War Eagle, everybody! Time now to begin previewing Auburn’s upcoming opponents for the 2009 football season. On September 5th, the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs will visit Jordan Hare Stadium, and the Gene Chizik era will officially begin. Last season, the Bulldogs opened the season by hosting Mississippi State, and pulled off a stunning 22-14 upset. Head Coach Derek Dooley, Vince Dooley’s son, would like nothing more than to knock off another SEC team, to start this year.
Last season, Dooley’s Bulldogs had a rough start, but rebounded to finish the regular season at 7-5. With a winning record, La Tech was able to replace Alabama as the host of the Petro Sun Independence Bowl, and the Bulldogs knocked off Northern Illinois 17-10 in that game, their first bowl win since the 1970s. Early on, the Bulldogs had trouble throwing the ball, and took several poundings, including a 29-0 loss to Kansas, and a 38-3 pasting by Boise State. A dismal 14-7 road loss at Army prompted a quarterback change. The next week at home against Fresno State, Ross Jenkins delivered, and the Bulldogs stunned Fresno 38-35. The rest of the season, Tech averaged 34 points per game.
On offense, Louisiana Tech is coordinated by Frank Scelfo, formerly of Tulane. Scelfo was part of Tommy Bowden’s undefeated run at Tulane in the 1990s, and has coached a string of future NFL’ers, such as Patrick Ramsey, J. P. Losman, and Shaun King. Tech runs a pro-style multiple offense, with the emphasis on the running game, and a sprinkling of big-play passing, about a 60/40 ratio. Like many teams, Tech will motion a wide receiver in behind the QB. Unlike most, the receiver will often get the handoff. Wideout Phillip Livas took 30 such handoffs last season, and averaged 11.2 yards per carry! All five O-line starters return, this year. Tech was dangerous running the ball last year, but the passing game was spotty. While Jenkins solidified the Tech offense late in the season, he was still only a 52 percent passer.
This spring, Tech worked extensively on its passing game, but had to do it without Jenkins, who was recovering from off-season surgery. While Jenkins will be fine, the star of the spring game was none other than former Auburn quarterback, Steven Ensminger, who connected on a 65 yard TD pass, and was 8-11. Jenkins figures to start, in September.
Defensively, La Tech is coordinated by Tommy Spangler, a player on Georgia’s 1980 national championship team. Spangler’s defenses have put a premium on stopping the run. Last season, though, Tech’s corners were exploited frequently by speedy WAC receivers. The Bulldogs gave up 272 passing yards per game, with a 60 percent completion percentage, and a 7.5 yards per pass average. By comparison, Auburn, in a season of soft cushion zone, and lots of opponent big plays, only gave up 5.8 yards per pass. This season, to make matters worse, the Bulldogs have to replace two starting linebackers, and both corners.
On special teams, Dooley’s past two teams have been dangerous. They ranked in the top 25 nationally, in all 4 major statistical categories, and have back guys that returned 4 kicks for touchdowns. Gone, however, are their starting kicker and punter.
Auburn defensive line vs. La Tech offensive line: This will likely be the key to the game. The Bulldogs return all 5 starters, led by All-WAC left tackle, junior Rob McGill. The line averages 298 pounds per man, with the bulk of the beef represented by 310 pound tackles McGill, and Cudahy Harmon. Auburn’s line is the strength of the defense, and led by senior end Antonio Coleman, it’s an athletic bunch. Auburn will have at least six capable guys in the playing rotation, and on a hot early September game, that will be important. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. La Tech runners: Tech returns All-WAC senior running back Daniel Porter, a 190 pound speedster who racked up 1164 yards and nine touchdowns last year. Myke Compton and Allen Gilbert round out the depth chart, and have limited experience. At fullback, a new starter must be found, and junior Roosevelt Falls seems to be the current leader. Instead of a fullback, Tech will often use multiple tight ends. Auburn returns an athletic, but underachieving unit at linebacker, with returning starters Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens. Even though the Tigers are young here, the athleticism should cancel out Porter. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. La Tech receivers: Auburn came out of spring surprisingly strongly. Senior Walter McFadden, Auburn’s most consistent cover corner last year, has a chance to be a serious lock-down player, this season. Talented sophomore Neiko Thorpe has claimed the other starting position, and Auburn has depth behind them. Tech returns a serious big-time threat in junior Phillip “Saturday Night” Livas. Livas led the team with 43 receptions for 607 yards, AND rushed for 337 more. Livas has caught a pass in 23 straight games. While Livas requires extra attention, Tech lost their best possession receiver, and best blocking receiver, to graduation. A pair of 6’3” sophomores, R. P. Stuart and Cruz Williams will step in. In the slot, Houston Tuminello and Eric Fiege hope to break out. If Auburn can handle Livas, Tech will have to try to get the ball to the younger guys, against one of Auburn’s strengths. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. La Tech secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s troubles at safety were well documented last season, and both starters (Etheridge and McNeil) missed time this spring, as did top back up Mike Slade. Here’s hoping, in a more traditional Tampa-2 look, that Auburn’s athletic deep guys will be in better position to make plays. Tech is young at the slot receiver position, but has a pair of veteran senior tight ends in Dennis Morris and Dustin Mitchell. These are sizable guys, adept at blocking, in the 260-pound range. Tech hopes to get more receiving production, this year. The two combined for only 14 catches in 2008. Quarterback Ross Jenkins returns, but outside of Livas, he’ll be throwing to younger receivers this year. By the numbers, Jenkins was 92 of 174 for 1155 yards last season, with 7 Tds and 3 ints. That translates to an “ok” 6.6 yards per pass, with twice as many touchdowns as interceptions. As a runner, Jenkins averaged only 0.9 yards a carry, with a long of 19 yards. Tech gave up only 25 sacks in 13 games, last season. Assuming that McNeil and Etheridge get healthy for the opener, it’s Advantage: Even.
