are still too many tackles made falling backwards, but they did a lot better job with gap control this week. This team might not see a running group as tough as Relf, Ballard and Perkins were.
Secondary: B+. Ted Roof moved his corners up in press coverage a good bit, and they responded well. Auburn served notice early when a quick slant was batted up in the air for a pick six. While defender Ryan Smth didn't see the ball, he stepped right in front of the slant and broke it up all the same. That play effectively took the slant pass away from State. They didn't risk it again. Neiko Thorpe and Demetruce McNeil did a much better job of recognition. They were in position on deep balls for the most part, and charged up aggressively on running plays. It's been a long time since we've seen Auburn safeties stuffing plays for no gain. McNeal looked like Will Herring with speed. I think this group can be great, with a little more seasoning.
Punting: B+. A few points off for one pooch job that only made the 16 yard line, but even with that 20 yard deal, Steven Clark averaged 45.7 yards per punt. That's a Terry Daniel/Kody Bliss-type average! MSU went after him a couple of times, and the protection was great. Points off on the punt coverage team for letting Banks get a 22 yard return when we needed a stop. We slid to the middle, out of our lanes, and gave up a big gain to the outside.
Punt Returns: C. We are still not blocking these well. MSU did a good job of either kicking them high, or kicking them away from Trovon Reed, who had only 1 return for 9 yards on 6 punts.
Kick Returns: A. Tre Mason continues to be a weapon. He does not fool around! He blazes forward fearlessly, with an economy of motion. Rather than stuttering, he makes little micro-adjustments without hesitating, and has a real knack for splitting defenders. Mason added another 172 kick return yards. Points off on one personal foul on us on the return.
Place-kicking: A. Cody Parkey averaged 69.6 yards on 8 kickoffs, and generated 4 more touchbacks. He now has 8 on the season. MSU found returning the ball to be tough, and was held by excellent Auburn coverage to 16.3 yards per return. My fears of Jameon Lewis taking one to the house were not realized! Parkey remains perfect on the season, hitting both field goal attempts and adding five more extra points.
Offensive Line: A-. Game ball goes to left tackle A. J. Greene. I'll be surprised if he doesn't get one of Jeff Grimes' highest grades. When your tackles can stone their man, you're going to be able to run the ball. There was much greater physicality shown today, and Trotter had excellent protection. Kudos to center Reese Dismukes. Every time the Bullies jumped offsides, Dismukes snapped it without hesitation. Auburn got two free plays, and ten yards. I also liked Brandon Mosley's play on the right side. MSU had to blitz to get any pressure. That's a testament to solid O-line play across the board. Had just a few assignment gaffes, which hold this grade down.
Running Backs: A. Still had a few protection problems, but these guys run hard. McCalebb and Dyer are a load, and very difficult to tackle. To make the athletic plays they make, and still maintain good ball security is outstanding. A big tip of the hat goes to H-back Phillip Lutzenkirchen. His blocking really improved this week. He was used almost exclusively at H-back, and the team had Wisner and Blake playing Kodi Burns' old position. That worked well.
Receivers: B+. Had some great downfield blocking, but had drops by Quindarius Carr and Jay Wisner. In Carr's defense, he was really belted on the play. Emory Blake remains a weapon. He took a really hard shot to the head, but held onto the ball and helped Auburn get a field goal before the half.
Quarterback: B-. Barrett Trotter made a nice throw on the post for a score early, but mostly we just played it safe against a veteran Bulldog secondary. Letter grade off on a rookie pick-six. You cannot hesitate on a hitch pattern, unless there's a big cushion. Other than that one interception, Trotter once again did a good job managing the game. He had an identical completion percentage to last week, but we had a lot fewer yards. Still, if you had told me before the season that Trotter would hit 16 of 23 for 2 scores and 1 pick against MSU, I would take it every time! The main reason we had less yards was less Travante Stallworth. The coaches opted for a heavier receiver package this game, to supplement the run game.
This game did not turn out nearly like I thought before the season. I had picked the Bulldogs to win 21-16. After last week's narrow escape, I figured doubling that score on both sides would be accurate. I was wrong. This Auburn team refuses to lose! When MSU got the ball first and goal on the one at the end, I was already planning overtime strategies, and hoping Mullen wouldn't go for two. The Auburn defense had other ideas. The Tigers came up with two run-stuffing efforts as good as any in Auburn history! For the tenth time in 11 years, Auburn sends the Bulldogs home a loser. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
This young team faces a new challenge next week, a road trip to Death Valley in South Carolina. With Troy and Wofford on Clemson's early schedule, I figured it would be an Auburn advantage that Clemson would not have been tested yet. Iwas wrong. As I write this Clemson is struggling with Wofford, holding only a 28-24 lead in the 3rd quarter. The mighty Terriers have gashed the Clemson defense for over 300 yards. Quarterback Tajh Boyd has looked better than in previous outings, but what's happened to the Clemson defense? It's the same problem Auburn has: youth. Boyd and running back Andre Ellington present a challenge similar to Relf and Ballard. Auburn must continue to improve on defense.
War Eagle, and congratulations to the Tigers on a fantastic win over the Bulldogs. This team finds a way! It's great to be an Auburn Tiger! We'll watching this thing next weekend on ABC TV with great interest!