They're NOT gonna get him!
(AP Photo/John Amis)
War Eagle, everybody, and Happy New Year! It's time now for the Acid Reign report on Auburn's highest scoring bowl victory in history. Auburn defeated the Virginia Cavaliers 43-24 on New Year's Eve in the Georgia Dome, and won their 8th game of the season. The 43 points were the most ever put up by an Auburn team in a bowl game, eclipsing the old mark of 38 points in the 2010 Outback Bowl.
The story of this game was the play of backup quarterback Barrett Trotter. The junior from Birmingham was benched at halftime of the Florida game, and it was widely assumed that he'd be done with football after this season. Early in the game, starting quarterback Clint Moseley limped to the bench, and was on crutches the rest of the game with an ankle injury. Trotter entered the game, hit 4 of his first 6 passes, and Auburn erased a 14-7 deficit and took a lead it would never relinquish. For the game, Trotter was 11 of 18 passing with a touchdown, and no turnovers. Trotter faced pressure, but escaped time and time again, to finish with 32 rushing yards, and he was not sacked on the evening.
Departing Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzhan wanted to leave with a bang, and the team did score 43 points, thanks to the heroics of Trotter and speedy offensive MVP Onterio McCalebb. Still, it would be wrong to say that Auburn's offensive woes this season are fixed. There were times that Virginia absolutely collapsed the offensive line. Defenses know that Auburn's only option down the field is Emory Blake, Lutzenkirchen gets the short crosses and wheel routes, and McCalebb and Bray get the screens. Little effort has to be made to cover Quindarius Carr or Travante Stallworth, because Auburn won't throw there. Auburn used quarterback Khiel Frazier like an option fullback. I suppose the Cavaliers don't see much Wildcat offense in the ACC, because they never attacked it on defense. SEC defenses roll a safety down in the middle, and cowboy-blitz a corner to take away the speed sweep. Thankfully for Auburn, the Cavs had difficulty recognizing that package.
Auburn special teams had a great game. Auburn basically tallied 4 touchdowns, a safety, and a field goal off special teams play. The Tigers took advantage of spotty protection, and blocked two of three Virginia punts. One set up the first touchdown, and the second was a safety. After the safety, a 62 yard free kick return by Quan Bray set up a field goal. The Tigers scored another touchdown after a successful onside kick and recovery by Cody Parkey. Finally, Auburn special teams gunner Chris Davis stopped a fake field goal, and Auburn drove for another score off of that. Parkey had a busy night, hitting two long field goals, and adding 4 more touchbacks on kickoffs. Steven Clark only punted 3 times, but all of them were rain-makers allowing no return, and he averaged 49 yards per punt.
Virginia came into the game with a rep for protecting the quarterback, and Auburn only managed one Gabe Wright sack on the night. Still, the Auburn line stood up to the test of handling a strong veteran line, and forced Virginia to go to the air more than they wanted. While the Cavaliers did rush for 123 yards, it wasn't enough consistent offense to keep pace with Auburn's big plays. The Tiger secondary had their hands full with Cavalier receiver Kris Burd. Even when doubled, Burd managed to secure the ball in traffic repeatedly. Virginia hit pass after pass, and diced the Tiger zone defense for 312 passing yards. However, Auburn tackled pretty well after the catch, and the longest play of the day was only 29 yards. This forced Virginia to work the ball down the field, and often the Tigers could get the stop due to turnovers, or errant throws.
Unit Grades, after the jump!
Defensive Line: C-. There are not a whole lot of stats in this game for the D-line. Corey Lemonier led the way with 3 tackles, Gabe Wright had a 4th quarter sack, and Kenneth Carter swatted a pass down. The defensive line only contributed 7 total tackles in the game. What was important is that for the most part, they held their ground, filled gaps, and kept big linemen from getting out and blocking on Auburn's back seven. Even though he didn't post a single stat, Auburn's Nosa Eguae had to be double-team blocked for the Cavs to have any success running wide.
Linebackers: C+. This crew had a pretty decent day limiting the Cav running game, but they still aren't too great in coverage. Virginia completed a lot of balls in that 5-10 yard range, and the only thing that stopped them was balls hitting the ground, or Auburn's tacklers in the secondary. Jake Holland got a late interception, but the big hit that caused the deflection was by corner Chris Davis. This is an area of great concern going forward, with Eltoro Freeman graduating.
Secondary: B-. Auburn had difficulty making plays on the ball in the air, but they hung with receivers and made tackles. Neiko Thorpe and Chris Davis (along with linebacker Darren Bates) led the team with 8 tackles each. Corner Jonathan Mincy added 6, and Demetruce McNeil had 4 stops. Jermaine Whitehead, Ryan Smith, and Robenson Therezie all came off the bench and contributed 2 tackles each. I counted a letter grade off for Virginia's first TD, a post pattern that got behind both safeties. That can't happen down the middle! Other than that play, Auburn's secondary guys did a great job of coming up and forcing Virginia to make play after play to get the ball down the field.
Punting: A. I suppose I have to count off a bit for one touchback on three punts, but the amazing thing is that Steven Clark only had 3 total in 13 games! Clark hit some towering howitzer shots in this game, for a gaudy 49 yard average, and had one downed inside the 20. Virginia was not able to field any of those punts.
