Monday, December 1, 2014

The Iron Bowl Review

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Maybe I am a spoiled brat, but writing this post took a good bit of mental convincing to put together. Fact is, as a fan, it isn't fun to write about losses. Most writers love when games are on one end of the spectrum or the other, especially when there is drama involved. Good news sells. Bad news sells better. The media loves compelling stories. After all, that's how they get those clicks and cash their checks. But as a fan first and writer second, I take no pleasure in writing about losses. Pointing fingers and making scathing remarks isn't my style and I won't do it to get hits on the blog. I don't get paid to write, so I can't even do it with the expectation of making money. It just hurts to lose. It hurts worse to lose to  Alabama. And it hurts even more to just get stunned after taking a lead into the 4th quarter. And writing about it makes it hurt more.  Maybe in 10 years I will look back at this game and consider it one of my Taylor's Tiger Tails. Heck, half of the ones I have written were losses. Maybe this one won't hurt so bad in the future. The weekend was a lot of fun as we were able to visit with family, fish in a tournament, and even go to the game. 

I was so happy to be able to take Aubree, my daughter, to her second Iron Bowl. Though she went to the 2011 game, this is the first year that she was really into football. She knows the players. She understands the game. And, we had a chance for her to participate in something special

By midway in the 4th, I had a daughter who was miserable because she was watching the game slip away. I feel for her. She took it hard. Hard. I won't say any more than that. 

Several times I hit "new post", then found something else to do. Or I sat here and stared at the screen. Why? Was it due to the disbelief of losing the Iron Bowl? No. That's not it. If you read my Iron Bowl Preview, you will see that I was pretty harsh on the team coming into the game. I expected a loss. I predicted a 35-17 loss in T-Town, though I was almost CERTAIN coming into the year that Auburn would win. I made a preseason post JUST ABOUT IT. Not only did I think Auburn had a record-setting offense, a defensive front 4 that were the best in the conference, but most importantly, all the stats pointed to the Tigers. 5-2 in BDS. Saban had never beaten a ranked Auburn team. The list goes on. In talking about the opponent, I even took time to write a comical "Tide Name Starting QB." 

Auburn's Defense vs Alabama's Offense
As the year drug on, it was apparent that the defense was perhaps the worst statistical defense that Auburn has fielded in the modern era. Though the offense was potent enough to score points, and lots of them, they were unable to outscore the other teams and at times, simply dug themselves an early grave. Of the 4 losses the Tigers had in 2014, there was a common thread in 3: First drive turnovers. In fact, in all 3 of those games, Auburn turned it over on the first play of the game. And, in every situation, it led to a TD. In this case, a behind the line of scrimmage pass to Roc Thomas fell to the ground on the first play of the game and Thomas made no effort to cover it. Bama took the ball and drove for a TD. Auburn was immediately on the defensive and the defense just hasn't been able to come up with the stops. 

It's a massive departure from the heritage that most Auburn fans remember. Defense has been a staple of Auburn since I can remember. It has been a constant backward slide since Tuberville left. Despite the coaching carousel on the defensive side of the ball, nothing seems to improve it. Change the coach. Change the system. Change the players. Nothing works. It is so frustrating to Auburn fans to see all this come and go, with no change. Who would have thought we would look at the 2010 coached under Ted Roof and consider it "the good ole days?" But, even then, it was Tuberville's recruits that Roof had used. Though Auburn has enjoyed the best recruiting in its history since Malzahn first came on the Plains as a coordinator, it's becoming obvious that there is recruiting and there is "recruiting." Despite the lofty star ranking that has come with the last 5 years, Auburn's defense has not seen any improvement based upon statistically recruiting. That school on the other side of the state has not only recruited MORE star power, but they have turned then into stars. As I watched the NFL yesterday, I counted 7 former Bama  defensive players who have played their college ball in the last 4 years. Auburn has it's share of workhorse NFL players. None of which came from an era after Tubby's. 

No, I didn't forget that the D did come up with 3 INTs and several first half stops. While they seemed to do their job, it was the offense that sputtered inside the redzone, unable to convert on several goal-to-go downs and having to settle for field goals. That didn't help. But neither did the defensive performance in the second half.

Starting late in the first half, Kiffin zero'd in on Amari Cooper, which we have seen him do in the past to teams like Tennessee. In response, Ellis Johnson made little to no adjustments to stop Cooper. It was painful and laughable when Cooper would line up in single coverage and we, the fans, were laughing...LAUGHING.....because we knew where the ball was going. 3rd and 9? Where is number 9? Streaking down the field. The one time I remember Cooper being double covered, he managed to split the corner and safety and burn them both. How? I don't know. But he did. It left us all awestruck. Auburn would score to take the lead back and Sims would connect with Cooper on the first play for 75 yards. 

