War Eagle, everybody. It's time now for the Acid Reign Report on the 2009 Iron Bowl. I'm of two minds about this game. Honestly, I think we should have won this game, but a few mistakes held us back. However, there is no questioning that Auburn put forth a superhuman effort. If Coach Gene Chizik and his staff can summon forth that sort energy in future Iron Bowls, we will do well!
In my keys to victory post 10 days ago, I said that the Tigers needed to chiefly do three things: run the ball, stop the run, and play turnover-free. There was a little bit of success running. Auburn stopped the run emphatically. Turnovers were costly. Both Chris Todd turnovers, a fumble and an interception, set up Bama field goal attempts. Leigh Tiffin honked one of those wide right, but the other was good, pulling Alabama within 1 point. Had we not had those turnovers, Wes Byrum might have been attempting a 54 yard field goal at the end to send it to overtime. I like Byrum's chances a lot better than a Hail Mary! Auburn also gave up avoiding kicking to Javier Arenas, and that cost Auburn. A 56 yard punt return set Alabama up at the Auburn 33, which resulted in another field goal. We'd have been better off punting it out of bounds for no gain, on that one!
The Tigers came out with a wide-open offensive game plan, utilizing all sorts of misdirection plays, reverses, double passes, and swinging gates. The scheme really slowed down the Alabama pursuit, and forced them to attack more than they wanted. When Alabama started crowding the line, that opened up the Auburn passing game. Unfortunately, the Tigers did not do a good job of taking advantage. Tommy Trott was doing such a good job blocking on the corner that Tide defenders were avoiding being in the same zip code with Trott. We tried several slant passes to Trott, and missed them all. We had a number of opportunities to get running backs loose on screens, but didn't pull the trigger till 3rd down, when Bama was sitting back in zone coverage. We managed to burn Alabama's corner blitz package with an out and up for a 72 yard touchdown, but never tried it again. Alabama secondary members totaled 5.5 tackles for loss. There was opportunity to throw over them, but we could not do it.
Special teams had a few good plays, but were not very good, overall. There were multiple kickoffs out of bounds, multiple fumbled punts, short punts, and line drive punts. We let Javier Arenas get 3 returns, and he burned us for 102 yards on those. The few bright spots were a successful onside kick, 2 punts killed inside the 20 by Clinton Durst, and 99 kick return yards on 4 kickoffs.
For the first time all season, Auburn utilized a run-blitz package, and it paid dividends! Bama was forced to operate from the shotgun and try mostly short passes. When you've held Alabama to 73 rushing yards, with a first year linebacker and two first year safeties, you've done really well! With good pressure, Greg McElroy avoided the costly turnover, but he was forced into drive-killing bad throws. I'd say defensive coordinator Ted Roof called a brilliant defensive game plan, except for one play. On third and nine from the Auburn 33 in the second quarter, we went with a safety blitz and left a linebacker in man coverage with Colin Peek. That decision resulted in an easy Alabama TD pass. You just don't call safety blitzes on 3rd and long! ESPECIALLY if you're going to hand an all-SEC tight end off to a linebacker to cover!
Unit Grades, after the jump.
Defensive Line: A. There is little to find fault with, here. Auburn had their best day of the season, up front! Antonio Coleman and Antoine Carter both proved that they could sacrifice personal glory and stats, to play great contain on the Alabama running game. When it was an obvious passing situation, Coleman took James Carpenter and Drew Davis to school a few times. The tackle-end twist worked well too, with Nick Fairley able to turn the corner on Bama tackles. Mike Blanc and Jake Ricks stoned the Bama line, and plugged the middle. Points off on one Jake Ricks offside penalty.
Linebackers: B+. This might have been the best game of the season for the linebackers. It certainly was, against teams with a pulse! True freshman Jonathan Evans stepped up and did not back down against Heisman Trophy candidate Mark Ingram. Bama ran it right at Evans and Evans responded with 8 solo tackles! Josh Bynes was a force, with ten total tackles. Points off on Craig Stevens vs. Bama's Preston Dial, Brad Smelley, and Colin Peek. Bama blockers mostly handled Stevens. Points off also on Josh Bynes letting Peek loose for a second quarter touchdown. Bynes should have never been put in that situation, though.
Secondary: B. Auburn did a good job in two deep zone, taking the long pass away from Alabama. The Tide did try to force a couple into coverage, and both Walter McFadden and Neiko Thorpe responded with pass breakups. Run support from the whole secondary was good, but not great. On Alabama's last drive, the safeties got played a bit. The big 17 yard catch and run on the screen to Trent Richardson was on the safeties. Bates barely hung on at the ten. The fullback on the game-winning touchdown was Washington's man. As you might expect, that was a difficult adjustment to ask of a first year player.
A note on the Auburn defense this season: When Gene Chizik first arrived in Auburn in 2002, he had a very talented defense to work with, including future pro stars Carlos Rogers, Carlos Dansby, Dontarrious Thomas, Reggie Torbor, , and Jay Ratliff. Still, it took awhile before those guys "got it." We were diced pretty badly, in the first half of the season, including giving up record rushing yards to Arkansas at home in a 38-17 loss. The light didn't really come on till late in the year, against Georgia, Bama, and Penn State. This year, Chizik and Roof have had to deal with a sub-par interior line, and a woefully thin back seven. Against Alabama, the light came on for this defense. There now seems to be some chemistry, and understanding of what the coaching staff wants. When the light came on in 2002, we were treated to some awesome defense for the next few years. For the 2009 Tiger defense, the light is now on again!
