Auburn warrior Michael Dyer is all smiles!
(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
War Eagle, everybody! It's time now for the Acid Reign report, on Auburn's 16-13 road win over the South Carolina Gamecocks. Yesterday, I and a few others were perhaps a bit disappointed in my title for the game thread, "Bash the Gamecocks." Well, that's exactly what happened! Auburn beat, bullied, bashed and bruised their way to a grinding SEC win. This team took a giant leap forward, and proved it could match up physically with one of the better teams in the conference. Auburn's youth overcame a squad that was supposed to be the elite in the East. This was supposed to be the year for Gamecock Marcus Lattimore to make a sophomore run at the Heisman Trophy. Instead, it was Auburn's sophomore Mike Dyer hammering 41 times for twice the yardage Lattimore produced.
The Auburn defense came of age in this game. For the first time all season, Auburn managed a significant push in the middle. You won't find any eye popping numbers in the stat lines from the tackles, but Jeffery Whitaker in particular caused problems in the middle of the Gamecock line. Kenneth Carter was also disruptive, and we got good minutes from all of the fab freshmen there. Where the real damage was done was on the edges. This area began to resemble the Chizik defenses from 2002-2004 at Auburn. Corey Lemonier came from one side, and Darren Bates from the other. Those two guys each had a sack and two quarterback hurries. Carolina occasionally could block one of them, but never both. They consistently turned runners back inside, where Holland and the wrecking crew could finish them off. Aside from one long bomb, the secondary handled the Gamecock receivers. I was laughed at last spring when I opined that I thought we had the players to stay with USC's stable this fall. It proved to be true. The Auburn defense harried the Gamecocks into a miserable day through the air. Garcia often had nowhere to go with the ball. Honestly, where the Gamecock brain trust messed up was not letting Garcia keep it more, or throw screens. While he was not good at all throwing, he did average 6.2 yards a carry, even with 3 sacks figured in.
You knew this Auburn team meant business on the ground when they lined up on the first play. Quindarius Carr was the lone wide receiver threat out there. You had a host of blocking specialists including Lutzenkirchen, Fulse, and Wisner on the perimeter. The handoff to Dyer lost a yard, but the message was sent. Dyer would carry it 40 more times, and he negated the heroics of talented Gamecock ends Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney. The unsung heros of this win were the offensive linemen. Most folks only notice the linemen when someone gets by them, and A. J. Greene did have his struggles with Melvin Ingram. The interior line, led by freshman Reese Dismukes played lights out after the first quarter. They allowed the tackle-end twist to get loose a few times early with Devin Taylor, but slammed the door after that. Brandon Mosley did a superb job on the right. He handled Clowney and Taylor well. Auburn slammed Michael Dyer into the middle of the line most of his 41 carries, and this group moved the pile.
When it comes time to look at raises for the Auburn assistants this year, the most deserving candidate has to be special teams coordinator Jay Boulware. His units turned in another stellar effort, marred only by a clanked extra point by Cody Parkey. Parkey did atone, by drilling 3 of his 4 kickoffs for touchbacks. Game ball goes to punter Steven Clark, who landed 5 of 7 punts inside the 20 yard line, with no touchbacks. Carolina's starting field position was awful all day. Out of 52 offensive snaps, the Gamecocks only had four plays run on Auburn's side of midfield. That's a credit to the special teams and the defense. Quan Bray had a successful debut as Auburn's punt returner. For two years, the Chizik regime struggled to find a punt returner who would not fumble. This year, we apparently have at least two quality guys back there.
Unit Grades, after the jump!
Defensive Line: A-. It wasn't a perfect effort, by any means. But Auburn won the battle up front decisively, for the first time all year. Corey Lemonier and LaDarius Owens came up with huge drive-killing plays. Jeffery Whitaker was a beast inside. He's starting to live up to his five-star billing coming in. Nosa Eguae and Craig Sanders didn't record a lot of stats, but they posted up the offensive tackle on the play side repeatedly, allowing linebackers to clean it up. What was great was that this unit swarmed. On most of Lattimore's runs, he was hit initially by a lineman, and pulled down by a crowd. The difficulty ratchets up next week. Arkansas has a veteran line, and they saw every manner of crazy blitz against Texas A&M this week.
Linebackers: B+. Jake Holland and Darren Bates are now playing some solid ball, particularly against the run. Auburn went back to Chizik's early Auburn days quite a bit, putting Bates up on the line as a pass rusher. Bates and Lemonier reminded me a bit of the old Torbor-Dansby duo that terrorized SEC quarterbacks a few years ago! Holland was left alone to chase the runner, and responded with 6 tackles. Auburn played a fair amount of nickel defense, using Jonathan Evans, Eltoro Freeman and Jawara White sparingly. Where this unit needs to improve now is in pass coverage. With Garcia struggling, I was just shocked that they never tried a screen to Marcus Lattimore. He regularly kills defenses in space, but the Gamecock offensive brain trust never went that way.
Secondary: A. I don't care how badly Garcia played. This unit was amazing. Alshon Jeffery did make T'Sharvan Bell look helpless on the long touchdown catch and run, but that was the lone highlight. On Jeffery's other 4 catches, he totaled only 36 yards. Auburn was able to double him. Neiko Thorpe is an asset at free safety. He's usually in the right place, and it's been really difficult to get anyone open deep on Auburn. Demetruce McNeil is a big help in run support. Auburn sat out their best cover corner, and still held this Gamecock receiving corps to a mere 9 catches. I will say this: Carolina misses that big receiving corps of a year ago. Last season, you had Moore, Barnes, Gurley and Jeffery who were all tall threats.
