Mississippi State Bulldogs running back Nick Griffin (7) rushes for big yardage up the middle against the Auburn Tigers at Davis Wade Stadium.
Before the Clemson game, discussions amongst members of the College and Magnolia staff revolved around the best- and worst-case scenarios for quarterback Kiehl Frazier and the Auburn team as a whole. Our highest hopes were for the best-case scenario, in which Frazier showed his raw talent and led the offense to dizzying heights even while making a few mistakes typical of a first-year starter. Our worst nightmares featured an insecure Frazier who looked lost on the field and didn't have the confidence to make correct decisions. Coupled with that would be an Auburn defense that looked much more like the Ted Roof version than the Brian VanGorder edition of our wildest dreams.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the worst-case scenario.
Mississippi State 28, Auburn 10 was one of those games that it's hard to find any silver linings. Auburn's defense played well at times, but it buckled too often and made critical mistakes against both the pass and the run to be successful. Although, the D could have played its best game of the season, and it wouldn't have mattered. The Tiger offense gave the team zero chance at leaving Starkville with a victory. The most discouraging fact taken away from Saturday's game is that Auburn showed serious regression from Week 1 to Week 2. For that, there is no excuse, and both players and coaches need to be held accountable. After an 0-2 start to the season and a demoralizing loss to the once-dominated Bulldogs, where does Auburn go from here? Do the Tigers rally and find a way to have a successful season, or do they fold and tank the rest of the season?
The quarterback situation at Auburn needs to be under strict re-evaluation. Frazier came to Auburn with all the talent in the world and a winning pedigree. As a true sophomore just two games into his college career as a starter, he deserves to be given some slack, but right now, it's impossible to think that Frazier is an SEC-caliber quarterback. Against Mississippi State, it was obvious that he had no confidence whatsoever. That lack of confidence led to just about every type of mistake a quarterback can make. Frazier often failed to set his feet, missed receivers with bad throws, locked onto targets, skipped over open receivers when making his progressions and held onto the ball entirely too long. Frazier's final passing line -- 13 of 22, 125 yards, zero touchdowns, three interceptions -- is bad enough, but somehow, it doesn't really reflect just how poorly he played.
Frazier's line at halftime (State leads 7-3): 1 of 7, -2 yards, zero TDs, two INTs
Frazier's line at the end of the third quarter (State leads 21-10): 3 of 11, 26 yards, zero TDs, two INTs
It's obvious that the vast majority of Frazier's meager passing stats came in the fourth quarter when the game was already out of hand. He completed 10 of his 13 passes and picked up 99 of his 125 yards when Auburn was down by 18 in the final 12 minutes of the game. The Mississippi State defense eased off and allowed Auburn's quarterback to hit some open receivers in soft coverage. While we'd still like to see more out of Auburn receivers other than Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen, it's impossible to place the blame for this offensive performance on anyone other than Frazier. His play simply wasn't good enough to give the Auburn offense any success. Frazier is still considered to be the Tigers' quarterback of the future, so Gene Chizik and Scot Loeffler were correct in their decision to leave him in the game. The young QB needs to take his lumps and learn from his mistakes. But if Frazier continues to provide such poor play, the Auburn offensive brain trust will have to give serious consideration to whether or not Frazier truly is the quarterback of the future, and if he isn't, the best course of action to take.
The other big question mark regarding Auburn's offense is Loeffler's play-calling. Against Clemson, Auburn moved the ball well time and time again with the power running game. The Tigers pushed their way to the red zone, and the Loeffler would abandon the up-the-middle running that got them there in favor of fades and sweeps. Execution was poor, and the result was three field goals on three trips inside the 20. Had Auburn been able to score even one touchdown on a red zone trip, the Tigers would have had a much better chance at pulling that game out of the fire.
Still scoreless in the second quarter against Mississippi State, Loeffler made the same curious decision. Auburn moved the ball 34 yards to the Bulldog 5-yard line. How did the Tigers get there? With the power running game, of course. Running backs Mike Blakely and Tre Mason combined for 19 yards of hard-nosed running. The other 15 yards came on a seven-yard scramble by Frazier and an eight-yard facemask penalty. So, at second and goal from the State five, what does Loeffler do? He draws up a jet sweep for Onterio McCalebb, which loses nine yards. At third and goal from the 14 with a shaky quarterback, Auburn's options were much more limited, and the Tigers ended up settling for a field goal and a 3-0 lead instead of 7-0. Those four points probably didn't matter in the end, but if Auburn's offense had been able to find the end zone on that early drive, it may have given Frazier a boost in confidence and allowed him to play better later in the game.
On the defensive side of the ball, Auburn did a few things to build on, but there are still glaring holes in the secondary and at linebacker. The defensive line struggled on State's opening drive, succumbing to cut blocks from the Bulldog offensive line. That gave quarterback Tyler Russell plenty of time to find open receivers and LaDarius Perkins a couple of holes to pick up nice gains on the ground. But the Auburn D did a nice job of bending and not breaking on the opening drive, and Mississippi State left the field with no points as Devon Bell pushed a 36-yard field goal attempt wide left. Through the rest of the first half, Auburn's line did a nice job of avoiding engagement with the State O-line and getting around the cut blocks to push into the backfield. Eventually, State had to give up the cut-blocking, and Auburn's line was able to take advantage and keep the Bulldog offense in check. While the defensive ends weren't able to get to the quarterback as often as they did against Clemson, Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford forced some bad throws with their pressure, and Lemonier did manage to pick up one sack. In all, the D-line was responsible for 17 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, five QB hurries, a sack and a blocked field goal attempt. That's not a bad day at the office. Unfortunately, the linemen wore down as the second half went on, likely dispirited by the play of the Auburn offense and their own defensive comrades in the back seven. They didn't make enough of an impact as State took control of the game in the third and fourth quarters.
