Midterm Exam this Week!
Can the Tigers beat Texas A&M?
War Eagle, everybody! We’re midway through the season, and the Tigers are due for a big test on national television this week in College Station, Texas. Auburn plays on the road at Texas A&M, and the game is on CBS at 2:30 PM, Central Time. It’s a tribute to the Tigers that this game isn’t confined away to ESPN-U or FSN. Auburn is the most improved team in the nation, and I think folks are curious to see the transformation in progress.
To win this game, Auburn must play strong for the full 60 minutes. There’s little doubt that the Aggies will move the ball and score points. Auburn must do likewise. The Tigers must have some early success, unlike last month’s trip to Baton Rouge. Spotting the Aggies 21 points will certainly result in a loss.
Offensively, I think Auburn must have consistent success in the running game against an Aggie defense that is giving up over 200 yards per game on the ground. I think that with Nick Marshall starting, that’s exactly what coach Malzhan is planning to do, with multiple threats on the field at the same time to prevent the Aggies from keying on one man.
Defensively, Auburn must have a “reset, next play” mentality. They are not going to be able to strangle this offense. What Auburn must do is disrupt, and force a few turnovers and mistakes. They need to show multiple looks, and do whatever they can to confuse the reads of Johnny Manziel and his offensive line. Last year, we learned that if a defense sits back in cover-two, Manziel will have the Aggies in the end zone in about four plays or less.
I expect to see Auburn mostly in the dime package this week, unless the Aggies go with the heavy-set grouping. That’s going to leave the D-line and one linebacker to play the run in the middle. They must slow down any carries up the gut, and it’s critical that whomever is nearest in the secondary come up and help out.
Auburn needs to confuse the issue up front, perhaps with some linemen moving, or utilizing a four defensive end package at times. I think Auburn will show bump and run coverage a good bit, with a disguised zone being the actual call. Every team this year that has played press coverage on Mike Evans and Malcomb Kennedy this season has been torched via the fade pass. The Aggies love it when four defensive backs are out there chasing receivers with their backs turned towards the line of scrimmage. That really frees Johnny Manziel and Ben Malena to run wild.
We are really looking forward to the Auburn “mid term exam” in Texas. It’s a far cry from this time last season, when a doomed season was certain, and we were almost dreading game time against any team with a pulse. At this point last season, Auburn was 1-5, with a lone overtime win against Louisiana-Monroe. The Tigers had just limped away from Oxford with a 21 point blowout loss to Ole Miss. What a difference a year makes! We’ll take a look after the jump at how this team is doing, going into this game. (Yes, this game marks the halfway point of the year, because Auburn WILL go to a bowl game this year, and play 13 games!)
A problem for the past two years and early this year, the defensive line has made huge strides in 6 games. Prior to the season, if we were told that the team would be missing Jeffery Whitaker for the whole season, and Dee Ford and Craig Stevens for multiple games, and that Nosa Eguae would have to be moved to defensive tackle, we’d have envisioned a nightmare season on defense. There was shakiness early, but this group has really solidified, and causes problems up front. In fall camp, we were told that Dee Ford was the only real pass rusher Auburn had. With the emergence of newcomers Elijah Daniel, Carl Lawson and Montravious Adams; and the effect their push has had on the veterans, Auburn has 49 tackles for loss in 6 games. The Tigers have 16 sacks, good for 3rd place in the SEC.
We knew prior to the season that the linebacker corps might be shaky, and it was, especially early in the season. I’ve certainly done my share of criticizing. However, I do have to point out that in Ellis Johnson’s defensive scheme, 2 guys have to do the work that 3 guys normally do in a 4-3 defense. Or even 4 linebackers in a 3-4. Unless you have Ray Lewis or someone similar back there, 2 linebackers can’t be everywhere. That means the secondary must come up and make tackles. The good news is that here at mid-season, Auburn actually does have a 2-deep rotation at both linebacker spots, and it’s not a cause for concern if the backup goes into the game. Kudos to Anthony Swain for the job he’s done the past two weeks off the bench at the will-spot. I suspect that he’s made himself a hard man to put back on the bench.
