It's never a good feeling to come to the realization that you have to enjoy every win of a football season, no matter the competition, because wins will likely be few and far between. Unfortunately for Auburn fans, it's hard to ignore the fact that we have reached that point. The Tigers won their first game of 2012 on Saturday, but it was far from a convincing performance. Yes, Louisiana-Monroe is better than most people will admit, but there still is no reason a good football team from a BCS conference should be going to overtime at home against a Sun Belt team. For whatever reason -- new schemes, overrated players, poor coaching, the need to re-teach fundamentals, etc. -- Auburn just isn't a good football team right now. The reasons for Auburn's struggles don't matter; all that matters is that Gene Chizik, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder develop this team and produce real improvement over the next nine games. While the Tigers should improve throughout the year -- we have serious issues with the program if they don't -- it's looking more and more likely that the improvement won't be enough to win many games.
For much of Saturday's game against the Warhawks, Auburn showed some of the improvement for which we're looking. After the defense allowed a ULM touchdown on the game's opening drive, Auburn's offense marched right down the field and scored a touchdown of its own. After ULM took a 14-7 lead with 3:52 left in the first half, Auburn scored two touchdowns before halftime and opened the second half with a touchdown drive to take a two-touchdown lead. At that point, the Tigers looked like they could have pulled away and won comfortably. Kiehl Frazier was showing some confidence, and the defense was holding Kolton Browning and ULM's offense at bay.
And just like that, Auburn threw away the improvements it had made and regressed into the version of the team we saw last week in Starkville. Auburn's defense allowed the Warhawks to drive to the 14-yard line, but Corey Lemonier blocked a Justin Manton field goal attempt. On the ensuing Tigers drive, Onterio McCalebb and Mike Blakely carried Auburn to the ULM 20. Then, Blakely broke off an impressive run that looked to be going to the end zone until he fumbled at the 4. On Auburn's next drive, the Tigers went three and out. On the next drive, Frazier made a bad read and threw an even worse interception that hit Warhawk rover Mitch Lane in the numbers. ULM scored on its next drive, and Frazier's confidence was obviously destroyed. With 6:15 remaining in regulation, everyone knew what was going to happen next. Auburn went three and out, and the Warhawks executed a long drive that led to the tying touchdown with 1:18 showing on the clock.
To the surprise of many, Auburn bowed up in overtime. The Tiger D forced a ULM field goal attempt, and Angelo Blackson blocked his second kick of the season. Tre Mason moved the ball 10 yards on the Tigers' first play, Frazier set Auburn up in the middle of the field, and Cody Parkey hit the game-winning kick. Everyone exhaled.
Auburn made positive steps during the first 35 minutes against ULM, but those gains were almost entirely wiped out during the final 25 minutes. That's simply not good enough. For real improvement, the Tigers must show much more consistency. Until then, we'll have to be happy with any win we can get, even if it's in overtime against Louisiana-Monroe.
WHAT WENT RIGHT?
The running game was solid -- Frazier is going to struggle all year, and the only way Auburn can move the ball is if the offensive line opens lanes and the running backs get through them. The Tigers accomplished both of those goals against ULM, as they picked up 255 yards on 42 carries -- a 6.2 yard-per-carry average. McCalebb was the home run hitter Auburn needs him to be, rushing for 128 yards and a score on 11 carries. We've never been a fan of asking O-Mac to run between the tackles, but he played with an impressive physicality on Saturday and managed to pick up chunks of yards on a few runs up the middle. Still, too much of that against teams like LSU and Alabama could lead to serious injury. Speaking of injury, McCalebb went down in a heap near the end of regulation. It looked bad, but reports are that it was just a bad cramp.
Mason did the majority of the power running, and he had a fine day. He rushed 22 times for 90 yards and a touchdown Blakely ran three times for 32 yards, but he didn't get another touch after fumbling in the third quarter.
Special teams were fantastic -- Auburn may have had its ups and downs on offense and defense, but just about every aspect of the special teams continued to impress. The kickoff coverage unit was the best of the day. ULM attempted three kickoff returns and picked up a total of 29 yards. The Warhawks were consistently pinned inside their own 20 after Auburn kicks. Parkey made his only field goal attempt and hit all four extra points. Quan Bray returned two punts; one went nowhere, one went 18 yards. He fielded each kick cleanly and showed the ability to make explosive plays.
Lemonier's and Blackson's blocks ended up saving the Tigers. Auburn leads the SEC with three blocked kicks this season. It's clear that Jay Boulware is doing a great job of teaching his guys how to get a nice push when opponents are kicking. Just as it did against ULM, that could come in handy down the road.
The only complaint would be with Steven Clark's punting. Clark averaged 40.2 yards, and that was helped by a 51-yarder, which rolled roughly 20 yards. His kicks got plenty of hang time, but it would be nice to see a little more distance.
The third-down offense improved -- Auburn was terrible on third downs in its first two games, as the Tigers converted just 5 of 22 attempts. They doubled their number of conversions for the season on Saturday, converting 6 of 13 attempts. The big reason Auburn was able to do a better job of converting on third downs was because the Tigers were mostly in third and manageable. Auburn needed an average of 4.9 yards on third down against the Warhawks. That took pressure off of Frazier and opened up the playbook. It's no surprise that when the Tigers needed five yards or fewer, they were 5 of 9. When they needed six yards or more, they were 1 of 4. Obviously, positive plays on first and second down greatly improves Auburn's chances on converting third downs.
