Rain did NOT deter the Auburn crowd!
War Eagle, everybody! Even another sullen cloudy Sunday can't take away the luster and afterglow of a sensational 41-30 win over West Virginia! After a nigh Biblical-level deluge, the Tigers fell way behind early, but never said "die." Never gave in. Never gave up! THIS is what I'm talkin' about! War Eagle! War EAGLE, till I die!
Folks didn't want to believe it when I wrote it, but I warned everyone, in my preview last spring, about West Virginia. I said that their new offensive line would not be a pushover. I warned about our linebackers. This past Thursday, I argued in a live chat with Columbus Ledger Enquirer beat-writer Andy Bitter, about Auburn's ability to tackle Jarrett Brown. (Bitter said he'd take Josh Bynes against a QB every time!) I knew Mountaineer QB Jarrett Brown would be trouble, to bring down. I figured our running backs would have troubles. I was worried about 3 veteran safeties against questionable Auburn quarterbacking. The wildcard was Chris Todd, and his team of receivers. I'll be honest. I hoped Todd would make it back to his form in the Southern Miss game last year. (21 of 31 passing, 248 yards) I wasn't holding my breath, though. I predicted that Auburn would lose, 31-10. After two games this year, I revised that to Auburn 31, West Virginia 30. Didn't really believe it, though. I was trying to be optimistic, and fire up the troops. I figured I was coming down to the Plains to watch a likely loss, although I expected us to put up a better fight, this time.
The Auburn offense ran into a stone wall, on offense, early. Jeff Casteel's defensive units have led the Big East for several seasons, now, and there's a reason. His preparation is impeccable. West Virginia took away the running game, basically playing cover-one robber, on most downs. If Kodi Burns moved anywhere near the tackle box, the Mountaineers read "Wildcat," shifted to cover-zero, and put yet another defender into the box. The ends positioned themselves depending on down and distance, and really disrupted Auburn's blocking schemes. All and all, I was really impressed with the Mountaineer defensive plan.
Gus Malzhan and company aren't so easily stymied, though. Seeing the forest of white shirts in the box, we had to go to the air. Chris Todd faced, frankly, a bewildering array of looks. One his one interception, Todd failed to recognize that the defensive end had dropped way back in coverage. It was the same setup Antonio Coleman had a week ago, off a zone blitz. Some would call that a bad throw, but in reality, it was a mis-read. Todd did make a few bad throws, but generally he was scrambling for his life, and/or hit on just about all of them. When Todd could buy time, he got it off, and to the right man. As fellow writer WarDamnZach would say, Todd made the "big boy" throws, today. There were some amazing, hard-ball stuffitinthere things. There were touch passes. The most amazing one, though, to me, was the toss out to Fannin for an 82-yard touchdown, with a safety in Todd's face. Tremendous reflexes, by Todd. He took a beating out there, soldiered on, and secured a win for us. Bravo! Well done, sir!
Reserve running back/H-back Eric Smith really had a big day, too. Gus Malzhan used him well. The offensive coaches came up with a great scheme to deal with 9 guys in the box. They ran a tripps formation (3 receivers to one side), with Smith as the inside most guy. If WVA showed read and react, Auburn would run off-tackle, behind Smith, McCain, and Ziemba, and pick up tough yardage. On run blitzes, Todd would go play action, freezing the linebackers, and Smith would wheel up the sideline, for some BIG catches! After the Auburn defense spent nearly the entire 3rd quarter on the field, this offensive strategy knocked out first down after first down, and gave the defense a much-needed breather! It also forced West Virginia to move a man out to cover that stuff, which helped our running game in the 4th quarter.
I'd imagine defensive coordinator Ted Roof was pulling his hair out early. It seemed Auburn couldn't get anyone on the ground. West Virginia even got a fullback, (!) wide open on Zach Etheridge some 60 yards downfield. Noel Devine slashed a twisting turning dagger of a 70-yard run, right up the Auburn gut. Auburn tried a balance of 3 and 2 linebacker schemes. Honestly, I'm not sure why the Mountaineers didn't go more run-heavy. Again and again, they had Jarrett Brown drop back in the pocket, and run around. Were I a WVA fan, I'd be FURIOUS about the strategy! We had few answers for the Mountaineer running game, even with three linebackers in the game. When Auburn went nickel against WVA, Demond Washington was a factor. We didn't shut them down, even then, but things were better contained on those sideline passes. On deep throws outside, the Auburn defense dominated. Walt McFadden and Neiko Thorpe had sensational games. Our safeties were solid, if not spectacular. I've also got to hand it to the Auburn defensive line's conditioning. Mauled early, having little luck bringing Jarrett Brown down, and having both Jake Ricks and Antonio Coleman helped off the field after injuries, this group SOMEHOW still had some gas left for relentless 4th quarter pass rushing. How does that happen, when your starters are playing 90 percent of the snaps? Wow!
