Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Week Seven Recap
Matthew Hinton/Associated Press
Sorry this is a day late (and several dollars short), but I've been on the road and dealing with this thing called life. I like writing these columns and throwing in all my jokey references and links and all that, but this will be a much less jovial column than the ones that have come before it, and while I know Clemson lost and Wazzu lost and Washington lost and Tennessee lost again and Florida both lost again and looked like butt, how about we just focus on the matter at hand for this edition of the Thoughts from Outer Space.
Tigers This Week
Trust is an important thing. While there are several areas of life where either the presence or lack of trust is far more important than it is in sports, trust is still a big part of the underpinning of fans and their relationships to their favorite teams. Unless you're one of those fans who essentially gets off on the idea of pulling for a perpetual loser (like I imagine someone who's still a fan of the Buffalo Bills or Cleveland Browns or Detroit Lions would have to be at this point), you want to be able to trust in your team to some degree. This may not exactly be logical behavior, especially for college sports fans, since you're investing so much in the performance of players who are between 18 and 23-years-old for the most part, but still it's there. Those stretches when you can feel confident in your team when they take the field/court/pitch/ice/whatever are up there with the best moments as a sports fan, maybe not quite as good as the elation of seeing your team actually win a championship, but close.
Part two of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad sports weekend for me saw my boy Aaron Rodgers get significantly injured at Minnesota. I bring that up not to wallow in self-pity or anything, but to illustrate a point. With Rodgers, I feel a kind of confidence that I don't get to feel very often as a fan. Some fans go their whole lives and never feel it. I don't much trust Packers coach Mike McCarthy or the team's crappy defense, but having Rodgers around always makes Green Bay a threat. When Dallas took the lead last week, my heart didn't explode or anything because I knew Rodgers had a better than even shot at still pulling off the W. That's gone for at least several weeks now, which will make being a Packer fan much more difficult. Any time the other team gets out to a lead, or there's a turnover, or anything bad that happens at all, far more concern will spread through the fanbase, because they don't have that guy out there they can trust. It makes simply being a fan of the team a more anxiety-riddled experience. It makes it more stressful. It sours your fandom a little bit. Again, from a behavioral science standpoint, this is utterly ridiculous, letting something so far out of your control affect you in such a way. But that's part of being a fan, and the restlessness that's caused when you don't feel like you can trust your team, that feeling that something bad's always about to happen (even if it doesn't), sews a lot of discord amongst the brethren.
All that said, games like Saturday are what get at the heart of the unrest in the Auburn fanbase. It's not just that Auburn lost. It's not just that Auburn blew a 20-point lead. It's not just that Auburn lost to a big rival. It's not even that Auburn lost to a team coached by Ed Orgeron. To me, what it boils down to more than anything, is that Auburn once again violated any sense of trust placed in it by its fans (or the general public, but their feelings on the matter only go so far). This, as is usually the case in college sports even more than in the pros, will come back on the head coach more than anyone. It's not that Gus Malzahn is the only coach to have games like this (at Auburn or anywhere), and it's not that he's entirely responsible for the Auburn Family's difficulty in trusting the team. (Most of the coaches in Auburn's history have contributed to it to some degree.) But he's the man on the hotseat right now because every time he seems to get Auburn to a place where the team, the fans, and anybody watching can feel truly confident about the program, something like this happens.
I've seen a lot of posts on social media and message boards calling the Tigers out for another second half letdown or choke job or whatever, though I don't think this is a common-enough occurrence for the blown lead to be the main takeaway from this game. The main takeaway for me is that once again, Auburn was sitting in good position, with everything seemingly moving in the right direction for the program and a clear path to a tremendously successful season in front of us, and then the last two and a half quarters of Saturday's game happened. In every area, Auburn failed after Daniel Carlson kicked the field goal that put the Tigers ahead 23-7. (Even that FG was a bit of a failure, as AU was inside the 10-yard line but couldn't punch in a TD to truly counter LSU's momentum.) The defense allowed too many chunk plays and 3rd down conversions against what is really a pretty bad offense. The special teams made no big plays of their own and instead allowed a huge, block in the back-aided touchdown early in the 4th quarter. And the offense... Well, the offense seemed to go out of its way to quit doing anything that resembled the crisp, successful unit that took the field in the first 20-25 minutes of the game. This can largely be traced back to coaching, and the coaches sure are feeling the heat in the wake of this collapse.
