Tigers Top the Cougars! (with unit grades)
Robensen Therezie saves the day!
War Eagle, everybody. It’s time now for the Acid Reign report, on Auburn’s season-opening 31-24 win over Washington State. It was anything but a polished performance, but this team did enough to win. Speed at the offensive skill and returner positions kept Auburn in the game, then the defense stopped the Cougars when it mattered. The Tigers secured their first win over a BCS-conference opponent since New Year’s Eve of 2011.
I think everyone expected improvement in Washington State head coach Mike Leach’s team in year two, and that’s certainly what we saw. His skill position workouts in practices are legendary for being incredibly grueling, and non-stop. Last season this resulted in guys with their heads spinning in the first year of it. This year, we saw a lot of precision routes and impeccable timing on a lot of those plays. WSU is going to carve a lot of defenses up this year. That said, you live by the pass, and die by it. The Cougars ran the ball only 23 times, despite averaging 5.2 yards per carry. The passing game was only generating 5.3 yards per attempt, and 3 interceptions to only 1 passing touchdown is the story of this game.
During the game, I did my share of howling about missed assignments, but in the end I was really proud of this bunch of Auburn defenders. We’ve had deficiencies in the front seven the past couple of years, and we knew that none of this was going to magically be fixed in game one. Then, we essentially had only one starter available on the defensive line. What these guys accomplished in the face of that was huge. Lots of folks played up front, and newcomers like freshman tackle Montravius Adams made an impact. On a muggy night, Auburn was still getting some pressure on the Washington State quarterback late in the game.
Kudos to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson for the game he called. We were torn apart in zone coverage in the first half, but he decided to trust his team to play man coverage a lot in the second, and it paid off. Sure, there were guys wide open, but with more pressure on the quarterback, Halliday had to just take safe checkdown passes, or throw the ball away. We haven’t seen that much man-coverage in Auburn since Will Muschamp was coaching here. And we haven’t seen so many line/pass rush stunts since Gene Chizik’s tenure as Auburn’s defensive coordinator ten years ago.
Against Auburn’s offense, Washington State used a 3-man line, and a lot of gambling, overloaded blitzes. It worked well enough to stop drives before reaching paydirt, but they were caught out of position enough times for Auburn to make a lot of big plays. With better passing, the Cougar secondary could have taken some real damage in this game.
The offense started with a bad snap and a sack, and then dropped balls galore early. Auburn repeatedly got guys open deep behind the Cougar secondary, but could not hook up. In the second half, Nick Marshall did complete one deep pass to Sammie Coates, and we got by with some luck, there. Coates was juggling the ball still when he went out of bounds, and Hubert Owens and his SEC crew missed it.
As an aside, this was a poorly refereed game, and both teams were victims of blatant no-calls, including muggings in the secondary with the ball in the air, helmet to helmet hits, and one particularly bad hit five yards out of bounds. There are arguments to be made for “letting them play,” and “not calling it when you don’t see it.” Owens’ crew apparently didn’t see much that they didn’t HAVE to see! They also seemed pretty reluctant to review several questionable plays.
Special teams were a big factor, too, as Auburn pretty much won every battle, there. Even when Steven Clark sliced one punt, it hit right next to the sideline, bounced back in to roll ten more yards Auburn’s way, and was killed deep in WSU territory. Stan White on the Auburn radio network had the quote of the night on that play, “It’s like hitting a golf ball into the woods, and it hits a tree and bounces back onto the fairway!”
Unit Grades after the jump!
Defensive Line: C-. Auburn played a lot of bodies here, and did get better as the game went on. There were times much like the past two seasons, where the team was pushed around badly. Washington State’s first TD run featured total collapse up front. This line also allowed WSU to pick up a running first down on a run up the gut on 4th and 5. The one thing that seemed to work pretty well was a tackle-end twist freshman tackle Montravius Adams and defensive end Craig Sanders executed multiple times. Both guys got turned loose on that technique. Adams and Sanders combined for 3 tackles for loss. No one else on the line had more than one tackle or quarterback hurry. A lot of times, the ends were pushed 8-10 yards back behind the quarterback, and completely out of position.
Linebackers: F. Kris Frost led the way off the bench with 4 tackles, Cassanova McKinzy had 1, and Jake Holland had not a single stat of any sort. Washington State ran 88 offensive plays, and the entire linebacking corps had no assists, no qb hurries, no tackles for loss and only 5 total tackles. Folks, this HAS to get better, and quickly.
Secondary: B+. At times Jonathan Mincy was victimized down the field, and Joshua Holsey made some of those “first start” mistakes, but these guys overall held a Mike Leach offense to 5.3 yards per pass and allowed only 1 passing touchdown vs three interceptions. Six of Auburn’s top seven tacklers were in the secondary, and they got guys on the ground. Otherwise, this game would have been a blowout. Mincy showed that he’s a much better jamming, press-man corner in the second half, and Holsey came up with a leaping interception. The “star” of the defense was Robensen Therezie, pressed into a starting role due to a foot injury to starter Justin Garrett. Therezie had seven tackles, two interceptions and another pass breakup. Kudos to Ryan Smith as the third corner, he covered pretty well on those underneath throws to the sideline.
