When Did We Start Believing…
…In Gus and his offense?
(Outstanding video courtesy of the Auburner!)
War Eagle, everybody! It may be the bleak mid-winter outside, but I still can’t keep from thinking about Auburn football! While we prepare for a couple of inches of snow in Alabama today, let’s think back to where this football team was just four short years ago.
After the disastrous 2008 season and the Tony Franklin offensive misadventure, Auburn had hired a new coach who had everyone scratching their heads. Gene Chizik? Then, we noticed that he was hiring an exciting slate of flashy assistants. The reaction to the announcement of Gus Malzhan as offensive coordinator was mostly positive, but I think most Auburn fans were of the opinion that the result might well be just as poor as it had been the previous season. “The Spread” was a hard sell among the Tiger faithful, after Franklin “experiment.”
Your key to any offense is the guy who delivers the ball to playmakers. If you’re running a tight formation, lots of guys are capable of handing it off. However, if your weapons are spread from sideline to sideline, accurate throwing is required. For the most part, Auburn failed miserably throwing the ball the year before. This resulted in low scores such as 3 points against Mississippi State, 13 points against Vanderbilt, 7 points against Ole Miss, and nothing against Bama.
There was cautious optimism heading into Auburn’s 2009 A-Day game, but for me, that scrimmage dashed my hopes. There were problems with the defense, but what was most obvious was that we had no healthy quarterbacks capable of throwing the ball at an SEC level. I was pretty convinced after that viewing that we were headed for another losing season.
Quarterback drama wasn’t over that year, though. Just 11 days into fall camp, Chris Todd came off injured reserve from the previous season, and won the starting quarterback job. Again, folks were incredulous. Todd had fought shoulder problems in 2008, and at times couldn’t throw more than 10 yards without a huge windup.
I was actually a bit relieved, because I had seen what Todd could do when he was healthy, against Southern Mississippi the year before. Obviously there were no guarantees that he’d stay healthy, but I really liked what I saw him do against a good Golden Eagle secondary.
The 2009 season started, and Auburn struggled with Derek Dooley’s Louisiana Tech team for a half, before Todd hit a big bomb to Terrell Zachary to open the game up. The Tigers ran over Mississippi State to the tune of 49-24, but how many times did Auburn do that to the Bullies in the 2000s? It really meant nothing in terms of how the season might go.
I was very worried about playing West Virginia. They were a powerhouse in those years. Coach Rich Rod had moved to Michigan a year and a half before, but he left behind a very capable, athletic and deep team. Noel Devine and Jock Sanders were offensive threats that Auburn had little answer for. In addition to Devine and Sanders, this team played Geno Smith, Alric Arnett, Bradley Starks, and Tavon Austin in the game. It was an offense filled with playmakers.
The Mountaineer defense was very good, too. They had given up just 17 points per game in 2008, and had dominated the Auburn offense in Morgantown. Prevailing wisdom was that no spread team had a chance against Jeff Casteel’s versatile 3-3-5 stack defense.
My brother and I traveled down to Auburn for the game that night, despite the threat of inclement weather. We brought ponchos and waterproof boots. We met up with TrackEmTigers.com writer War Eagle Atlanta at the Amsterdam Cafe, and enjoyed Guiness draft and some fantastic food that afternoon. About the time we paid the check and headed out, it was pitch dark outside, and the bottom of the sky literally fell out!
We slogged from South Gay over to the stadium in at least ankle-deep rainwater, with a monsoon pouring down. Graves Amphitheater was mostly under water. Orange tailgate cords ran in all directions under our feet as we tromped through. My brother remarked that if anyone tailgating there had left a generator running, we were all going to fry!
Quite waterlogged after our walk, we arrived at the stadium, and spent a good hour plus rain delay huddled on the concourse with a sold out crowd of similarly soaked souls. Finally, we were allowed to go to our seats. We had survived, and we’d get to see if Auburn had any chance against the monstrously talented Mountaineers.
Early answer was no. Jarrett Brown had all day to throw on the first drive, and hit fullback Bradley Starks 58 yards downfield for the first score, behind the Auburn defense. After an Auburn punt, it took just two more West Virginia plays for Noel Devine to rip off a 71 yard scoring run. Auburn was down 14-0 less than 5 minutes into the game.