Punting: C+. If Clinton Durst had kicked every punt out of bounds for a 30 yard average, I'd have given the punting unit an A! Auburn did that early on, but in the second half they gave Javier Arenas some chances. Overall it was a solid performance. I hated giving up the 56 yard return, but we are hardly the only team Arenas has done that to! We ended up averaging a mediocre 40 yards per punt, with only a 31.6 yard net. Two punts killed inside the 20 helps this grade.
Punt Returns: D-. On five punts, dropped two on the ground. I pass this unit only because Auburn got both bobbles back. Priority one in the offseason is recruiting, priority two is finding and grooming a new quarterback. But I'd say that next on the list is finding a punt returner. This has been the worst year for Auburn punt returners EVER. We've had some bad years before, but nothing like this!
Kick Returns: C. Demond Washington averaged 24.8 yards on four returns. If that stat is compared to team averages this season, Washington would be tied for 3rd in the SEC. Not bad, but against the last-place kick coverage team in the league, I had hoped for more.
Kickoffs: B. Morgan Hull kicked deep 3 times, and two of them went out of bounds. Against Javier Arenas, that's a favorable result. I'm surprised Bama didn't make us kick it again, on those! The two out of bounders gave Bama the ball at the 40. When we DID kick it to Arenas at the goal line, he returned it to the 46. Should have kicked all three out of bounds! The Tigers had a perfectly executed onside kick. It was brilliantly conceived, with the team acting lackadaisical, and not even lining up before Byrum suddenly just bunted that ball, and raced with it. It caught Alabama totally off-guard. That cat's out of the bag, I think. We won't be able to catch anyone else on that for at least five years!
Placekicking A+. Wes Byrum continued a near-perfect season by hitting all of his extra points. Byrum finishes the season having converted 14 of 15 field goals attempts, and 100% of his extra points. Magnificent!
Offensive Line: B+. It wouldn't be an Auburn football game without a Lee Ziemba false start. At least he got it over with in the first quarter. Ziemba had a pretty good day blocking on Lorenzo Washington and Brandon Deaderick, as did Andrew McCain. The two Tide ends combined for only 4 tackles, none for a loss. Auburn had less success dealing with Alabama blitzers. Eryk Anders was particularly elusive, racking up 3.5 tackles for loss, and 3 quarterback hurries. The Auburn line basically held their own, but didn't generate much push. Nearly all of Auburn's successful running plays were on trick plays to the outside. Pass protection was decent, most of the time.
Receivers: A. You can't ask for much more than these guys produced. They had great downfield blocking, no drops, and got a lot of separation on a very good Bama secondary. The greatest failure in this game was not utilizing these guys more. Both Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachary looked FAST against the Bama secondary.
Running Backs: C. Ben Tate ran hard, as did Onterrio McCalebb, but that's about all you can say. Great catch early for a touchdown, by Eric Smith. Blocking was quite poor, in this one. The only times the backs slowed Tide defenders down was when Ben Tate picked up a holding call. Mario Fannin bobbled a screen pass away that had the potential to go for a long TD. This might have been the worst day by the backs all year. Bonus points for no fumbles. Still, we needed a LOT better production blocking.
Quarterback: C-. Auburn had a plan to exploit the Alabama defense. When it moved to phase two, and we had to hit some short passes, we couldn't. Chris Todd had some nice downfield throws to Darvin Adams, but none to any other outside receivers. Terrell Zachary can run down the field all alone, and Todd will never look his way. Todd completed a decent amount of screen passes, but these were usually on third and long, and ended up well short of the first down. Todd missed the slant to Tommy Trott three times way high, ending up with an interception on the last one. Todd missed the quick hitch three times. Todd had a sack-fumble. Sack-fumbles are somewhat excusable from the blind side, but Todd was hit from the front. Sometimes a QB just has to fall down and eat it. After the first quarter, Todd kept us in the game with the 72-yard pass to Adams, but did very little beyond that. A half dozen better throws would have given Auburn a double digit win over the Tide.
I hate losing to Alabama, make no mistake about it. At home, it's an even more bitter pill to swallow. This one is easier than the last two Iron Bowl losses in Jordan Hare, because we appear to be on an upswing with our program. This is a game a more experienced Auburn squad might have dominated. It also makes one wonder where we'd be if we had played like this against Arkansas, against Kentucky, against LSU. Carrying the momentum over will be a challenge for the returning players and coaching staff.
My hat's off to Alabama. They got a lot more than they bargained for on this road trip, but they didn't panic. They didn't turn the ball over, and they didn't give up. Perseverance gave the Tide their second perfect regular season in a row. I think the Tide folks also know that they'll need a LOT better performance in the SEC Championship game, if they are to defeat the Gators.
It will be an exciting bowl and off season, for Auburn, but we must temper our expectations with realism. As Pat Dye said last week, next year's team won't be much better than this one. Problems will have to be worked on, and newcomers brought in that will play immediately. Nowhere will Auburn be hit harder by graduation than on the defensive line. The loss of Antonio Coleman and Jake Ricks will be huge. The loss of Walter McFadden will be big, too. McFadden was a top-flight cover corner, AND a great leader. Auburn will be solid kicking the ball, but will have to find a new punter. Returns and coverage were an absolute mess this season, and should see a lot of work. The offensive line will have to replace a tackle, and the replacement of seniors Tommy Trott, Ben Tate, and Chris Todd will not be easy. The quarterback race will be critical. Unless Kodi Burns makes a dramatic comeback, we'll be starting a green QB, next fall. If we learned nothing this season, we know that Malzhan's offense is heavily tied to quarterback play.
War Eagle to all, and have a great finish to Thanksgiving Weekend!