It's painful to say, but Auburn's linebackers and defensive backs don't look much different than they did last year under Ted Roof. Daren Bates had a nice day at linebacker, amassing 10 tackles, but Jonathan Evans and Jake Holland struggled in their starting roles. Evans picked up just one tackle on the day, and while Holland was a little better with six tackles, he was woefully out of position all afternoon, an ongoing theme since the beginning of the 2011 season. Holland was constantly backing too deep into coverage and was rarely able to provide run support. Russell took advantage of that on State's first touchdown. Holland bit badly on a Russell play fake and allowed tight end Marcus Green to streak down the middle, unencumbered, for an easy 30-yard touchdown pass. Jermaine Whitehead, who also bit on the play fake, probably should have provided safety help, but Holland was nowhere near Green as he ran straight for the end zone. It's been obvious since last season, but Holland isn't the answer at middle linebacker. That position requires a confident leader who can be a general on the field and lead the defense to its successes. Auburn desperately needs someone -- ahem, Cassanova McKinzy, ahem -- to step up and play well enough to take the reins, or Auburn's defense will face the same struggles all season.
As much of an issue as Holland is, it's not like he's the only problem Auburn's defense has. The play of the secondary was, for the most part, abysmal. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has been forced to play his cornerbacks well off opposing receivers, allowing for easy completions on short throws. VanGorder would much rather have his corners up in the receivers' faces, but they haven't shown the ability to cover on an island. Even with large buffer zones, Auburn's cornerbacks looked lost on the field. T'Sharvan Bell started in place of Ryan White, who struggled against Clemson, and he was constantly turned around and beaten by State receivers. Chris Davis committed the same errors, and neither player tackled with any sort of consistency. At free safety, Demetruce McNeal picked up the start in place of Ryan Smith. McNeal led Auburn with 18 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. He didn't make any glaring mistakes and easily had the best day of any member of Auburn's back seven. Despite struggling against Clemson, Whitehead started at strong safety, and while his tackling was solid, he was beaten badly in coverage on multiple occasions. Two plays that stuck out were Russell's second and third touchdown passes. Whitehead was beaten to the corner of the end zone on both plays, allowing Chad Bumphis and Green to haul in easy touchdown catches. His coverage on Bumphis' catch wasn't awful, but Whitehead wasn't in position to make a play on the ball. That's inexcusable when he was personally responsible for that receiver.
To say Auburn's back seven struggled is an understatement. Chizik and VanGorder must find a way to get better play out of that unit.
McCalebb's kickoff return -- With Auburn needing some momentum to start the second half, the Tigers' scat back provided the spark. McCalebb took the kickoff and raced 100 yards for a touchdown. He weaved in and out of State defenders and pulled away once he was in the open field. Auburn took a 10-7 lead, and for a moment, it appeared as if the Tigers had a chance to win the game.
The defensive line -- Auburn's line is the only defensive unit that is having any sort of consistent success. It accounted for 22 percent of the Tigers' tackles and 58 percent of their tackles for loss. Yes, the D-line is responsible for a large portion of those stats, especially tackles for loss, but it would be nice if the linebackers could join in on the fun.
Special teams -- Auburn's kickers and returners easily make up the Tigers' best unit, and that probably isn't a good thing. Cody Parkey hit his only field goal attempt and booted all three of his kickoffs for touchbacks. Steven Clark averaged 40.8 yards on six punts and allowed only one return. Quan Bray fielded five punts, and while his only return went for -1 yard, he never had any issues catching the ball. McCalebb provided the only explosive play of the game for Auburn.
The offensive line -- Frazier found himself under pressure from Mississippi State's defensive line, but it was usually because he was holding onto the ball much longer than he should have. Auburn's young O-line provided solid pass and run blocking for most of the game.
The offensive play-calling -- Even though he only averaged 3.8 yards per carry, Blakely did a fine job running between the tackles. For some reason, Loeffler gave him 11 carries. The power run game has been the only successful part of Auburn's offense through two games, and Loeffler has gotten away from it too often.
The receivers -- We won't blame them too much for the Tigers offensive struggles this week, but this unit is not as good as it should be. Blake and Lutzenkirchen are still the only two that consistently get open.
Frazier -- Auburn's quarterback didn't play well against Clemson, and he was much worse against State. Through two games, we've see bad regression and a total lack of confidence. His stats on the young season are terrible: 24 of 49, 319 yards, one touchdown, four interceptions. If Frazier really is Auburn's quarterback of the future, he hasn't shown it yet.
The back seven -- We knew the linebackers would probably struggle this year, but the secondary has been worse than advertised. It's an absolute nightmare to look at this year's defense and have it remind you of Ted Roof's.
Auburn is 0-2 and facing a Louisiana-Monroe squad that just upset Arkansas. This should be an easy win for the Tigers, but if they can't play any better than they have in the season's first two games, it could be a much tougher fight than expected. The offense has scored one touchdown, and looks totally incapable of posing any threat. The defense is competent at times, but it hasn't played with enough consistency. Right now, there's no reason to believe the Tigers can beat LSU, Arkansas, Georgia or Alabama, and really, it's hard to imagine wins against Vanderbilt or Texas A&M.
We're only two weeks in, and this team is already at a cross roads. Will it roll over and fold or will it fight back and exceed expectations over the next 10 games? As much as we'd like to believe in the latter, there's really no way of knowing.