Sammy Coates made an appearance -- Auburn desperately needs wide receivers not named Emory Blake to step up and help the passing game. Coates, a redshirt freshman, showed a couple of flashes that he may be the man to do that. He was on the receiving end of Frazier's Hail Mary toss to end the second quarter, and earlier in the half, he streaked past the defense and ran down a Frazier bomb for a touchdown, only to have the play called back. Coates is lightning quick and his 6'2, 200-pound frame gives him a physical edge over most cornerbacks. He has all the potential to be Auburn's next great pass-catcher.
The defense put pressure on Browning -- We knew going in that the Warhawk passing game was all about timing and quick throws. To get ULM off rhythm, Auburn had to get in Browning's face and make him uncomfortable. The Tigers did just that. In addition to sacking the quarterback twice, Auburn defenders racked up 13 QB hurries. Lemonier led the way with four, and Daren Bates contributed three from his weakside linebacker position. Those hurries came despite the fact that Warhawk linemen were holding without punishment for most of the afternoon. Auburn's defense had its fair share of problems, but getting after the quarterback wasn't one of them.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
After a pretty good start, Frazier lost it -- Auburn's quarterback had a nice first half, paid attention to his fundamentals and didn't make any big mistakes. After completing the 33-yard touchdown pass to Coates, we thought he was on his way to an even better second half. That wasn't the case. In the first half, Frazier was 9 of 12 for 114 yards and a touchdown. After halftime, he was just 1 of 6 for 16 yards and one bad interception. After throwing the interception, Frazier threw two passes, completing neither. He reverted to his play against Mississippi State, where he was indecisive and afraid to throw.
Frazier is an emotional player, and he seems to get down on himself after making a mistake. He has the talent to be great, but the developmental process is tough on him. It doesn't help matters that his offensive coordinator is up in the booth. When Frazier has a bad series, he needs Loeffler on the sidelines with him to give him encouragement and keep him from losing his confidence. Chizik would be wise to convince Loeffler to make the move.
Interior linemen and linebackers struggled against the run -- There's really no reason Blackson and Jeffrey Whitaker should have been pushed around by ULM's offensive line, but that's what happened. The Warhawks rushed for 165 yards, most of that right up the gut. Jyruss Edwards, who was almost non-existent against Arkansas gained 76 yards on 17 carries, and if you take out yards lost on sacks, Browning picked up 71 yards and a touchdown. Rock bottom was when Browning carried on a simple draw up the middle, burst through a big gap in the line and ran past Jake Holland, who was out of position, on his way to the end zone. Demetruce McNeal poor attempt at a tackle allowed Browning to scamper 39 yards for the score, but the ineptitude of Auburn's front seven on the play ensured a gain of at least 10 or 15 yards. It was hard to watch.
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Holland isn't getting it done -- We really don't mean to pile on the middle linebacker or be mean-spirited, and we're sure Holland is a nice guy, but he isn't good enough to see playing time at linebacker in the SEC. Once again, he was often out of position, and he missed too many tackles. We'll admit that he has made a few nice plays in run support, but he gets beaten regularly in pass coverage. The bad far outweighs the good. Cassanova McKinzy saw his first snaps of the year against the Warhawks, and he should probably get an increase next week. Yes, he was beaten in coverage, too, but he has much more talent than Holland, and the development will pay off in the future.
Secondary needs: better coverage, better tackling -- No matter how VanGorder lined up his defensive backs, they had a hard time making plays. With ULM wanting to throw short passes, Auburn's DBs were forced to remove some of their cushion. Even so, Warhawk receivers were catching underneath passes without much of a challenge. Browning's total 237 yards wasn't nearly as high as last week, but part of that was thanks to the ULM running game having more success against Auburn. Mincy was flagged for pass interference on a play when he never turned around to look for the ball, which brought back nightmares of the Roof administration. Auburn defensive backs showed an inability to grasp proper tackling, as they continued to leave their feet and dive at opponents. That led to plenty of missed tackles. It's not like the secondary is solely responsible for Auburn's poor tackling; Holland and Bates were guilty of those mistakes, too.
ULM converted 3 of 4 fourth downs -- When the Warhawks fail to pick up enough yardage on third down, that doesn't mean the series is over. Auburn's defenders should have been ready to stop ULM on fourth downs, too. The Warhawks converted on fourth and goal from the 1, fourth and three on a fake punt and fourth and seven. It doesn't show up in the stats, but ULM also moved the chains on fourth down thanks to an Auburn offsides. It's tough to top those short yardage plays, but jumping offsides and giving up a conversion on fourth and long shouldn't happen. And Auburn should have seen the fake punt coming from a mile a way. Overall, the Tigers should have done a better job.
WHAT'S THE OUTLOOK?
Frankly, not good. In each of Chizik's first three seasons, Auburn fans laughed at college football fans and media, who routinely picked Auburn to win between four and six games. In 2009, '10 and '11, the Tigers managed to exceed expectations and win more games than most outside the program thought would be possible. In 2012, Auburn was pretty much a consensus 6-6 team in the preseason, and just as in past years, Auburn fans laughed. This year, it looks like those pundits were right.
We consider ourselves to be pretty rational Auburn fans, but this team is having a much harder time than we expected. Frazier is struggling in the new offense, and it's going to take a while for VanGorder to undo all the damage Roof did to these defensive players. This season doesn't really qualify as a rebuilding year, but it is definitely a developmental year. And as Auburn works to develop its players, the results may be hard to see in the stats and final record. Everyone should enjoy any game Auburn wins, because getting more than six is highly unlikely. We can only hope the development achieved this season will pay off in 2013 and further down the line.