Punting: A-. Steven Clark hurt his average on this day, only getting 37.9 yards per punt. One could say it was his worst statistical day of the year, but statistics can be misleading. Clark coffin-cornered the Gamecocks repeatedly. His punts were downed at the 12, the 11 twice, the 4 and the 1 yard line. There was just one bad play by this unit, a 35 yard pooch, with a kick-catch interference flag on Trent Fisher that gave the Gamecocks the ball at midfield. This allowed Carolina to score in two plays and take a lead that would last till under two minutes in the game.
Punt Returns: C. Quan Bray got his first appearance as the punt returner, and went from bad to good as time went on. His first effort was terrifying. He attempted to field the punt in a crowd, and the ball went bouncing crazily around. Carolina was called for interference on that play, but I think Bray was lucky there. Could have just as easily been a costly turnover. Bray lost two yards on the next attempt, fielding a bouncing ball falling backwards. That play saved a long roll. Bray did go forward on his next two punts, and had a 15 yarder that was the best of the Chizik era. On the last USC punt, Bray fair caught with a ton of room to run.
Kick Returns: C. Mason and Bray each had a pretty short return, going down on the first hit. Bray turned in a 29 yard return after Carolina had taken a 13-9 lead. The 20.0 yard average is pedestrian at best.
Place-kicking: B. Letter grade off for missing an extra point. Otherwise, Parkey was true on a short field goal and the other PAT. Parkey continues to be a weapon on kickoffs, booting 3 of 4 for touchbacks. Points off on the coverage team allowing Stephon Gilmore to nearly pop one for a touchdown, going 26 yards.
Offensive Line: B-. I have to count off for the protection problems, but run blocking was solid against a defense stacked to stop it. Arkansas will tackle-end twist all day, so more work on that is needed. However, the Aggie running game gashed Arkansas badly, so there's hope Auburn can also.
Running Backs: A-. Auburn didn't crack a running play of 20 yards or more, but still piled up 246 rushing yards. Dyer was a load, taking 41 carries for 141 yards. McCalebb had 91 yards in rushes and receptions. H-back blocking continued to improve, with even big Ladarius Phillips getting in a couple of crushing blocks. Lutzenkirchen and Phillips are developing into a pretty good combo, there. Auburn's running back pass blocking still needs work.
Receivers: D. Passing grade on big catches by Benton, Wisner and Lutzenkirchen. But this group largely did not get open, block well, or do much. I would not want to be facing Trooper today! No word yet on the injury to Emory Blake's leg. Without Blake, this unit all but vanished. Lutzenkirchen came up with a big play at the end to win it. The whole fumble debate was pointless, as Lutz had broken the plane with the ball before it came out. Check the stat page: no Auburn fumbles in the game.
Quarterback: D+. Auburn's not going to be able to win many more in the SEC with 50 percent completions, and less than 5 yards per pass, especially when the quarterback is not much of a threat to run. Trotter had a nice run for a first down on the draw, but he hurt himself with 2 interceptions to one touchdown. In his defense, he had pressure in his face all night, but we need more here. Kiehl Frazier looked good running the Wildcat, but it's not going to be long before defensive coordinators start collapsing ten men down in the box when they see him come into the game. A few effective pass plays are going to have to be worked into that package.
There were a few head-scratching decisions in this game from a strategy standpoint. Auburn blew a scoring opportunity after a Marcus Lattimore fumble in Carolina territory. An end around pass was called, and the result was a sailing duck that was picked off. The Tigers passed on a chip-shot field goal to extend the 9-6 lead before the half. A crazy pass into triple coverage by safety Ryan White was picked off. Two of Auburn's 4 interceptions were on gadget plays by guys that aren't even quarterbacks.
We can complain about what's wrong with the coaching staff, but there are quite a few more things that are right! You had to love this team's attitude in this game. There was a ferocity this week. These Tigers will go far if they keep that attitude. The five-man rush on defense worked wonders. We'll need that against Arkansas. The move to put Neiko Thorpe at safety was inspired. Let's see if he can cut down on Jarius Wright's big catches over the middle that won Arkansas' last game for them.
There have been a few howls this year about Gus Malzhan's play-calling. But consider this. He went up against a defending SEC division champion with a veteran, hard hitting defense. He did it with really iffy quarterbacking. Auburn ran 92 plays, racked up 358 yards, and controlled the game. I think maybe that genius tag is still deserved!
The bar gets raised this week. The trip to Fayetteville with be a tough hurdle. Most worrisome is that the Chizik/Roof defense has yet to stop the Petrino offense, or even slow it down much. Those pesky Razorbacks are averaging 43.5 points per game against Auburn defenses the past two years. This year, I think Auburn has the secondary to have a chance. I think Petrino will throw short crosses at the Auburn linebackers, and when Roof goes nickel or dime, they'll start pounding the ball on the ground. It's going to be tough to stop. Auburn's best defense will be another 67-rushes day by the offense. Can the Tigers do it? We'll find out next Saturday night!