A new era begins at Auburn!
War Eagle, everybody! Time now for the Acid Reign report, on Auburn's 2009 season opener against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. Few folks knew what to expect in the opening game of the Gene Chizik era at Auburn. Las Vegas had the Tigers as a 13.5 point favorite. Many people were not sure Auburn would cover that. Some, such as the Birmingham News' Charles Hollis, predicted that Auburn would lose. How sweet it is, in the end, for Auburn to win in a blowout! Auburn's 37-13 win certainly beat most expectations!
Against the Auburn defense, the Bulldog offensive schemers HAD to be grinning, when they tallied up the Auburn starting lineup. A reserve defensive tackle was lined up over the B-gap. A sophomore linebacker who'd participated in all of five practices was lined up on the weak side. A true freshman was in at free safety. Auburn lined up with an enormous cushion on the receivers. Things didn't work out so well, for Tech. They attempted to establish the run, with their best offensive players, Daniel Porter, and Phillip Livas. Auburn was showing cover-two, but what would happen at the snap is that strong safety Zach Ethridge would crash down, and Tech would be trying to run against 8 in the box, with cover-one, and a safety over top. Zach Etheridge has been among the leaders in Auburn tackles the past two seasons, and he fortified things really well, up front. La Tech then managed to isolate some slot receivers, such as tight end Dennis Morris, and the slippery receiver Tuminello, on Auburn outside linebackers. Bulldog quarterback Ross Jenkins hit some of these passes, but honestly, he wasn't consistent enough to drive the ball the length of the field.
Auburn staked Tech to great field position with a string of major distance penalties in the first half. Tech was stopped repeatedly on their lone TD drive, only to get a new set of downs on a penalty. One call was a ridiculously poor call against Walt McFadden, but the other two were careless facemasks, on Zach Etheridge and Michael Goggins. Jenkins hit a TD pass over Adam Herring, who was being asked to cover the tight end one on one, after those penalties. Herring was there, swiped at the ball, but the catch was made anyway in the end zone. Tech's second FG drive was stopped, only to get new life on another face mask call on Goggins. In the second half, Auburn went to man coverage, often using cover zero on 3rd down, and harassing Jenkins into numerous bad throws. Listening to the radio, I was angry at our linebackers, letting a couple of big scrambles go up the middle, including the 33 yarder that set up Tech's last field goal. The game replay revealed that Bynes was covering tight ends and slot receivers, and basically taking them out of the game. Where we let those scrambles out was man coverage, and mistakes in gap control with the young tackles. All in all, it was a very smart plan by Ted Roof and Gene Chizik, which played to our strengths, and protected our weaknesses. Halftime adjustments were awesome!
Offensively, Auburn chewed up yards all game long. Mistakes and turnovers, particularly in the first half, stopped drives, but the Tech defense never had an answer. There was an effort there, to keep it in front, and limit big plays, but the result was that Auburn ran play after play from sideline to sideline, which wore the Tech defensive legs out. Chris Todd and the receiving corps had some timing issues, particularly in the second quarter, and didn't always connect. It sounded, on the radio, worse than it really was. Auburn only had one real drop, and that was late on a post to Emory Blake at the goal line. Both Todd and Burns did a good job of throwing messed up route plays where the defense didn't have a chance to get to it. During the live thread Saturday night, a lot of folks asked where the tight ends were. Tommy Trott played a LOT. He was split out, and made quite a few good blocks on the corner. Most of those Mario Fannin screens were sprung off a Trott block. Trott only had one ball thrown in his direction, but Burns wisely threw it out of bounds, when Trott was double covered. Both Auburn running backs played well. They ran hard, refused to go down on first contact, and did a great job pass blocking. I even saw little Onterrio McCaleb successfully cut a Tech end to the ground, keeping Chris Todd from getting pounded. Wide receiver production was minimal in the first half, but honestly, those guys were coming off the ball looking for someone to hit, mostly. Tech got by with mugging DeAngelo Benton a couple of times in the 2nd quarter, preventing completions.
Special teams were up and down, for the Tigers. Kicking and punting were great. Coverage was decent. We won't face a guy quite as dangerous as Livas, till we play Javier Arenas and Bama. Returns weren't so good. In a punt returner, you look first for good decision-making, then great hands. If the guy is a threat to run one back, that's great. But first, you've got to secure that ball. With no experience coming into this game returning punts, we still aren't there. We fumbled the first one, then let the second one hit and roll, then picked it up and ran after signaling "fair catch." Kick return blocking has dropped off noticeably, too.
Unit Grades, after the jump!
Defensive Line: B+. I can't give this an A, because of a few errors. We lost the B-gap twice on third down in cover-zero, which enabled the Tech QB to scramble right up the gut for big yards. With brand new starter Nick Fairley out there, mistakes were probably inevitable, but the timing on those was not good. The two facemasks on Goggins were costly. Tech did a good job of scheming against Antonio Coleman, alternating between double-teams, and rolling away from him. Fairley really messed up things, though, for the Tech line. They had no one who could handle him one on one. When Auburn rushed 5 guys, Jenkins had no time to do anything but run for his life.
