It seems ridiculous to write a preview for the Louisiana-Monroe vs. Auburn game and seriously analyze whether or not the Warhawks can beat the Tigers, but here we are. Auburn is sitting at 0-2, and the Tigers looked completely inept against Mississippi State. Now, that could be because State defenders figured out Auburn's signals and knew what plays were being called. But even with the State defense supposedly knowing what was coming, Kiehl Frazier didn't play well enough for Auburn to win, and the offensive play-calling left much to be desired. On defense, the Tigers played pretty well for a half, but poor tackling and missed assignments plagued Brian VanGorder's unit in the second half and allowed State to run away with victory.
A few hundred miles north of Starkville on Saturday, Louisiana-Monroe was in Little Rock pulling off the biggest win in its football history. The Warhawk defense got to Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson early and often and knocked him out of the game. Arkansas gained fewer than 400 yards, while the ULM offense eclipsed the 500-yard mark. The Warhawks' overtime win was no fluke. They outplayed the then-No. 8 Razorbacks for much of the game. Looking at the final numbers, it's amazing that Arkansas was able to even get to overtime.
Now, we've got a matchup of two teams with two very different resumes. If one were to pick the winner of this game based solely on raw statistics, the choice would be clear.
|Team A||Team B|
|Points per game||34.0||14.5|
vs. Clem, at MSU
In case you're having a hard time figuring out which team is which, "Team A" is Louisiana-Monroe, and "Team B" is Auburn. On paper, the Warhawks look like they should be big favorites. They have impressive offensive numbers, while the Tigers rank last in the SEC in both total offense and total defense. Thankfully, football isn't played on paper. Auburn actually goes into this game as a 16.5-point favorite, but Louisiana-Monroe is no joke. If the Tigers want to win on Saturday, they won't be able to treat this game as a glorified scrimmage to work out the kinks. Let's hope they know that.
AUBURN OFFENSE vs. LOUISIANA-MONROE DEFENSE
Quarterback Kiehl Frazier and the rest of the Auburn offense desperately need to build some confidence. Through two games, Auburn's running game has been decent, but the passing offense has been abysmal. With a 49 percent completion percentage and 159 yards per game, Auburn's passing attack -- if you can call it that -- ranks only ahead of Florida's, and the Gators have attempted an average of 5.5 fewer passes per game. Frazier's lack of confidence has led to indecisiveness and poor fundamentals, both of which have severely hurt his play. In an attempt to make things easier for the sophomore against Mississippi State, Scot Loeffler limited the playbook, which inadvertently made it that much easier for the Bulldogs to steal Frazier's offensive calls. While Frazier may not have to worry about the Warhawks stealing signals -- Gene Chizik best make sure that never happens again -- he will be facing a unique defensive look that he has not seen up to this point.
As you may have discovered at some point this week, the Warhawks run a 3-3-5 defense. That's three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. In reality, the 3-3-5 features four defensive backs and a fifth hybrid player -- typically called a "rover," but ULM calls the position the "hawk" -- that acts as both a safety and a linebacker. This defense allows for disguised coverages and blitzes, and can make life incredibly difficult for an offensive line and quarterback. Some may say that the only reason ULM was able to beat Arkansas was because Razorbacks quarterback Tyler Wilson was knocked out of the game, and that may be true, but why was he knocked out of the game? It wasn't because of one fluke hit. It was because the Warhawks were able to get to him often on the blitz multiple times and take their shots. The Warhawks never sacked Wilson, but the big hits they were able to deliver eventually broke the Hogs QB beyond repair. Frazier should expect to face the same kind of punishment. Auburn's young offensive line won't be able to completely keep Warhawk defenders out of the backfield, so the Auburn quarterback must be ready to make quick -- and more importantly, correct -- decisions.