By now, you have all seen the memes where Kiffin was already celebrating TDs before the ball was ever thrown. Well, we were on the other end of that celebration. It makes you wonder: if we knew it was coming...did Johnson? It doesn't matter now, of course. Johnson has been fired and I secretly wonder if it was going to happen anyway, or did this performance seal his fate? Neither makes me feel warm and fuzzy. I joked on the way out of BDS that I wouldn't let him on the bus. Well, it was halfway joking. Sorta. The Christian thing to do would be to get him a taxi. I think he was gone regardless. After all, this is the same guy that got in front of the cameras after the UGA game and said that he didn't care what the fans thought. Coaches only say that after they know their fate. It isn't the first time we have heard that line before. The apathy he showed to his fans is the same apathy he showed to future Heisman winner Amari Cooper. And, to me, that's the most painful thing. It's one thing for a Bama player to win the Heisman. It's another to serve it up, which the Auburn defense did. With the run of injuries and busts of the other leading contenders, Cooper tying his own records on the most heavily watched game of the year sealed the deal. 

What did Kiffin do that was so special? I noticed a few things. First, he hit Cooper with quick passes. Most of the time, the other receiver would run block the corner. Auburn's corners have been unable to get off of run blocks all year. So much so that I frequently assumed that opposing blockers were holding our corners. I still maintain that some of the plays were holds, but getting off blocks is one of the fundamentals taught to kids in high school. At the very least, you cannot allow the opposing team to set on outside edge and push you inside. Cooper would hit the sideline and would be gone. Other times, Cooper would be in the slot, the outside receiver would simply chop block our corner at the knees. Additionally, the fundamentals of open field tackling has been an issue since 2008. Auburn secondary players have rarely, if ever, won one-on-one battles. In the Preview post, I made a note about this. Well, right on the money it would seem. 

When the corners would come up into press coverage, they wouldn't respect Cooper's speed and he would blow past them.  Where was the safety on these plays? Your guess is as good as mine. The fact remains that one of the basic skills highschool coaches give to defensive backs is to always respect your opponent. If he beats you once, once should be enough to know to give them more room. I am sure every player on the field feels like they are the fastest and best. But, how many times does it take before coach calls you on the sidelines and tells you to back up? If you watch his long completions you will notice something alarming. None of them were contested. 

Many of my Bama brethren have chastised me for blaming Johnson and not giving Kiffin any respect. I do respect Kiffin for sticking to it. He found a weakness and he exploited it masterfully. I am sure he went home Saturday night and had a good laugh that Johnson wouldn't make an effort to stop the bleeding. It sure didn't hurt that the Tigers continued to be unable to force any pass rush outside of the first quarter. 

Auburn's Offense vs Alabama's Defense
I feel like, despite the total numbers, we forgot what happened on the first play of the game, which has been the undoing of this Auburn team in 2014, who cannot win from behind. Is it bad luck? Nerves? Seriously, I have never seen a team that I could, with reasonable certainty, bet on losing the ball on the first play of the game. What would the game be like if Auburn had actually scored a TD on that first drive? We will never know. One day when I make my "what if" machine, I will check that out. Offensively, Auburn was able to move the ball at will within the 10s. On no less than 3 drives did Auburn have a first and goal and were unable to punch it in. Costly first half drops by the receivers did not help. Coates and Uzomah were unable to hold on to passes in the endzone and a diving Williams missed a pair. The former two had the balls in the hands before dropping it or having it batted. Saban and Co had made a decision to take CAP out of the game, and they did that fairly well. It is hard for me to criticize the offense too much, though. They wanted Marshall to throw for the win, and he did his very best.  With the stats they put up, you should win every game. All things considered, it's just as surprising to lose when you rack up 600++ yards and 44 points on Alabama as it is to lose on a returned field goal attempt. Sure, it isn't one single play, but if you showed the stats to a stranger and didn't show the scores, they would be just as stunned.

Special Teams
The kicking game for Auburn, field goals aside, was fairly horrific. The coverage unit looked to be jogging on several kicks. And, if a player missed the play, he made no effort to track it down, though the Bama returners reversed fields on several occasions and found no one home. Additionally, the Auburn returning game took a major step back this year, failing to post a kick return for a TD. Bray did manage two punt return TDs, but was very inconsistent in the second half of the year. 

The game is over and all of those predictions and statistics are put to rest. I'll be honest, I don't even want to write about it any more. Watching our lead slip away was sickening.  I hope the Mother of All Revenge Iron Bowls was just as sweet to the Bammers as Kick Six was for us Auburn fans. The 2014 Iron Bowl ended up not being the winner-take-all game that we all hoped. It did put Bama right where they needed to be to make a National Championship run, however. Auburn will go on to a mediocre bowl game. Other than the Outback Bowl, the others are just mid-level...a far cry from where Auburn expected to be in 2014.