Punting: Auburn returns Clinton Durst, who specialized last season in towering howitzers! Durst averaged 42.1 yards per kick, and the Auburn coverage unit held opponents to 7.0 yards per return. Auburn’s still undecided on who will return punts, although the lead might be with Quindarious Carr, who did not drop a punt at A-Day. Tech replaces their punter, and the likely new starter is redshirt freshman Cade Glasgow, who’s never launched a college punt. Tech held opponents to six yards per return. Phillip Livas returns punts for the Bulldogs, and he averaged a whopping 15.3 yards per, with two taken for touchdowns. The headliner matchup here is Durst vs. Livas, with a supporting cast of unknowns. Advantage: Even.
Kickoffs: The bane of every team’s existence, since the move to the 30 yard line a year ago, kickoffs have become important plays in terms of field position. Auburn junior Wes Byrum showed a decent leg in spring drills, planting high kickoffs inside the 5, an average of over 65 yards. Last season, Byrum averaged 64.7, with 1 touchback and 3 out of bounds. Returning kicks for Auburn likely will be Mario Fannin, and newcomer Onterio McCaleb. Fannin managed 22.5 yards per return, in limited work, last season. Auburn gave up 21.5 yards per return in 2008. La Tech will be operating with a new kicker this year: Arkansas transfer, senior Joel Hall. Returning kicks for the Bulldogs will be the ever-dangerous Phillip Livas, who last season fielded 32 kicks for a 25.8 yard average, with one touchdown. The Bulldogs gave up only 18.1 yards per return. Slight Advantage, Tech, on Livas and better coverage.
Auburn offensive line vs. La Tech defensive line: This will be another key battle. Auburn fields a veteran line, led by junior center Ryan Pugh, and junior left tackle Lee Ziemba. It’s a bulky, strong line, averaging well over 300 pounds per man. La Tech’s D-line, coached by former Auburn Tiger Jimmy Brumbaugh, is the strength of the team. Led by All-WAC tackle D’Anthony “Boo” Smith, it’s a tough line that returns all of its starters and key backups. Smith led the team with 8 tackles for loss, and 5 sacks, last season, and had 65 total tackles. At end, Tech rotates four different guys, sophomores Matt Broha, Jared Barron, and Christian Lacey, and senior Kwame Jordan. This was a young unit a year ago, that got better and better. Auburn MUST at least play this to a stalemate, or else it will be miserable start to the new Malzhan offensive era. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. La Tech linebackers: Auburn is dangerous at running back, with veterans Ben Tate and Mario Fannin. Both are fast. Tate’s a basher, and Fannin is elusive, and is up to the 230 pound range. Newcomer Onterio McCaleb made a big impact during the spring, too. Auburn’s a little less settled at lead blocker/H-back, but both John Douglas and Fannin made plays, there, too, in the spring. La Tech loses two of their top three linebackers to graduation. The third, Brian White, only played 5 games last year, and he’s still trying to come back from quadriceps surgery. Various replacement contenders do have some starts, but linebacker may well be the weakest position on the team, this year. That’s not good, against Auburn’s veteran backfield, and the pressure the Malzhan offense will put on young linebackers. Big Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. La Tech corners: This matchup features units that underachieved for both teams, last year. Auburn’s guys had difficulty getting open, and even more trouble catching the ball, last season. This spring, Tim Hawthorne has made a move to the top, and youngsters Quindarious Carr and Darvin Adams had good moments in the A-Day game. Look for signee DeAngelo Benton to make an immediate impact, as well. For Tech, last season was troubling. Much of the 272 yards passing given up per game, was on the corners. And, both guys graduated. The 2009 group figures to be even more vulnerable, with Terry Carter being the most experienced guy, with 4 career starts. There’s only one other career start with the other guys. The Bulldogs are looking for immediate help from junior college transfer Olajuwan Page. Bad news for Tech, the spring game was a parade of TD passes from backup quarterbacks. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. La Tech safeties: Auburn still does not have a starting quarterback named, but either Burns or Caudle had best be careful in the opener. Auburn should have enough defense, and playmakers to win the game. The quarterback will be expected to take care of the ball, and not have turnovers. La Tech beat Mississippi State last season, on turnovers. Auburn’s tight ends and slot receivers will be a problem for Tech to cover, especially Tommy Trott, Terrell Zachary and Mario Fannin. Tech is pretty salty at the safety positions, though. Seniors Antonio Baker (two-time All WAC) and Deon Young are three-year starters. In addition, at nickel, the Bulldogs can plug in junior Tarance Calais, who’s also experienced. Expect the safeties to have to make a lot of tackles, as the Malzhan running game specializes in getting linebackers out of position, with tempo, motion and shifts. Due to Auburn’s lack at quarterback, it’s Advantage: Even.
For Auburn, the key to this game on defense will be to limit Phillip Livas, and stop the run. On special teams, Livas also must be contained. On offense, Auburn must generate a running game, and exploit young linebackers and corners. I suspect Auburn will be at their healthiest of the season, early, and the defense will be WAY too much for the Tech offense. Offensively, we’ll still be finding our way. It will be interesting to see if Malzhan’s offense clicks right out of the gate. If so, the final score can be as ugly as Auburn wants to make it. If we don’t take care of the ball, this game could be close.
Prediction: The offense does sputter, but comes up with enough big plays to put this game out of reach early. With a fast 14-0 start, Auburn cruises to a 31-10 win.