It's safe to assume that Frazier will struggle at times against the ULM defense. With his confidence shaken, he's likely to be confused a bit by the Warhawks' odd coverage looks. That's why the Auburn backs and receivers have to help their quarterback. As much as Chizik and Loeffler might like Frazier to work on his throwing and air it out all game, the Tigers will need to establish a run game to be successful on the offensive side of the ball. It may sound easy to run up the middle against a three-man front, but ULM's linebackers and safeties do a nice job of filling in the gaps and clogging the middle. It will be key for the Tigers' offensive line and Jay Prosch at fullback to be extra focused. No one can afford to miss a block just because they're seeing a strange defensive front. If the men in the trenches can take care of their business, it should be smooth sailing for Onterio McCalebb, Tre Mason and Mike Blakely. Auburn has much more talent along the line than anyone on Louisiana-Monroe's defense. As long as the Tigers account for everyone, they should be able to get a nice push and open up the running lanes. With the power game established inside, things will open up nicely for McCalebb on the outside, which should lead to some big plays. But for all of this to work, Auburn's blocking has to be on point.
In the passing game, it will be up to Loeffler and the Auburn receivers to take pressure off of Frazier. While Frazier was having so much trouble last week, we didn't see very many plays called that would have allowed him to find some sort of rhythm. Calling a healthy dose of quick slants, outs and hitches would let Frazier take a three step drop and get the ball out of his hands. He wouldn't have time to over-think the play, as he seemed to be doing against State. And while Loeffler did call a few bubble screens -- nice, easy throws that could help build confidence -- they were, for the most part, called to Frazier's left. That may not seem like a big deal, but it could potentially cause big problems. Frazier is right-handed, therefore, it would be much easier for him to throw the bubble screen to his right. All he has to do is drop back and throw -- he's already facing that direction during his drop. When he's throwing a screen to his left, Frazier has to drop back, turn around and throw across his body. That play develops much slower, and if a receiver happens to miss a block, there's a good chance a cornerback would be able to jump the route for an easy pick-six. So, a play that is designed to build the quarterback's confidence could end up crushing it. Loeffler can give Frazier a much better chance at success if he will just call for some quick, easy throws.
For Auburn's receivers, the job is simple: run good routes, find holes in the zone coverage and make some plays. The Warhawk defensive backs played well last week and held Arkansas to 256 yards passing. But just like their linemen and linebackers, ULM's success comes from smoke and mirrors. Auburn's receivers have much more talent than the defensive backs covering them, and if they stay focused, they should be able to exploit that talent gap. It's expected that Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen will be able to do that, but it would be awfully nice if some other Auburn pass-catchers could join in. Quan Bray had a few receptions in garbage time last week. Hopefully, he can build on that. Trovon Reed hasn't made an impact yet, but he's simply too good to go unnoticed against a Sun Belt opponent. If these guys will just run proper routes, find holes in the zone and look for the ball, any of them could have big days. It's that simple.
AUBURN DEFENSE vs. LOUISIANA-MONROE OFFENSE
Here, it's all about stopping quarterback Kolton Browning. Browning was named Walter Camp offensive player of the week after the Warhawks' win over Arkansas, and he absolutely deserved it. He threw for 412 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 69 yards. In overtime, Browning scampered 19 yards for the winning touchdown. Unfortunately for Auburn, what Browning and the ULM offense want to do exploits one of the Tigers' biggest weaknesses. With 412 yards, it wouldn't be outrageous to assume the quarterback was lobbing the ball over the Razorbacks' heads all game, but that wasn't the case. Browning racked up those yards on 42 of 67 passing, which averages out to 6.1 yards per attempt. So, instead of throwing it deep all game, Browning was completing plenty of quick, underneath throws.
To combat that sort of quick jab passing attack, what would be the best defensive coverage? If you said a man-to-man press, you're right. The man press is exactly the type of coverage VanGorder wants as the foundation of his secondary. The only problem is that his personnel isn't capable of playing that type of coverage.