Punting: A. Steven Clark appears to have increased his distance this year, while retaining the ridiculous height that denies returns. Washington State had no opportunities for returns at all, while Clark managed a 41.3 yard average on 5 punts, with 3 downed inside the 20. When Clark had some room, he hit one towering 53 yard shot that the cameras had difficulty following. On a night with a sputtery offense, this performance was big.
Punt Returns: B. Auburn didn’t block very well on 5 punt return opportunities, and let a gunner kill a punt on the 1 yard line. However, Chris Davis had all the right moves as a return man. He got away when it was inside the ten, he fair caught securely when he was blanketed, and took one long punt back up the field for 19 yards. I’m still worried about risking our best cornerback on the punt team, but he did look good back there.
Kick Returns: A-. The WSU strategy early on was to kick to the goal line, and try to bottle the play up one one corner of the field. A couple of times, that worked and Mason had to fight for 20 yards or so. Then Mason got outside, and scored a very important touchdown. The Cougars then had to shift gears and kick it deeper for touchbacks, which puts the ball at the 25 these days.
Place-kicking: B+. Cody Parkey did miss a 50 yard field goal attempt, but he later hit one from 47. Overall, he was 3 of 4 on the night, and perfect on his extra points. Parkey hit 5 of 7 kickoffs for touchbacks. When he didn’t get it to the end zone, though, there was trouble. One was a kick out of bounds, and the other resulted in a 30 yard WSU return.
Offensive Line: B. This unit did have some missed blocks at times, but it looked pretty strong. The Cougars were in the Tiger backfield a lot, but they were using 7 or 8 guys in the box and a lot of blitzes. Five O-linemen can’t block 7 or 8. These guys pretty much handled their man, and paved the way for Auburn to run for 297 yards in the game. There were no false starts, which is pretty good for the season opener, and only two holding calls on the line (both declined). Patrick Miller looked drastically improved over last season at right tackle. Did have a bad snap to open the game by center Reese Dismukes, but he did a stellar job dealing with big monster nose tackle Ioane Gauta, who was limited to 4 total tackles, none for a loss, and two QB hurries.
Running Backs: B. Letter grade off for Tre Mason’s late fumble. There was also the blocking miscue by fullback Jay Prosch that ended in a Cameron Artis-Payne holding penalty, killing a drive. One has to give WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske credit, though. He really attacked Auburn’s middle, and it’s tough for an H-Back lined up wide of the tackle to get back to the middle and make a good clean block. Of course, an offense should be able to burn a team in the flats, that does that, and Auburn did at times. All of the backs ran hard, Grant, Artis-Payne and Mason. Other than the fumble, this looked like a pretty dangerous unit.
Receivers: C-. I give a grade this high because the guys out there blocked the daylights out of the Cougars on the edge. However, I saw guys getting jammed on their routes, and lots of butterfingers. Things did settle down in the second half, with Sammie Coates getting a couple of nice catches down field. Jaylon Denson made a critical catch for a first down. Quan Bray looks like the quick screen guy of choice, and he had 3 catches. If he gets the ball in stride, he can make plays with it. Good downfield blocking by Brandon Fulse at tight end, also.
Quarterback: C+. There will be those who are worried about Nick Marshall’s performance in Auburn’s first game, particularly the overthrown balls. What I see is a quarterback who had the virtually the same completion percentage as Washington State’s quarterback, and the same yardage per pass. And Marshall did not have three back-breaking interceptions, either. While his rushing stats were nothing to home about, he did escape pressure time and time again, and probably negated at least 5 sacks last year’s guys would have taken. Marshall’s big mission in this game plan was to run the offense, and take care of the ball. He did that, and he got his first game out of the way with a win. This guy has had one month of fall camp with these receivers, and yes there were chemistry issues. I think he’ll get better and better as the season progresses.
Wow, is it ever great to get a win! I enjoyed watching this team, that would not give in, and kept fighting all the way. There is a lot of talent on this team, and I think you’ll see a much improved squad as the season progresses. Again, I have to salute the Auburn secondary, who came up with 3 turnovers and held a team that passed the ball 65 times to just 344 passing yards. We were told that they were tackling well, and that mostly proved to be true. Secondary coaches Melvin Smith and Charlie Harbinson have been a huge upgrade over Willie “Toast” Martinez.
This team does have some areas to work on, most notably in the front seven on defense, and in the passing game. And the schedule doesn’t get much easier. Auburn faces the Sun Belt Conference champion next week, the Arkansas State Red Wolves. The wolves absolutely demolished Arkansas Pine-Bluff, 62-11. They led 48-0 at the half! Then the Tigers host Mississippi State, who lost ugly to Oklahoma State in Houston. The Bullies will try to rally against Alcorn State this Saturday. They’ll likely have to do it without quarterback Tyler Russell, who was knocked out of the game yesterday with a concussion. Here’s hoping he returns for the Auburn tilt in two weeks.
After Arkansas State and Mississippi State, Auburn travels to Baton Rouge to conclude a tough September. War Eagle, folks! It’s great to get a win, and these grade things are always so much more fun to do when we’ve won. We’re looking forward to the rest of the season, and let’s go, Tigers!