A Tale of Two Halves.
A look back at the first half of Auburn’s 2013 Football Season.
(Photo by Acid Reign)
War Eagle, everybody! It’s bowl season again, beginning this weekend. Auburn Tiger fans have been living the dream since mid-October, and will be celebrating all through the holiday season! Today, I’m going to take a look back at the first half of the season. Yes, this year began hopefully, with the hires of a number of quality assistant coaches. Still, I think most fans were only cautiously optimistic, after last season’s disintegration.
As in any season, there were questions coming in. Auburn had some big ones, this fall. The largest obstacle was handling adversity. When things went against the Tigers in 2012, games got out of hand quickly. Could the 2013 Tigers handle failure at times, and not unravel? As far as position groups, folks wondered if Auburn had any SEC-quality linebackers, or quarterbacks. I’ll be honest. After analyzing A-Day, I figured Auburn had enough talent, if it kept fighting, to return to a bowl game. Anything more was going to be gravy. My preseason predictions had us finishing at 9-3, which was wildly optimistic.
Before the season even started on Labor Day weekend against Washington State, the Tigers had already suffered more attrition. Leading returning tackler Demetruce McNeal was gone, as was promising tight-end/h-back Ricky Parks. Fall camp had been pretty brutal, and there were folks missing for the opener. Dee Ford was one of those, as was star Justin Garrett, the defensive MVP of spring ball. I think the most worrying thing to me, though, was that Auburn was going to come out of the gate with a JUCO quarterback that had not been through spring drills. Could he possibly keep pace with Washington State’s Airraid offense?
Mike Leach’s folks came out gunning it. Connor Halliday slung 65 passes, and led a Cougar offense that put up 464 yards in Jordan Hare Stadium. Auburn’s passing attack sputtered, but a three headed rushing attack was enough to keep pace. Auburn ran around and through the Cougars for 295 rushing yards, and Nick Marshall was careful enough with the ball that Auburn kept the pressure on. The Auburn defense surrendered yards, but 3 crucial interceptions, 2 by Robensen Therezie held Washington State off. Auburn topped the Cougars, 31-24. Washington State see-sawed through the rest of the season to finish 6-6, and they’ll kick off the bowl season this Saturday afternoon in the New Mexico Bowl against Colorado State.
Undefeated, defending Sun Belt champion Arkansas State was next. This was the team that Gus Malzhan had coached last season, and most figured that there would be a chip on Red Wolf shoulders. Bryan Harsin’s “Boise Lite” offense roared up the field between the 20 yard lines, but stalled in the red zone repeatedly. Red Wolf quarterback Adam Kennedy had a big day throwing and running, but all Arkansas State could manage against Auburn was 3 field goals. Arkansas State did a better job on the edge containing Auburn’s speed sweeps, but was pounded between the tackles by Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne, who both topped 100 yards rushing. Auburn whacked Arkansas State 38-9. The Red Wolves went on to finish 7-5, and are in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile on the January 5th against Ball State. And Harsin has returned to Boise, and there’s no telling who’ll be coaching in that game.
Auburn opened SEC play hosting Mississippi State. The Bulldogs had suffered a disappointing season opening loss to Oklahoma State, 21-3, and I think Auburn folks were looking for some payback for last year’s shelling in Starkville. Auburn jumped on the Bulldogs early for an 11-0 lead in the first quarter, but had problems for much of the game. The Auburn defense had a lot of trouble with young Bulldog quarterback Dak Prescott, who passed for 213 and ran for 133 more. Auburn’s early lead evaporated under a 20-6 Bulldog scoring run, and Auburn trailed for much of the second half. The Tigers got the ball back trailing 17-20, one last time with 1:56 left in the game. Bulldogs played prevent defense, and Nick Marshall picked them apart with short throws. As the clock wound down, Marshall hit C. J. Uzomah with an 11 yard scoring strike, and Auburn took the game, 24-20. Mississippi State would struggle in 2013, but a dramatic overtime win over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl pulled them to a 6-6 record. The Bulldogs will play Rice in the Liberty Bowl on New Year’s Eve afternoon.