Punt Returns: A-. Virginia only had one successful punt, and Quan Bray made a one-handed snag of the dangerously bouncing ball at the Auburn 7 yard line. He probably should have let that one hop out of the end zone. The major factor in this grade was the Tigers blocking two punts. Auburn realized that Virginia's mission on the line was to release and get down the field quickly, and Auburn rushed more guys than the back 3 protection guys could handle. Kudos to Garrett Harper and Angelo Blackson for making the plays on the ball.
Kick Returns: B+. There were three of these, and the big one was Quan Bray's 62 yard jaunt after the Virginia free kick. That return was a great individual effort. Blocking wasn't great on any of the three returns, and Bray was held to just 12 yards on his other effort. Onterio McCalebb had one return for 18 yards. You'd like to see your return man get at least 20 yards.
Place-kicking: A. Cody Parkey continues to be a weapon, drilling a pair of long field goals and adding 4 more touchbacks to his resume. For the season, Parkey tallied 38 touchbacks, an unheard of number since the kickoff spot was moved back to the 30 yard line. Parkey also looked like a pretty good soccer player on the onside kick, perfectly dribbling the ball 11 yards. Points off on the 44 yard missed field goal. Auburn gave up 3 kick returns averaging 24 yards each, but I think the angle of Parkey's kicks determines a lot of that. Last season, Byrum and Parkey were getting the ball higher, but not as deep. These touchbacks require more of a line drive shot. I think that's the main reason Auburn's kick returns against average went from 19.7 in 2010, to 22.1 this season.
Offensive Line: C+. At first, this looked like another F in the making, but the Tiger interior bowed up, and Auburn started breaking off big plays. I think protections were communicated better than they have been all year. I hated to see A.J. Greene go down late. He's battled through a lot of pain and adversity to start the past few years, and my hat's off to him. I took a few points off on a false start by Chad Slade, but more serious is a season-long problem of letting fast rush ends get around the corner. Only some very shifty maneuvering by the Auburn quarterbacks prevented a sack-fest in this one.
Running Backs: B+. Every time this game was mentioned by the talking heads at ESPN, the opinion was that Auburn had no way to replace Michael Dyer's production. Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason combined for 19 carries, 173 yards, 2 scores on the ground, and 2 receptions for 53 yards and another score. That's a pretty good day! Phillip Lutzenkirchen was his usual consistent self on lead blocks. Points off on a couple of dropped passes by Lutz, although both would have been difficult grabs. Also counted off on a holding penalty called on Onterio McCalebb.
Receivers: B. I counted off a bit on dropped balls by Emory Blake and Brandon Fulse (on the goal line). Blocking was good at times, and sometimes not. We're going to miss Jay Wisner out there burying defensive backs next season. He made a couple of those tunnel screens to Blake go. Quan Bray made a nice run on a reverse, and continues to be the go-to guy for quick screens.
Quarterback: A. The game turned in by Barrett Trotter and Khiel Frazier was the best since Cam Newton left. There were no quarterback turnovers, and this position generated 267 total yards and 3 touchdowns. Trotter had at least 4 balls dropped, and still managed to hit 11 of 18. More importantly, he avoided taking big hits, or making bad throws. These two guys managed an offense that cranked out 454 yards on a good defense with no turnovers. Bravo!
I salute this Auburn team for delivering one of the more entertaining Tiger bowl games in quite some time. The 43-24 margin is the largest bowl victory since Auburn lost seven fumbles in the Gator Bowl, and still managed to beat Texas 27-3 way back in 1974. Usually Auburn bowls are nailbiters, or letdowns. We haven't seen Auburn really in total control of a bowl game late since the Hall of Fame win over Ohio State in 1990. Sure made for a fun New Year's Eve!
This game also shined light on our prospects for next season. I wondered if our lines were going to have the ability to bang with better SEC-level squads. With a bit of rest, these young men did exactly that. Can't wait to see what they look like by fall camp! McCalebb and Mason are deadly weapons, and I'll really enjoy seeing what they do going forward. I think we've got a loaded, talented secondary returning. I'd love to see coach Chizik get a Bill-Oliver-type guru who's known for confusing quarterbacks.
I think the biggest question of the off-season is who the next offensive coordinator will be, and what sort of philosophy is implemented there. After this bowl performance, we may well have a 4 quarterback race next spring. Most folks figured Barrett Trotter would be gone, but I think he might stick around and see what's cooking next season. Trotter proved to us and more importantly himself that he can make big-league college football plays. He needed respectable protection to do it, and didn't get that for most of his tenure last fall.
War Eagle, folks! It's great to ring out the year with another win. Gene Chizik has a 30-10 record as Auburn's head coach. Looking back through Auburn's history, no head coach has had as good a winning percentage, since D. M. Balliet and G. H. Harvey went undefeated in 1892 and 1893. No Auburn coach that's been around for 3 seasons or more has a 75 percent winning percentage. We're in uncharted territory, winning national championships and getting big-time exposure. It's a great time to be an Auburn Tiger!