War Eagle! The words your humble correspondent wrote were…. “Do you believe”? As Dee Ford took down Johnny Football for the final time you could see light switches everywhere across the State and the Conference being flipped to an emphatic “yes – we believe”.
But hold the phone sports fan. Before you go saying we “shoulda, coulda” beat LSU… let’s take a collective breath and examine what we know:
Going into Kyle field with the pomp and pageantry that is college football is no easy feat. Just ask bama. After being defeated at home in 2012 by A&M 24-29 in a stunner, this year it came to Kyle field and held off A&M 49-42.
I wasn’t at the game… but man, did that place look awesome. They have good fans. And there is a reason they are called the home of the “twelfth man”. An intimidating venue comes to mind. Auburn was a fourteen point underdog on Saturday. The official line settled at twelve point five.
Texas A&M Aggies were fifth in passing, 27th in rushing, fourth in points, and 104th in defense points against. Auburn on the other hand was 97th in passing, eighth in rushing, 31st in points, and 32nd in defense points against. One thing is for certain… Auburn isn’t where it needs to be. But it sure isn’t where it was last year either. And that is saying something.
Building on that thought, no one knows the mindset of players or programs when you watch it on T.V. But my impression was that A&M expect Auburn to be the same team it was last year. Even Johnny Football expected it to be 63-21 and the fans to leave. But that wasn’t to be in 2013. The program the Aggies faced in 2012 had been erased. Chizik’s failures as a head coach were not to be repeated by Gus Malzahn and his staff, at least not yet anyway. It started in the weight room as soon as the 2012 season was over in conditioning. It continued in recruiting and spring football. And it started to manifest itself in fall camp. In the South Eastern Conference you have to be able to bring your best game, week in and week out.
Auburn’s game plan was simple. Run the ball. And that is exactly what Auburn did. They ran left, right and up the middle all day long. Auburn had a total of 379 yards on the ground. And let’s make this clear… A&M couldn’t stop them. There was a reason A&M is 104th in the Nation for its defense in points allowed. Tre Mason led the team with a total of 178 yards. Nick Marshall had 100 yards of his own. This was rounded out with Corey Grant with 45 yards, Ricardo Louis with 30 yards, and Cameron Artis-Payne with 28 yards.
Texas A&M took the opening kickoff and drove down the field and scored in a six play, 67 yard drive taking 1:41 seconds. A&M kicked the ball back to Auburn and Quan Bray took the ball and scampered out of the end zone and was promptly met with a tackle that could be heard around Kyle field giving Auburn terrible field position starting its opening drive at the AU 14 yard line. But Bray, just like the entire program got back off the turf and dusted his uniform and went to work. Auburn took ten plays and 86 yards and in 3:06 answered with a touchdown of their own. And that is how the day went: back and forth.
And there was some strategy going on too. Second year head coach Kevin Sumlin is an offensive mastermind in his own right. Make no doubt, he is a good coach in a league of good coaches. He still played conservatively on his home field. His game plan was built around forcing the opposing team to make difficult tackles in space. And his best player, Johnny “football” Manziel, whose is best described as a chaotic, winding runner that can make even the most disciplined defender lose sight of his assignment. The only risk I thought A&M took was at the end of the 3rd Quarter when he faked a field goal and got the first down to keep the drive alive. A&M ultimately ended that drive with a field goal instead of a touchdown. That could have been one of the turning points in the game.
Coach Malzahn as we stated already had the primary plan of running the ball which it did very effectively. Still, Malzahn’s philosophy was to attack and attack again. But sadly there is a reason AU is ranked 97th in passing… namely because our primary quarterback is a re-tread defensive back but also because our receivers are not yet where they need to be in order to win the conference championship. At the end of the 2nd Quarter and right before the half AU took two shots with Sammie Coates down the field while on the Auburn 4 yard line. The first pass should have been a touchdown if it had not been a knuckle ball and behind the receiver. It was a terrible pass by Nick Marshall who went 11 of 23 for 236 yards. The second pass was on the money, and couldn’t have been better thrown, hit Coates in the hands and would have given AU great field position or even a touchdown. But mainly it would have kept the drive alive and kept the ball away from Johnny Football who on AU’s punt took the ball down and scored the go ahead TD that put A&M up 24 -17.
Auburn got the ball to start the third Quarter and came out and established a drive to tie the game. Yet Auburn’s nemesis on this day was not only Johnny football… but A&M’s primary receiver, Mark Evans who romped on our secondary at will with 11 receptions for an amazing 287 yards. A&M answered to go back up 31-24. Again, the back and forth continued, yet amazingly in the 3d Quarter AU’s offense stalled. And thankfully A&M’s did too.
Remember I talked about AU dusting itself off on the opening kickoff? Auburn was absolutely the more physical team on Saturday. While AU pounded the ball on offense, the defense while porous against the passing into space to the tune of 469 yards was able to force A&M to try to shift to a running game in order to stop the pressure AU’s front four were applying to Manziel. Yet Auburn allowed only 133 yards in running and effectively shut down A&M’s running game. AU’s defense applied hit after brutal hit on receivers and the quarterback. And by the fourth Quarter, the once spry Johnny football wasn’t smiling anymore. This is where the trickeration by Sumlin resulted in keeping the drive alive at the AU 8 yard line. Unfortunately for Sumlin, this change in philosophy had a cost for A&M too.