Chris Todd came out slinging it on the next Auburn possession, and hit Eric Smith for a big gain, to set Wes Byrum up for a 46 yard field goal to cut the lead to 14-3. A sack-fumble on West Virginia’s first play put Auburn at the Mountaineer 45, and Chris Todd went to work again. Back to back brilliant passes to Darvin Adams put Auburn in the end zone, and the lead shrank to 14-10!
West Virginia then carved Auburn’s defense up in large chunks. Jock Sanders scored on a screen, and the Mountaineers were back ahead 21-10 at the end of the first quarter.
The teams then traded punts, then traded interceptions, as Todd misread a defensive end dropping into coverage, but Neiko Thorpe picked one off at the Auburn 10, and got the ball back for the Tigers with no damage done. Todd completed a big ball to Eric Smith for 37 yards to the WVa 30, and that set Wes Byrum up for a 42 yarder. That cut the Mountaineer lead to 21-13.
The Mountaineers mounted another impressive drive, but a pair of major distance penalties eventually forced a punt. Auburn went on a long march, with a good bit of success on the ground. Chris Todd found Darvin Adams at the pylon, and Auburn was within one point, 21-20. The Mountaineer hurry-up made it to the Auburn 24, but the clock ran out. West Virginia led 21-20 at the half.
Auburn took the second half kickoff, and pushed it up near midfield. The Tigers went backwards from there and punted. A couple of big screens to Jock Sanders ensued, and Noel Devine capped the drive with a 12 yard run. Tyler Bitancurt’s PAT was no good, and West Virginia led 27-20.
It did not take long for Auburn to tie the game. On second down with a pass rusher draped over his face, Chris Todd sidearmed a dump-off to Mario Fannin, who sped down the east sideline for an 82 yard touchdown. Jordan Hare Stadium ERUPTED with noise!
Behind quarterback keepers by Jarrett Brown, and short throws to Jock Sanders and Noel Devine, the Mountaineers advanced to the Auburn 11. They ran out of room there, and Bitancurt knocked in a 28 yarder. West Virginia re-took the lead 30-27 late in the 3rd quarter.
Auburn marched the ball into West Virginia territory, but the drive failed on back to back incompletions. The Tigers turned the ball over on downs at the Mountaineer 36. Brown went to the middle screen one too many times, and this time Auburn was ready. The Tigers had adjusted and started rotating guys to stand their ground in the middle. Defensive tackle Jake Ricks got his paws on the ball, and took it down to the 19! Chris Todd fired a strike to Darvin Adams down the right sideline, and Adams held on despite a solid lick in the end zone! Auburn led for the first time in the game, 34-30 early in the 4th quarter!
West Virginia marched it again, but Jarrett Brown served up another interception in the red zone, this one to Walt McFadden near the goal line. Auburn was bottled up at the 3 yard line, but the Malzhan offense ground out three first downs before punting it back to West Virginia. Brown’s second pass was another one of those middle screen, and this time linebacker Craig Stevens was waiting, and took the interception to the house! Auburn extended the lead to 41-30!
The previous interception was Jarrett Brown’s 5th turnover of the day, and he was lifted in favor of Geno Smith. Smith generated one first down on a screen to Jock Sanders, but on 4th and 3 he was intercepted by Auburn’s Josh Bynes at the Tiger 35. The Tigers ran most of the clock out with the Wildcat formation, and Smith ran out of time on his next possession. Auburn had shocked the world, with a 41-30 win over undefeated West Virginia! It was a joyous celebration and ride home after that game!
At that point, we believed! Auburn had taken on one of the best defenses in the nation, and put up 400 yards and 41 points! The Tigers had 300 of their 400 yards through the air, with only one turnover on the day. At that point, we realized that this offense could damage even the stoutest SEC defense.
It’s worth noting that of the members of that 2009 offense, only Ben Tate received any sort of significant playing time in the NFL in 2012. This wasn’t a squad of superstars. Gus Malzhan took a mediocre offense and a wounded quarterback and fielded an offense that put up 33 points per game. He’s done this sort of thing at every college he’s coached at. I’m much more confident that he’ll find answers in 2013, than I was four years ago.
War Eagle, and I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane!