War Eagle, everybody! The Auburn Tigers have survived at home against Clemson, 27-24 in overtime. In a hard-fought slugfest, Auburn won it when Clemson kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed a 32-yard field goal in overtime. I think anyone who looked at this matchup objectively before the season knew that Auburn was going to be in for a war on both sides of the trenches. Clemson boasted an ACC best offensive line with 4 starters returning. With big, fast backs and powerful blocking Clemson presented the Auburn front seven with one of their most fearsome challenges of the season. Clemson's defensive line features at least three guys who will be making millions on Sundays in the near future. While there was plenty to worry about from Auburn's performance against Clemson, the fact that a still-rebuilding team found a way to win is pretty amazing. If nothing else, be proud of of the incredible effort these young men made!
We knew going in that Clemson is a ball-control team that likes to pound teams to death, and burn them with occasional play action. Somehow, Auburn was still playing Clemson tough into overtime. Last season, the defense had a tendency to wilt. Thus far in 2010, the defense finishes. Halftime adjustments have been great. There are still serious coverage issues, as secondary receivers are frequently open and running free in the open field. But this team has served notice that it won't surrender the game on the ground. If a great rushing team like Clemson can't dominate the Auburn defense, who else on the schedule can?
The unsung heroes of this game played on special teams for Auburn. We knew Wes Byrum was a more experienced kicker coming into this contest, but it seemed on paper that Clemson had the advantage in every other special teams area. The punting duels turned out pretty evenly, with neither team making much noise there. Auburn won the kickoff battle convincingly. Both teams consistently kicked it inside the 10, but Clemson managed only 15.6 yards per return, while Auburn enjoyed a 24.5 yard average. Over the course of 8 kickoffs, that's a good bit of a field position. Our return men had no fumbles, for the first time this year. Auburn will have a chance to win every game, if the special teams guys do not turn it over.
It's officially time to admit that many of us Auburn fans drank WAY too much of the offensive kool-ade coming into this season. We were confident that with a veteran offensive line and lots of new skill players, the Auburn offense was going to dominate like no other before it on the Plains. Instead, every area of mild concern has turned out to be true. The coaches' year-long waffling on the right tackle battle was a sign. We're having real difficulty there, and now AJ Green, the man at the head of the crowd that won the starting job is likely out for the season. Clemson end Dequan Bowers wreaked havoc in the Auburn backfield, and it took double team blocking in the second half to stop him. Elsewhere on the line, we continue to have problems. This line is not playing at the 2009 level. Motion penalties, holding penalties and missed blocks continued in this game. Credit to the line, though. They came out and got after it in the second half, allowing us to climb back into the game. Clemson has a good D-line, and they'll make other teams look bad this season, too.
This was supposed to be the year that Auburn had a deep receiving corps break out, but in BCS conference play, it's still the Darvin Adams show. We seem to be locked in there, and Adams is drawing a LOT of double teams. Auburn only completed 7 balls in this game, and 5 went to Adams. A preseason glance at the tailback depth chart was a cause for alarm. After this game, we appear to have only Michael Dyer who's certain to be ready to play against South Carolina. Mario Fannin didn't play yesterday after his shoulder injury. Onterrio McCalebb took a pretty good shot to the head, and might not be cleared next week. Towards the end of the game, we were using Eric Smith as a pass protector. Smith can play the tailback slot, but he's also the only real blocking option at H-back. It's a a two man backfield right now, with only walk-ons as backups. Cameron Newton has brought an exciting new dimension to Auburn's offense with amazing running ability and a deep ball with great touch. Unfortunately, his 3 of 8 passing performance on A-Day turned out to be a good indicator of what we were going to get against BCS opponents this fall. More on Cam in the quarterback grades below.
Unit Grades, after the jump!
Defensive Line: B-. At times, particularly in the first half, the line was blown off the ball by the veteran Clemson line. Michael Goggins in particular, has had his struggles. One thing Auburn really lacks on defense is a run-stuffing strong side end. We can mask it certain ways, and against spread teams it doesn't hurt you as much. When a big strong team like Clemson lines up in the I and runs off tackle, we're going to give up some yards. Kudos to the team for keeping this to manageable levels. I gave a grade this high due to pretty good assignment football up front. We only got one sack on Kyle Parker, but he was so beat up by the end of the game that he could hardly walk. The pass rush got there. Nick Fairley continues to be a huge problem for defenses. The line also got some good minutes out of reserves Mike Blanc, and Nosa Eague.
Linebackers: C. You can say one thing about our linebackers: they will hit! Right now, it looks like Josh Bynes is the only one who really knows where to line up. We did better in the second half, but both outside guys got caught out of position repeatedly. Hats off to Bynes for basically being able to play two gap technique in a one-gap defense. The only reason we're not getting killed on strong side runs is Bynes. He played a whale of a game.
Secondary: C+. It's the same woes every week here. We don't cover the short routes well, and we continue to have assignment issues. The biggest concern is that we could not decide who was supposed to cover the rangy tight end Dwayne Allen. Allen was all alone for the potential game winner in OT. Clemson could not get the ball quite there, and Allen had it go off his fingertips. The secondary gets a lot of help from a pretty active pass rush, and we've mostly been successful keeping things in front. On the other hand, I had hoped for more from a unit with as many big-name, experienced starters. For the game, the defense gave up over 400 yards, and forced no turnovers. A "C" is about the best I can give.
Punting: B. Ryan Shoemaker improved his average in this one, but still had a few consistency issues. The most glaring one was the 29 yard shank after Clemson had tied the game at 24. That gave the visiting Tigers the ball near midfield. Honestly, I was surprised that Clemson didn't go after more punts. They didn't really rush the punter, and preferred to set up the return. It didn't work, as Auburn held 'em to a mere 15 punt return yards.
Punt Returns: B. We didn't do much with only 6 yards on 2 returns, but it's what we DIDN'T do that gets this grade. No drops, no poor decisions. The ACC refs twice let the coverage hit Carr early after he had signaled for a fair catch.
Kick Returns: B. We had a nice 24.5 yard average on five returns, with no ball security issues. Washington has been on the verge of breaking one for a while now. By comparison, Clemson managed only a 15.6 yard average. Auburn has really improved the kick coverage this season!
Place-kicking: A+. Wes Byrum was back to his usual perfect self, and the protection woes in the Mississippi State game were fixed. War Eagle to Wes for hitting another pressure-filled game-winner! It was a long one.
Offensive Line: D. I'll give a passing grade on this one on a few pass protection snaps. Did Auburn enjoy that protection by surprising Clemson with a few first down throws? Probably. Still, Newton did have time on multiple occasions. The run blocking was horrible. With the possible exception of Ryan Pugh, no one on the offensive line is playing at the 2009 level. Clemson had a lot to do with it. That may be the best D-line we see this season. Lee Ziemba got another false start. OK, it's been a while since his last real one. Kudos to the squad in the second half. They still lost battles, but that old "hit somebody no matter what" mentality reappeared. It brought back memories of 2007, when these guys were freshman. O-line coach Jeff Grimes handed out virtually no praise in fall camp. We should have listened. Right now, I think the O-line and the secondary are vying for the "biggest disappointment" crown on this team.
Receivers: B-. This may be an unfair grade, but I think the blocking wasn't as good in this game, and there was Kodi Burns letting a safety take a pass away from him. Honestly, the receivers aren't getting much of a look beyond Adams. I saw separation all night from the non-Adams group, but only a few balls went that way. The hitch and go by Zachary was a lot of fun to watch. We've GOT to get these guys more involved.
Running Backs: B+. The way we blocked up front, Bo Jackson would have had a bad day on the ground. Eric Smith was his usual solid self blocking, and even got a pass reception. Dyer was effective, when he got the ball before defenders were on him. Even being hit constantly in the backfield, Dyer managed 4.3 yards per carry. A salute to Onterrio McCalebb. His footing woes seemed to have been corrected. He came with Auburn's biggest runs of the night, and averaged 8 yards per carry. Let's hope he's back at full strength against the Gamecocks.
Quarterback: C. Clemson was determined not to let Cam Newton beat them running the ball, and held him to 68 rushing yards. Newton carried more than any running back, and had the lowest yards per carry average, at 3.8. As a passer, Newton was feast or famine. While he managed only a pedestrian 7 completions in 14 attempts, those seven went for a whopping 203 yards. That's a ridiculous 14.5 yards per pass average. The famine aspect came with two ugly interceptions, and a tendency to lock in on one receiver. The one bloop pass interception was particularly bad. There's never a reason in the SEC to lob one up like that. The other pick was an underthrow on a deep ball. That's going to happen if you throw a lot of deep passes. You're not going to drop it in the pickle barrel every time from 50 yards out. Auburn has really not utilized a high-percentage selection of pass plays this season, and I don't know whether to blame the scheme, or Newton. The quick hitch, the slant, and the screen have all but disappeared. Newton may be taking off when those are called. No one is saying. Much like other strong-armed quarterbacks in the league, Newton seems to want to go deep most of the time. We've got to exploit open areas in the flat and over the middle to sustain some drives and help the defense. Clearly, Newton is a first time starting quarterback in the SEC, and is a work in progress. For all the complaints above, Newton had two picks, two touchdowns, and 271 yards of offense against a BCS defending division champ. He has not lost a fumble in three games. That's still winning football.
Much like last year's team, this edition can be an enigma. At times, they appear supremely talented. Other times, they can be comically terrible. One thing's certain, though. Hit them in the mouth, and they'll give back as good as they got! Right now, we've got a potentially explosive, but very inconsistent offense. The defense is pretty stout against the run, and suspect in coverage.
After two weeks of narrow escapes, some folks may think that Auburn's regressed. After all, at this time last season we were celebrating blowouts of La. Tech and MSU, and we had just come back in dramatic fashion and posted a double-digit win over West Virginia. I'd argue that the level of competition has been much higher this season. Arky State is dramatically better than La. Tech, MSU was woeful early on last year, and Clemson's a BCS division champ that doesn't beat themselves like WVa does. I'd argue that Auburn is stronger on the D-line, deeper at linebacker, much better on special teams coverage. We've more potential at quarterback, but remember. These are Cam's first few starts in this league. So far, he's directed us to victory every time.
Next week's visit by South Carolina will be an interesting challenge. Physically, they are similar to Clemson. Steven Garcia is not as consistent a passer as Kyle Parker is, but he's a stronger runner. Lattimore is a freshman sensation, but he's going against the strength of the Auburn defense. South Carolina's wide receivers worry me. They are huge. The SC defense shut down a new quarterback at Georgia. We're nervously hoping they don't repeat that feat at Jordan Hare. Expect the Gamecocks to crowd the box like Clemson did, and make Cam Newton beat them through the air. Are the Tigers up to it? We'll find out Saturday. Did you know that South Carolina has not beaten Auburn since 1933?