"If that's not something that you've done a lot of, it takes practice," defensive backs coach Willie Martinez said. "It's a fundamental, just like if you're playing off, and you have to be comfortable. Certain guys are more comfortable in a press alignment."
Auburn's cornerbacks and safeties have to be given a nice cushion, roughly 10 yards, to avoid giving up home runs. That plays right into Browning's hands. If Auburn's secondary sits back all day, the Warhawks will march down the field easily, just like they did against Arkansas. And if Auburn's defensive backs struggle with their tackling, which, based on recent history, is entirely possible, those short completions will turn into big plays. The Tiger linebackers -- Jake Holland, in particular -- can't drop too deep into coverage, another common trend in recent history. Basically, the back seven will either show serious improvement, or Auburn will be in a battle.
Outside of some designed quarterback carries, Louisiana-Monroe won't have much of a running game, so Auburn will be able to focus mostly on the pass. The defensive line will dominate the Warhawks' O-line -- if that doesn't happen, our problems are worse than we could have imagined -- and it's imperative that Corey Lemonier, Dee Ford and the rest of the line get in Browning's face as much as possible. With all of the quick throws, they may not be able to generate many sacks, but anything they can do to help the secondary will be vital.
When Auburn gets stops on third downs, the Tigers can't get complacent. Louisiana-Monroe was only 8 of 23 on third downs last week, but the Warhawks converted 6 of 7 fourth downs, including a game-tying touchdown scored on fourth and 10 with 55 seconds remaining in regulation. Getting to fourth down won't be enough for Auburn. The Tigers need to force plenty fourth and longs and be prepared to play hard on four plays in each set of downs.
As in most games Auburn will play this season, special teams is where the Tigers have their biggest advantage. With Cody Parkey's deep kickoffs and Steven Clark's mile-high punts, Louisiana-Monroe will be limited to rare returns, if any. On kickoff returns, we saw exactly what Auburn is capable of when McCalebb raced 100 yards for a touchdown to open the second half. Auburn is dangerous in the punt return department, too, as Bray has the agility and speed to pick up big yards if given the chance. If the game comes down to a field goal -- oh please don't let this happen -- Parkey is one of the best in the business. He's 5 for 5 this season with a long of 46, and as his thunderous kickoffs prove, he's capable of hitting from much deeper.
Louisiana-Monroe didn't attempt a field goal last week, so it's hard to tell what Justin Manton can do, but he was just 6 for 14 last season. If Auburn ever forces the Warhawks to punt, they won't be flipping field position. Conner Fryoux and Manton combined to average 32.6 yards on seven punts against Arkansas.
It's getting to be desperation time for Chizik's team. There were a lot of questions surrounding Auburn going into 2012, and with an 0-2 start, those questions have received all the wrong answers. The Tigers need a spark, and this Saturday is a perfect time to find one. After last week's results, many outside the program are looking at this game as another potential upset, and that has to irk the players wearing orange and blue. Despite their early struggles, they believe that they are a good football team, and good football teams don't have to face questions about whether or not they can win a paycheck game against a Sun Belt team. They have that chip on their shoulder and a home crowd behind them for the first time this year. The Tigers should look much better than what we've seen in the first two games. Frazier is still learning on the job, so he will have his struggles, but he'll have even more moments of success. He'll be able to find receivers in the holes of ULM's zone, and with the running game working, Auburn will be able to move the ball and score points.
On defense, the Tigers will give up some yards and look bad at times, but they won't look nearly as bad as Arkansas looked last week. This unit is way too talented to struggle for 60 minutes against a team like Louisiana-Monroe. The Warhawks will score some points, but Auburn's secondary will cause some turnovers that allow Auburn to remain comfortably ahead. And when Browning has to wait around to throw deeper passes, Lemonier and Ford will eat him alive. It won't be pretty at times, but the Tigers will pick up their first win of 2012. If they don't, well, we're not even going to entertain that thought. Auburn 41, Louisiana-Monroe 21.