Special teams improved remarkably in this one, but still have a ways to go. Kick coverage looked poor at the game, with guys not staying in their lanes. The Mountaineers had a couple of reverse-field jobs that were on the brink of going the distance. WVA ended up with a 27.3 yards per return average. Kickoffs were erratic. Hull's first kick (probably a wet ball) only made the 15 yard line, and he kicked his last one out of bounds, giving the Mountaineers the ball at the 40, when they were trying to come back. However, Hull also managed the endzone a couple of times. Wes Byrum was automatic. The place kicks were pounded straight and true, even from long range, even with a wet ball, even with soupy-heavy air in the stadium. Clinton Durst returned to his All-SEC form, this game, booming towering shots up into the fog, and coverage on those was good. Auburn even showed signs of life on the punt return team, with Anthony Gulley getting a double digit average on two returns. Or was it Scott Kowlowski out-kicking his coverage? Either way, it was an improvement!
Unit Grades, after the jump!
Defensive Line: C+. If we graded this unit on beating blockers and getting into the backfield, it would be an A. Unfortunately, being upfield is pretty useless, if the tackle isn't made. Both ends had trouble with outside contain. (Noel Devine will do that to you!) None of the linemen had more than 3 tackles, despite numerous opportunities. I'll say again, though, those Mountaineer ball-carriers have great ability to make folks miss in space. Despite numerous missed tackles, I gave a grade this high on opportunism: the Blanc-caused/Coleman recovered fumble, and Jake Ricks' interception were both huge stops.
Linebackers: D+. Our depth cost us dearly, here. Again, I'll thank the Mountaineers for not running more. Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens are both solid, unspectacular linebackers. At weakside, we had problems exposed. Both Adam Herring and Eltoro Freeman are very green. I think the talent is there, but neither have had enough experience to face a challenge like this team presented. Otherwise, we were just left grasping for air, repeatedly. Just beaten, really. Kudos to the crew for not giving up, though. They kept playing hard. Bonus points for the Stevens and Bynes interceptions. Good job of being in the right place, at the right time, on those.
Secondary: B-. Like the rest of the defense, there were tackling issues, although not as many in the back 4. The buck stopped here. The starting corners, Neiko Thorpe, and Walter McFadden, played brilliantly. Both had picks. Before I go further, I have to ask: is Walter McFadden trash talking at the officials? Is he spitting on them? Do they not like the number six? Walt's gotten a bogus interference call, every week. Why? It was a Big East crew, this week. But still. It's time for Phillip Lolley to take a close look at film, and see if there's anything to be concerned about, there. It was a surprisingly good job by the Auburn safeties, too. I was scared to death in the 4th quarter, with two freshmen out there, Darren Bates and T'Sharvan Bell. Both stayed home and did their jobs, though, in a raucous, pressure-packed situation. Big, big demerit on Zach Etheridge for getting beaten deep by a fullback. That's gotta hurt. I haven't seen a pass that deep to a fullback, since Ben Leard hit Heath Evans for a long TD against LSU in 1998.
Punting: A. Clinton Durst was fun to watch. The punt team, not so much. There were a lot of wild shifts, and West Virginia went after 'em some. I had my Maalox moments, but the protection turned out well. I'm guessing all that jumping around is to set up a fake, later. Or maybe to get some coverage guys downfield. That second part seemed to have worked. I'll take a 44 yard average, and zero return yards, every time. Slight demerit for the one kicked into the endzone in the 4th quarter. Still, it was an outstanding job on a wet night.
Punt Returns: B. Auburn only forced two punts in this game, and both were long howitzers, with little pressure on the punter, who took his sweet time getting it off. Auburn again used the twin returner scheme, in the hopes of fending off directional kicks. Anthony Gulley handled both punts, and got it upfield behind some blocks, for 24 yards. Bravo! Again, we'll take this, every game! I think the young freshman may have won the job for the rest of the year!
Kickoffs: D+. I'm not going to complain TOO much about a 65 yard average kickoff, on a wet field with wet balls. Morgan Hull did have consistency issues, though. The first kick was short ,and the last was out of bounds. The coverage continues to be the real issue. We are still having difficulty staying in the proper lanes. I'm going to have to call out Harry Adams and Demond Washington, in particular. Those two seemed to have the last two wide-side lanes, and they got pinched inside twice, allowing Noel Devine and Mark Rogers to get WAY upfield on the wide side. Giving up a 44 yard return is NOT good.
Placekicking: A++. It was a game where ANY miss could be big. Just ask West Virginia's Tyler Bitancurt, who missed an extra point. It was wet, and Byrum was called on to kick two LONG ones, from 42 and 46 yards. Every Byrum kick split the center of the uprights like a heat-seeking missile, going WELL into the stands! Byrum has yet to miss a FG or extra point, this year. (Hope I didn't just jinx him!)