During spring ball, it looked like Auburn might have a deep and talented secondary. Then attrition kicked in, starting with the dismissal of Demetruce McNeal. By the middle of game two, Auburn had lost Jonathan Jones and Chris Davis at corner. We’ve seen why depth is so important, on this unit. Jonathan Mincy and Ryan White have carried the load at cornerback, and with Davis now back on the field, this gives Auburn three veteran SEC-level corners. Auburn patched together a starting lineup at safety with converted corners Jermaine Whitehead and Joshua Holsey, and now is exhibiting quality depth with Ryan Smith and Trent Fisher. The star position was supposed to be the launching pad for Justin Garrett this season, but he’s mostly been sidelined this season. Robenson Therezie took over the position and has really run with it, leading the team in tackles, and interceptions. This group has done pretty well this season, and 4 of Auburn’s top 5 tacklers are in the secondary, and 6 of the top 10. Auburn has 30 passes defended this season, compared to just 42 for the entire season last year.
I was worried that with the coaching transition, special teams might take a step backward this year. That has not been the case. Steven Clark has added more than 3 yards to his punting average, and opponents still aren’t able to return the ball. Cody Parkey has been a tremendous asset kicking, hitting 8 of 10 field goals (none missed inside 49 yards) and nailing 28 of 38 kickoffs for touchbacks. Auburn is second in the league in kickoff returns with a 26.4 yard average, and is allowing only 19.4 yards on the rare return when Parkey doesn’t put the ball in the stands.
As good as the special teams have been, nowhere has Auburn been more dominant than the offensive line. The Tigers have the top rushing attack in the SEC, and the team has allowed only 4 sacks on the season. Auburn allowed 37 sacks last year. This past week, Avery Young was plugged into Patrick Miller’s spot, and the team didn’t miss a beat. In the second half last weekend, the entire second team line came in, and the dominance continued. What’s really exciting is that none of these starting guys are seniors. Young, Alex Kozan and Greg Robinson are sophomores or less. What is also encouraging is that Auburn has received just a very few holding flags, and maybe one false start all year. The past five years, one could count on a false start or two a game.
If there’s a question mark on the offense, it’s the tight-end/h-back spots. There has been pretty good blocking there when Brandon Fulse and Jay Prosch have been in there, and very spotty blocking otherwise. Neither of the two guys above has been used much in the passing game, and Fulse likely won’t play against Texas A&M, as coach Malzhan says that his status is “unchanged.” C. J. Uzomah caught the winning touchdown a month ago against Mississippi State, and hasn’t been seen since. He’s supposed to be back for the Aggie trip. In the last game, with Uzomah and Fulse missing, Auburn often ran with two H-backs, Prosch and walk-on Gage Batten. The Tigers have gone with three or four wide receivers at times, which makes it more difficult to be run-heavy. Against Western Carolina, Khiel Frazier was used as the flex-tight end, and Shon Coleman was used in tight. What will come up against the Aggies is anyone’s guess.
Wide receiver has been another area of inconsistency, and the unit took a big blow when Jaylon Denson was lost for the season against LSU. Unlike the tight end/h-back spot, these guys have come up with a number of big plays. Sammie Coates is a legit deep threat, and I think Ricardo Louis added his name for consideration as well. The Tigers finally had a drop-free game against Western Carolina, and that was encouraging. It’s important to remember that every team has dropped passes. There are going to be a few with any offense that throws the ball. I’d like to see a little more success on quick screens to the wide receivers. Texas A&M’s best pass defender, Deshazor Everett, is nicked up, and I think Auburn needs to try to exploit that area.
Other than 3 costly fumbles this season, there’s nothing bad to be said about the Auburn running backs. There are few schools, even in the SEC where a back like Jonathan Ford would be moved to defense. That speaks to Auburn’s quality depth. Auburn’s trio of Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant has run roughshod over opponents thus far, and they are likely to do well against Texas A&M.
There’s been much hand-wringing over the Auburn passing game this season, but a look at the stat page reveals that the Tigers are better than folks think here. I think that the passing game is just a shade away from exploding for big yards. If one looks at the bottom line, Auburn has 8 touchdown passes vs. just 5 interceptions (less than one per game). The team is completing 61 percent of its passes, has only 4 sacks, and the quarterbacks have contributed 330 rushing yards on top of 1123 passing yards. Added together with the best running game in the league, Auburn ranks 5th in the SEC in total offense, in a year where most teams have forgotten how to play defense.
We’ll have our usual open thread this Saturday for Texas A&M, and everyone is encouraged to join in and enjoy the game! I won’t be able to do play by play for this game, as I won’t be in front of a computer. But I’ll be watching and yelling! I’m also planning on attending the FAU game, but should be back in the saddle for the November stretch run. War Eagle, and let’s beat those Aggies!