Johnny football or perhaps more aptly named Johnny ‘drama queen’, after trying to re-take the lead at the beginning of the fourth Quarter scrambled out of the back field and finally, after many attempts AU defensive lineman Ladarious Owens provided the hit that proved Johnny football was human after all. If you have noticed the cameras during any game A&M has played this season, they are always on the Heisman trophy winner… it was quick to see him getting up out of the pile that he wasn’t feeling well. He immediately grabbed his shoulder. And that’s when the CBS announcers started lamenting the effects this would have on the game. A&M was able to get only a field goal. Bringing the score to 34-24.
A&M was without Johnny football for a complete drive. And it was the turning point of the game. AU at that point was down by 10 points. AU quickly mounted a drive and scored another TD effectively reducing the lead to 3 points again. A&M punted its next drive. And suddenly AU got the ball again. And again drove the length of the field and scored the go ahead points to make the game 38-34. That was a fourteen point shift (amazingly the point spread predicted by the Vegas insiders! Coincidence??).
Johnny football during his time on the sidelines was shielded from cameras. He kept working his arm. When he finally tried to pick up the ball… it was immediate obvious he couldn’t throw because again, being a junior champion lip reader I thought I saw him say “this isn’t happening”. What happened under Kyle field?? One second he can’t throw… and then a few minutes later as AU was going up by 4 he can throw again? Someone needs to do a drug test on that boy! I think he was getting performance enhancing drugs. Because during A&M’s next possession Johnny came out and promptly drove A&M down the field to retake the lead 41-38.
At that point AU got the football back with 5:05 minutes on the clock. Marshall does what he does… efficiently drove AU’s running game down the field taking valuable seconds off the clock. AU did get into a 3 and 9 yard play on the A&M’s 39. Even the announcers said it was evident that this would be AU’s last drive. Amazingly Nick Marshall goes back and throws a 27 yard strike to Marcus Davis to the A&M 12 yard line giving AU a new set of downs. Nick was able to get it done… it wasn’t pretty. But he was able to put AU where it needed to be in order to win the game. Auburn’s running game did the rest. And perhaps it did it too well. It gave the football back to Johnny Manziel with 1:19 on the clock.
AU kicked the ball back. And Johnny football, still clutching his shoulder for effect, passed the ball down the field as if nothing was wrong. Playing for the cameras perhaps? It’s unknown. As usual when AU was able to get pressure on him, he does what he always does and scrambles making a negative play a positive one. Still, drama surrounds Johnny Manziel. During the one of these scrambles Kris Frost pursued and over took Manziel. Frost grabbed Manziel by the shoulder pads… if I were a lip reader… I would swear Johnny football said “are you freaking kidding me?” insinuating that Frost had “horse collared” tackled him which would have resulted in a penalty against AU. Yet no flag was dropped. Immediately the CBS announcers, which shall go unnamed because of my contempt, began to debate the issue. At that point there was about 28 seconds left on the clock. And then the sack by Dee Ford for a 22 yard loss on 4th down that would put an exclamation point on the game.
The win makes AU 6-1 on the season, 3-1 in SEC play. Auburn’s remaining games are to Florida Atlantic, at Arkansas, at Tennessee, and then home again for Georgia and bama.
It was the post game interviews that I found the most revealing. Auburn legendary quarterback Dameyune Craig, now AU’s receiver coach/Co-offensive coordinator, stated that the kids believed in Malzhan. He told them the game plan and it played out before their eyes. He said the blue collar work ethic of Malzhan’s motto is to improve each week. And so far, I think its working. If AU stays healthy and focuses on each game as it’s played… I think AU will be competitive for the rest of the season.
Looking at Auburn’s remaining SEC competition…
Arkansas is just terrible. 0-4 in the SEC, Bret Bielema must be kicking himself for his words about “beating bama”. Last night Arkansas was blown out by bama 52-0 in Tuscaloosa. Still, Auburn has to travel to Fayetteville to play where AU has a terrible record… and because of that this game isn’t a “gimme”.
Tennessee, who plays bama next weekend, knocked off Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks at home. Their coach, Butch Jones, is talented. He got his first signature win something Derrick Dooley couldn’t do. He inherited a program in decent shape which is something that Bielema can’t say he inherited from John L. Smith (or Bobby Petrino). This game isn’t a “gimme”.
UGA is at home for the second year in a row. We all saw a depleted UGA team that got blanked in the 4th Quarter by a resilient Vandy team. We know Richt will have the dogs ready for Auburn regardless of their record. This game isn’t a “gimme”.
And that leaves the 1000 pound elephant in the room… bama. While beatable, bama’s team is, how does one say; very impressive. They are deep in every position. They are relentless. And it will take an Auburn team firing on all cylinders to have a chance against it.
After a mediocre season in 2011, followed by a terrible, debilitating season in 2012, AU football program has perhaps turned the corner. Auburn’s players learned from their loss at LSU. Perhaps that loss will do more for Auburn than any other good fortune this season. Namely because it keeps them humble.
AU will undoubtedly rise in the polls after its win this weekend, perhaps to just outside the top ten. But don’t let the success fool you. AU has a long way to go. If the team believes in its coach, keeps his philosophy of getting better every game… it may have a chance to finish the season in an amazing turn-around and surprise people. But buying tickets to the SEC championship is still very premature. Let’s take it one game at a time! But if things continue to happen to the unbeatens like it did this weekend… you might want to keep that date on your calendar! AU controls its own destiny! As a fan, what more could we ask for?