Offensive Line: B+. I'm probably going to catch some flak for this grade. Yes, I did see numerous white shirts running around loose in the Auburn backfield throughout the game. In my analysis, though, it was the same problem that plagued the line, last season. Namely, loading the box and attacking with more defenders than blockers. If each lineman stops his man, and unblocked guys get through, it's not a knock on the line. On the other hand, the wide end splits did give our tackles problems. We'd start to adjust, then the Mountaineer ends would suddenly slide inside just before the snap. You have to have excellent linebackers to take those chances, but the Mountaineers did it. The offensive line guys did provide decent pass protection most of the time, and were still going strong in the 4th quarter, when Auburn needed to pound out a few first downs. How many consecutive games has Lee Ziemba gotten a false start penalty? I'm going to have to look that up soon, if he doesn't STOP IT!
Receivers: A. If you had told me last January, that Tommy Trott (with two knee braces), Terrell Zachary, and Darvin Adams would be our mainstay receivers in 2009, I'd have cringed. One might say that Trooper Taylor has simply put together the best blocking crew out there on the edge, but there's more to it than that. Auburn's had good blocking wide receivers for many years. That continued this game, as every guy Auburn ran out there WENT AFTER defenders. For particular praise, though, I've got to single out Darvin Adams. There was a hint, on A-Day. I noted that he was flying around, wide open, all day. This fall, he's frequently been lined up as the short side split end (no, I haven't quite mastered Gus Malzhan's numbering system...). Despite having little room to operate laterally, and this game, being covered by two defenders, Adams continues to get open and make great plays. If you can make two defenders have to cover the split end on the weak side, you can get a LOT done on the other side, offensively. And Auburn did, this game. The only reason this isn't a perfect grade, is one drop by Tommy Trott.
Running Backs: B+. Auburn barely tallied 100 rushing yards, in this one. I'm not really blaming the backs, though. West Virginia loaded the box, and had half the defense moving in the direction of the running back, at the snap, in this one. I'm thinking the wet turf affected Onterrio McCalebb's ability to get outside, but that might also be the West Virginia speed. Ben Tate looked like his usual self, although I'll deduct points for a dropped pass, right in the breadbasket, on a screen. Mario Fannin and Eric Smith made for a pair of WEAPONS, at H-back. They did well blocking, but had 5 really big plays catching the ball, including Fannin's 82 yard sprint to paydirt off the screen. Eric Smith made crucial receptions on 3rd down, too. I counted off mostly on Mario Fannin blowing the handoff on a wildcat stealer play. Auburn did get it back, though.
Quarterback: B+. The interception was a tough mis-read on a zone blitz, and that holds this grade down. Chris Todd faced a LOT of pressure in this one, and other than one play, did the smart thing. Yeah, he held the ball and took a couple of sacks. Better than giving the ball back to West Virginia's offense! Todd showed surprising mobility, moving outside the pocket, and he made some BIG time throws. With 4 touchdown passes and only 1 interception, I may be giving Todd short shrift. Those numbers are winning football, any way you slice it! The Mountaineers had a plan for Kodi Burns. It cost them on a couple of passes, as they moved another defender into the box, and went cover-zero. Burns had really no chance to run it, on that scheme. Points off on Kodi Burns missing a wide-open man on the throw-back. He was leaning too far forward, and sailed the throw out of bounds.
Coaching adjustments were BIG, in this one. Auburn corrected problems as the game went on, and the Mountaineers seemed to stick to the plan no matter what. I still feel that West Virginia has superior talent. A 21-10 first quarter lead attests to that. Auburn's adjustments and determination helped that lead become a 30-9 deficit over the last three quarters. West Virginia piled a little bit too much responsibility on a guy in his first year as the designated starting quarterback. Jock Sanders was well used, but Noel Devine was not. Regardless, I think the Mountaineers will win a lot of games this year.
I made a point of telling that to every yellow-clad group I saw on the way out. I know they had to be disappointed, but every West Virginia fan I talked to was gracious. I didn't see any obnoxious behavior out of any Mountaineer fans. Of our own fans in section 30, I can't say the same. Had a guy (been doing it for years) railing about fans standing up during the game. The guy expects everyone in front of him to stay seated, the whole game. He picked the wrong guy to heckle, this week, and got an EARFULL. (Thanks, WEA!) The Auburn fans made some crazy noise, this week. I think it equaled the 2005 Iron Bowl and the 2006 Florida games, which I attended! And they kept it going all game long, even when we were down by double digits.
One last note: Auburn's coaching staff has been amazingly progressive, organized, and forward-thinking, since this hire. Innovative ideas seem to come to light, weekly. I don't know if it happened in the prior two weeks, but this week, as the teams came back on the field for the second half, someone on the support team came up with an OUTSTANDING idea. They broadcast Gene Chizik's halftime speech to the team, in full-screen mode on the jumbotron. The stadium got REALLY quiet! Chizik really got everyone's attention, emphasizing "unfinished business!" I've always been one to not be paying attention at crucial times. I looked to the field during this, and just about every West Virginia player had stopped what they were doing, and were staring with rapt attention at the screen! I suspect many of them were quite in awe of this spectacle, and don't think that recruits in attendance weren't affected, as well! I think that tactic produced a HUGE psychological boost for Auburn, in the game.
We're looking forward to more great Auburn football, and we hope the team can recuperate, retrench, and keep improving, against the Ball State Cardinals, this week. War Eagle, and good night!