This blocked field goal was one of the few highlights of the day. (Images courtesy of my brother’s i-phone. I know I can always count on my great family! Thanks for bailing me out!)
War Eagle, everybody. It’s time now for the Acid Reign report, on Auburn’s 24-7 loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks. It’s another gloomy Sunday, picking through the wreckage. While there’s plenty of blame for this stinker to go around for the whole team, the largest share goes to offensive play-calling. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Auburn coordinator as determined to avoid a team’s strengths as this one. After five games, I think it’s pretty clear that Mr. Loeffler’s not going to change his approach, either. He’s got his prepared script of plays, and he’s going to run them regardless what’s actually happening on the field.
There has been talk about head coach Gene Chizik meddling with his assistants this year and last. In this case, I think he has no choice. The ship is going down on offense, and it’s time to stop rearranging the deck chairs, and seal off some bulkheads. Needless to say, the play-calling was even poorer in this game than earlier in the season. We have an all-American fullback who transferred to Auburn from Illinois, and he spent at least 80 percent of our offensive snaps on the bench. Despite having three running backs that are all averaging over five yards per carry, Auburn had just 21 handoffs to the running backs in this one. We’ve got an offense struggling to throw the ball, and manage only 21 rushing attempts. In addition, with all of the speed we’ve got in the backfield, only three of those carries were to the wide side of the field, with room to work. Folks, that’s beyond inexplicable.
The biggest factor in the failure of the passing game was inaccurate throws. Khiel Frazier continues to sail passes that are ten yards or more overthrown. He had a couple of bad balls hauled in anyway, thanks to athletic plays by Emory Blake and others. The coaches switched quarterbacks and brought in Clint Moseley after the half. I felt bad for Moseley, because his first drive started with a false start, then on his 2nd down pass attempt, he had about a half a second in the pocket before he was flattened by defensive end Trey Flowers, who wasn’t even touched by the offensive line. After that big hit, Moseley’s throws were even more inaccurate than Frazier’s, and had little zip.
Quote of the day from the ESPN-2 announcers came from Beth Mowins, who exclaimed, “It’s Sack City on the Plains!” And yes, it was. Auburn had passing plays called 44 times on the day. Once, Khiel Frazier took off up the gut for a big gain. And then there were eight sacks. The majority of that blame goes to the offensive line, specifically Patrick Miller on the right side. I don’t know what former starter Avery Young did to get benched, but wow do we need him back! Miller plays hard, but he’s very undersized for an SEC tackle, and looks more like a middle linebacker than an offensive lineman. For a complete breakdown on every sack, and what caused them, I refer you to Aaron Brenner’s great piece in the Columbus paper. Yes, the quarterbacks tended to hold the ball too long, and to run backwards under pressure. That contributed also.
Before the season, I think we would have all been happy about holding Arkansas to 24 points. After the Razorbacks’ disastrous start to the season, it doesn’t look so good. The thing that bothered me the most was that frequently Arkansas was already running their offensive play, while Auburn was still trying to get lined up. The secondary was particularly confused, often leaving receivers out there with no defender. That might have been a factor of starters Chris Davis and T’Sharvan Bell not being in the game after the first quarter. Also, Auburn was still vulnerable to being run over in the linebacker corps. The Tigers were unable to pressure Tyler Wilson much, and opted for a lot of fake blitzes, and just trying to cover everyone. Wilson has a great combination of mobility and a quick release, and he’s difficult to defend. Arkansas wide receivers were pretty well limited, but Auburn had no ability whatsoever to handle tight ends and backs out in the flat. That dump off pass was there all day long.
Auburn’s usually great special teams had some struggles in this game. Cody Parkey missed his first field goal of the season, though it would have been a career long one. We allowed a couple of punts to hit and roll for big yardage. The worst mistake was when Onterio McCalebb dropped a kickoff in the endzone, fumbling it forward out to the seven yard line. Auburn got it back, but had to start that drive from the seven. Steven Clark’s punting was mostly effective, as he parked three of six inside the Arkansas 20, and allowed zero return yards. Although he let a couple of punts roll, Trovon Reed didn’t do too badly, returning two punts for 25 yards and fair catching one at the ten that would have likely been coffin cornered otherwise. The lick of the day came on special teams, as Joshua Holsey laid a good one on a late punt return. The impact of the hit on an unsuspecting Arkansas gunner completely flipped the man over on his back, and drew a collective “ooooo!” from the sparse remaining crowd.
In addition to forgetting my camera, I parroted meteorologist James Spann’s “mostly cloudy” forecast on the open thread. That was a bust, too, as the Auburn faithful baked in the bright sunshine, and I do have the sunburn to prove it!