So at the one-quarter mark of the season, Auburn was 3-0, but there was still skepticism. They had eeeked by mediocre Washington State and Mississippi State teams, and beat the Sun Belt team about like a middle-of-the-pack SEC squad should. There was still no hint of what was to come as the leaves turned in this state!
The trip to play number 6 ranked LSU was Auburn’s first serious test of the year, played in a monsoon rainstorm in Baton Rouge. Auburn struggled mightily in the first half. A Nick Marshall fumble set up an easy LSU score, then a Steven Clark muff of a punt snap set up another. Auburn trailed 21-0 at the half, and Auburn folks were wondering if yet another epic beatdown was coming on the bayou. An onside kick failed, but LSU threw it right back to Jermaine Whitehead quickly. The Tigers drove for a Tre Mason score, and served notice that Auburn would not go quietly. When Cody Parkey attempted an onside kick with 6:32 left in the game, Auburn trailed 21-35. A blind guess by the referees as to the spot robbed Parkey of the recovery, and LSU was able to hang on. Later on, LSU lost a barn burner to Georgia, suffered an amazing upset at Ole Miss, and was beaten down by a superior Alabama squad. The LSU Tigers finished 9-3, and will play on New Year’s Day in the Outback Bowl, against Iowa.
The Auburn Tigers returned home to face the 24th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels, and folks were expecting another struggle. The Tigers did struggle in the passing game, particularly after Marshall suffered a leg injury in the second half. Ole Miss had trouble establishing the run on Auburn, but Bo Wallace basically passed at will between the 20s. Red zone heroics by the Auburn defense held three Rebel scoring drives to field goals. Ole Miss sold out to stuff the Auburn offense in the middle, and paid the price. Nick Marshall had a season high 140 rushing yards, as Auburn built a 27-9 3rd quarter lead, but watched Ole Miss try to storm back. It was wrenching for the Auburn fans, but the Auburn D stood tall, winning the game 30-22. Ole Miss finished 7-5, and will play on Monday afternoon, December 30 in the Music City Bowl against Georgia Tech, in one of the more interesting matchups this year.
The Tigers concluded the first half of the season on homecoming, against Western Carolina. While no one thought the Catamounts had a chance, there were still concerns on a very-average looking Auburn team. Quarterback Nick Marshall needed work, convention wisdom went, on the passing game, or Auburn would lose most of its games going forward. Marshall was banged up the previous week against Ole Miss, and was held out on homecoming, while true freshman quarterback Jeremy Johnson’s redshirt was burned. Johnson showed a sharp passing touch, but it wasn’t necessary against the Catamounts. The Tigers rolled up 511 rushing yards, and cruised to a 62-3 win that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Western Carolina finished the season with a 2-10 record, with the only wins coming against Mars Hill and Elon.
Most Auburn Tiger fans were fairly happy at this point, with a 5-1 record. The previous season, Auburn was 1-5 at this point, having just suffered a 21-point blowout against Ole Miss. Questions lingered, though. Would Dee Ford make it back to an all-SEC level? Could Auburn rely predominately on the running game against the second half of the schedule? Convention wisdom said, “nay.” Would Auburn travel to College Station to face Johnny Football with a true freshman quarterback at the helm? After witnessing a number of sad stories in this vein through the past 30 years, things didn’t look good.
Even at midseason, I don’t think anyone saw what was coming. Nick Marshall would return for Texas A&M, and the fortunes of the two programs would cross. We’ll look at Auburn’s steam-roller of a second half, next week! Until then, Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and may you avoid the December germs. Me, I haven’t been so lucky. If this post seems a bit disjointed, well, it was typed with a 101.1 temperature, and a throat full of razor-blades. Still, all the medicine I need is a click-tour through the Auburn late-season highlights, and I’m fired up all over again! War Eagle, and isn’t it great to be SEC Champions this year?