Linebackers: B. I griped during the game, but these guys had difficult assignments. At first they were responsible in the short zones, and got worked over a bit. Nothing like a typical game last year, but there were 5-10 yard completions. Worst play was Josh Bynes grabbing nothing but air on a screen to Daniel Porter, on which Bynes seemed to have the play contained for a loss. The right thing to do was break down and wait for help, but Bynes attacked and missed. Herring got turned around on the TD pass to the tight end, but for the most part these guys did a lot better job doing what they were assigned to do, than things seemed. When Tech ran the ball, those lanes were filled.
Secondary: A-. I count off here only because we dropped a couple of interceptions, and McFadden got a late pass interference call that looked legit. That first quarter one was ridiculous. Not only was the ball 10 feet too high, but McFadden didn't even make contact till the ball was past. Thorpe and McFadden both made some great one on one defensive plays on deep balls to the outside guys, preventing catches. Zach Etheridge was a force playing a sort of hybrid robber-style, and the true freshman Bates actually made plays, too, including his first career interception on a ball thrown up for grabs.
Punting: A. If you only punt twice in a game, it means either a prolific offensive day, or that you had a lot of turnovers. Clinton Durst's first effort was a hooker to the sideline that got a good roll, and was downed after 47 yards. Durst's second only went 35 yards, but it was a towering shot that Phillip Livas had to fair catch at the 14. That's a respectable 41 yard average on the day, with no returns, and one pinned inside the 20.
Punt Returns: D. I won't give an F, because we didn't turn one over. But we had nothing, here. Mario Fannin fumbled the first one. The second, he signaled fair catch, let it hit and roll, then picked it up and ran. I couldn't believe they didn't throw a flag. True freshman Anthony Gulley replaced Fannin, fielded his first one in traffic, and got belted hard. Should have fair-caught. After that, Gulley was unable to even get to the remaining 3 punts. They were short, but it's important for the return man not to let those things hit and roll.
Kickoff Returns: C-. We did not block these well, at all. An 18 yard average doesn't look good, but one of those 4 returns was Trott's squibb return, fumbled out of bounds, a 7 yard gain. Fannin opened the game with a pedestrian 15 yard return. He was in traffic nearly from the point where he caught the kickoff. Onterrio McCaleb did well, picking up 49 yards on 2 efforts. The blocking wasn't there, but McCaleb tore through the coverage on his own.
Kickoffs: B+. Auburn held the dangerous Phillip Livas to 20.1 yards per return, and we averaged kicking to the 5 yard line. Wes Byrum averaged 64.8 yards per kickoff, and Morgan Hull did slightly better, hitting an average of 66.7. One of Hull's kicks even made the endzone.
Placekicking: A+. With no misses, and field goals of 47 and 49 yards, it doesn't get any better.
Offensive line: B+. Protection was awesome, and run blocking was good. Tech was really whipped badly, in this matchup. Points off on a false start by Lee Ziemba, and holding penalties on Byron Issom and Mike Berry.
Receivers: B+. There were timing issues, particularly in the first half, and a drop by Emory Blake late. Darvin Adams staying up in a crowd and getting stripped of the ball keeps this from being an A. These guys blocked well, though. And, the outside guys got separation downfield, something we haven't seen in about 5 years. When was the last time you saw deep throws by Auburn, with guys as wide open as Terrell Zachary and Darvin Adams were, on their TDs? It's time to rename Tommy "not a blocking tight end" Trott. Maybe he's still not a blocking tight end, but he's a brutal blocking wide receiver! He reminded me a lot of Frank Sanders, pancaking DBs on the edge. We'll be able to sweep folks to death on the outside, if that keeps up!
Running Backs: A-. Usually I count off a letter grade for fumbles, but it's hard to find fault with much past Ben Tate's fumble in the red zone. When was the last time Auburn had 264 on the ground and 92 receiving out of the running backs? That was the most consistent running game I've seen out of Auburn in a long, long time. Great blocking by all concerned, too. Tate and McCaleb on blitz pick up, and Fannin and John Douglas on lead blocks, it was a great unselfish day all the way around.
Quarterbacks: A. I'm tempted to count off a little on a few throws that had no chance, but really, I think just about every such play was due to routes being run wrong. Our QBs had no turnovers, and wise decisions by both Chris Todd and Kodi Burns. We need a bit more diverse Wildcat package, but that falls under play-calling. Burns kept it too much, but I think that was by design. In the end, we ran a shotgun spread the whole game, had no quarterback turnovers, no sacks, and 3 touchdowns. How awesome is that, after 3 years of offensive misery?
Next week, the Tigers open SEC play, with the Mississippi State Bulldogs. The teams had similar stories this week, struggling early, then blowing out their opponents. The difference is that Auburn faced a tough WAC team that won 8 games last year, including the Independence bowl. MSU beat Jackson State of the SWAC, a 7-5 team a year ago, 45-7. It took the Bulldogs a half to really get going. Due to penalties and fumbles, the Mississippi State only led 14-0 at the half. The Bulldog D was impressive, as was quarterback Chris Relf, but it was against a middle-of-the-pack FCS team. Against an SEC team on the road, it may be a different story. The Auburn Tigers must continue to plan the work, and work the plan, as Gene Chizik would say! An effort equal to the one this week, should spell another victory for this Tiger Team!