Unit Grades, after the jump!
Defensive Line: C-. Against a team struggling to run the ball, Auburn gave up 116 yards rushing, and generated only one sack. Arkansas’ much-maligned tackles did a good job of handling Auburn’s dangerous ends. Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford combined for just three solo tackles and two quarterback hurries. Blackson and Whitaker in the middle had three total tackles, a fumble forced, and a half a tackle for a loss. The Arkansas strategy of quick passes and plays in the flat really took this unit out of the game.
Linebackers: C-. The linebackers were just OK against the run, but pretty poor in pass coverage. Darren Bates did record the only sack of the game. Justin Garrett played a good many minutes and picked up 4 tackles and a forced fumble. I don’t think the Tigers have realized that the fullback or tight end can legally receive a forward pass. Fullback Austin Tate caught four dump-offs, and no Auburn defender was in the same zip code on any of them.
Secondary: B+. Despite troubles lining up, and missing two starters much of the game, Auburn limited the talented Razorback receiving corps pretty well, for the most part. Cobi Hamilton had seven catches, but only 86 yards on those. Arkansas had only one touchdown pass, and it was on a tricky fake reverse, double pass from backup Brandon Mitchell. True freshman corner Joshua Holsey was burned on the play, having read run, and letting his man get behind him. Holsey was credited with a pass breakup, after he jumped in front of a slant pass and should have had a pick six. Safety Jermaine Whitehead had two knockdowns on throws over the middle. The secondary is still making too many tackles. Arkansas had only 22 completed passes that weren’t touchdowns, but the Auburn secondary came up with 34 tackles.
Punting: B+. Steven Clark pinned the Razorbacks inside their 20 three times vs. one touchback, but only had a 37.7 yard average. Most of these punts landed closer to the 20 than to the goal line. Clark’s average was particularly hurt on one punt, where he dropped a punt snap that hit him in the chest. Somehow, Clark quickly picked up the ball, and managed to kick the ball right through two defenders who were all over him, for 31 yards. Clark’s best effort of the day was a towering 41 yard rainmaker that Arkansas return man Keante Minor mishandled, giving Auburn the ball back at the Razorback 39. Of course, Auburn quickly overthrew Blake, got a substitution infraction, a bad pass incomplete, and a sack.
Punt Returns: B. Trovon Reed fielded only two of Dylan Breeding’s monster punts on the fly, and picked up a third hopping ball late in the game. Breeding did a great job of getting distance, and playing keep away. Reed wisely fair caught one at the ten, and picked up 25 yards on his two returns. Auburn was just a shade away from blocking two punts, also.
Kick Returns: D. I counted a letter grade off for Onterio McCalebb’s fumble and recovery at the seven yard line on a play that should have resulted in a knee in the end zone. Arkansas kicked two returnable balls, and Auburn managed only 19 yards per return.
Place-kicking: A-. I can’t count off much for a missed 49-yarder. NFL kickers routinely miss those. Parkey was pretty much rendered a non-factor due to the ineptitude of the offense. He kicked off twice and both of those balls landed in the stands, denying dangerous return man Dennis Johnson a chance.
Offensive Line: F. Tackle Patrick Miller’s struggles are already mentioned above, but he was just one symptom on a line that played without fire and purpose. Arkansas has been pushed around up front by every team they’ve played this year, including Jacksonville State. Auburn pretty much failed to generate any push in the running game, and had pass protection mistakes by several guys. It looks bad when a linebacker fires through the middle untouched, and you have a guard and a center standing around with no one to block. Reese Dismukes was called for an illegal snap, and Greg Robinson had a false start. I’d say that the lone bright spot here was Robinson. Aside from his penalty, he was able to handle his man. But one man does not an offensive line make…
Running Backs: C+. I counted a letter grade off for Mike Blakely’s lost fumble. It came at a critical time, as Auburn was trying to battle back from a 17-7 deficit early in the 4th quarter. Blitz pickup was pretty poor, too, although I question a scheme that has McCalebb trying to chip a defensive end. That was Loeffler’s solution to our woes on the right side of the line. Sit our All-American fullback down, and have our lightest running back try to block defensive linemen. Our backs actually ran well in this game, when given a chance. Despite being run to the short side of the field or up the middle, the running game actually averaged 4.6 yards per carry in this game, which would have knocked out first downs, if our offensive brain trust had called more runs. After consistently looking like Auburn’s most complete back, HOW does Tre Mason only get six carries?
Receivers: B-. I counted off a letter grade for Emory Blake’s lost fumble. A senior should not fumble on a curl route. You know you’re going to get hit when you go down eight yards, and turn back to the quarterback. It’s pretty much a given. I also fault some route-running errors for contributing to Auburn’s quarterback woes. I never thought I’d see Phillip Lutzenkircken get out-wrestled for a jump ball, but it happened in this game. In the occasional running game, Lutzenkirchen had his best day of the year as a blocker. There were a lot of wildly thrown balls in this game, and the receivers actually did a pretty good job overall corralling these things. I thought a lot of the less-used receivers did a good job of coming in and getting open.
Quarterback: F. There were so many things done poorly at this position that it’s impossible to include it all in a paragraph. It’s shocking to me that Auburn does not have a quarterback on the roster that can throw a deep ball accurately. You know, if Zeke Pike had not been sent home last summer, he might well be a successful Auburn starter at this point. On the other hand, look who’d be coaching him… Auburn lost 80 yards on 8 sacks, and over half of it was because the quarterback ran backwards when the protection broke down. Quarterbacks must be coached to cut their losses in that situation. One should never take a sack on a first down pass attempt. Throw that ball out of bounds.
We’ve picked out offensive scheming errors here on TrackEmTigers.com before, and really to go all through it here again is just harping. I’ll add just one thought to my mounting list of criticisms. Why not utilize players to their strengths? I can cite numerous examples of not doing this. It starts with having Onterio McCalebb as a pass blocker. We’ve got an All-American fullback, and two bigger tailbacks. There was a tendency in this game on 3rd and long to pull Sammie Coates, Jaylon Denson and even Emory Blake out of the game, and go with all smaller receivers. Why? The only chance to get a first down is to throw it up downfield, and you need the bigger receivers who can go up and get it! Either that, or to block for the draw play. I’ve certainly mentioned this many times, but why do we try to run the ball with no tight ends or fullbacks in the game? There was a late decision by Clint Moseley to try and throw a post pattern over the middle to tight end Brandon Fulse. Fulse was actually open, but Moseley sailed the ball over his head for an interception. We’ve got possibly the best hands Auburn’s ever had at tight end in Phillip Lutzenkircken, but we have yet to try that play with him. Instead, we try it with the great blocking tight end with a reputation for dropping balls.
Finally, on Auburn’s last interception, we tried the old Airraid staple, the smash-corner route. There were so many things wrong with the execution of this play that it’s hard to list them all. First, it’s not really a great red zone play. There’s not a lot of field to work with close to the goal line. The gist of that play is to run a slant or a quick stop route with the outside receiver, to draw the cornerback in. The slot receiver runs a corner route behind it, creating a mismatch against a safety. This thing is supposed to produce home-run balls from the middle of the field, isolating a speedy slot receiver on a safety. You know, someone like Trovon Reed or Travante Stallworth. Or heck. We certainly lined Onterio McCalebb up as a wide receiver enough this game. (With no intention to throw it to him.) Auburn’s answer was to take our slowest receiver on the field, Phillip Lutzenkirchen, and run him out of the slot to the corner. The play still had a chance to work, but Clint Moseley wounded the call further by locking in on Lutzenkirchen before the ball was even snapped, and he kept his head that way the whole time. The quarterback has to sell the slant, possibly with a pump fake. Lutzenkirchen actually got behind the safety, but Moseley waited to throw the ball, and when he did, he underthrew it, forcing Lutzenkirchen to try and reach back over the defenders shoulders to get the ball. As has become typical of the Scot Loeffler offense, it was the wrong play call, run to the wrong receiver, telegraphed to the defense before the snap, with a bad throw.
Where does this team go from here? Performances like this one will not beat an SEC team, and we’ll likely struggle with New Mexico State and Alabama A&M with this level of play. Folks keep mentioning coach Chizik’s seven million dollar buyout, but it’s hard to see a three win season being tolerated with the level of talent on this football team. The last Auburn head coach to return after a three win season was Doug Barfield, and that 3-8 season in 1976 was his first. Barfield did beat Ole Miss and Tennessee that year. I find it hard to cut that much slack for an Auburn head coach in his 4th season.
Auburn heads to Oxford Mississippi for another crack-of-dawn matchup. This week, I know the Ole Miss Rebels are looking for a good home win. If Auburn turns it over five times, they’ll surely give the folks in the Grove the party they want. Auburn entered the Arkansas game averaging a turnover every 20 plays. In the game, Auburn generated one every 13 plays. Things are definitely trending in the wrong direction, and it’s up to our highly paid coaching staff to figure it out, and get it fixed. I don’t mind saying that this native is very restless.