What happened to the offense? Why did the passing game become almost 100% hero-ball deep throws after halftime? Where did the wildcat looks with Kerryon Johnson go? Why are they continuing to play Kam Pettway if he's still so clearly not himself? These questions remain unanswered, maybe unanswerable. Unpolished receiver play came back up again, as it has often over the years. There were drops, but there were also instances of guys not driving back to the football properly on possession plays. (Darius Slayton was guilty of this on a key 3rd-and-medium play in the middle part of the game.) And not to pick on him too much, but Slayton's timing on the 3rd down drop on Auburn's second-to-last possession is what really caused that incompletion. He seemed late out of his break and wasn't prepared to catch the ball when it arrived as a result. That was a big miss.
Defensively, Carlton Davis' unnecessary gamble (on a pass he was nowhere close to intercepting) on a short 1st down throw near the end of the first half was just a mind-bogglingly stupid play. Davis is and has been an excellent player for the Tiger defense for two and a half seasons now, but seeing him make a mistake like that was a microcosm of how things unraveled for AU as the game went on. LSU was able to routinely send only two or three receivers into the pattern Saturday and still come up with big completions. I'd expect a team like Ole Miss or Mississippi State to be able to do that, because I respect their QBs and at least some of their WRs. But while I think LSU always has talent at wideout, it's a huge bummer to think that Danny Etling (basically walking mediocrity) was able to hurt Auburn the way he was. Sorry if that comes off as mean to Etling, but it's just how it is. He isn't an especially good quarterback and Auburn should've had more of an answer for him.
Of course, LSU was only able to actually drive for 17 points in the game, so it wasn't just a completely abominable effort from the D. The Bayou Bengals got their last field goal after Auburn went 4-and-out deep in our own territory in the waning minutes. The other 7 came from a punt return for a touchdown. Yes, there were a couple of minor but still pretty clear blocks in the back on the play. But no, that doesn't let Auburn's punt team off the hook for what's been pretty mediocre work over the last couple of weeks. Aidan Marshall isn't getting consistent enough distance on his kicks, and his short punts are only palatable if there's no chance of a big return, which obviously isn't the case. Also, it'd be nice to see Auburn do something with a return of its own at some point, but that's a little beside the point here.
Most of these glaring problems do come back to coaching most of all. (Really, everything comes back to coaching, especially at the collegiate level, but this game reeked of mediocre sideline work.) The unnecessary shift in the offensive gameplan, the coverage busts, the special teams breakdown, the lousy receiver play, just about all that can be traced back to coaching. If there's a second factor in play here, it's that Auburn's getting a little too thin at key spots. Daniel Thomas had to play for an injured Tray Matthews, and LSU attacked him more than once. (And dear Grodd, that dropped INT.) Tre Williams didn't dress, and you always miss a player like that. Mike Horton didn't play, which necessitated another shift on the OL, and Casey Dunn's brief injury necessitated yet another one. I'm not sure Eli Stove is 100% after tweaking his hammy a few weeks ago, which limits his game-breaking speed. Kyle Davis didn't make the trip and may not be long for the program apparently, so scratch another front-line player there. Not having those guys out there showed up Saturday, and that's worth mentioning, but every team deals with it to some extent (LSU was playing backup tackles and Derrius Guice clearly isn't full-speed). Again, it circles back to coaching.
What it may circle back to more than anything was Auburn's decision not to go for the 4th and less than 1 near midfield in the 4th quarter. Kerryon Johnson had just come up short on 3rd and 1, but the double whammy of not going for it followed by a 23-yard punt from Marshall makes that play stand out maybe more than any other single play in the game. LSU had just run back the prior punt for a TD, cutting the lead to 23-21, and they had all the momentum. Auburn got a first down purely through the running game, and ran the ball three straight times again before seeing the 4th and 1. Given the way the game was going, with LSU in full control of the momentum at home and the Auburn defense not playing up to its usual high level, Malzahn needed to coach to win there. It felt that way at the time, and it feels even more that way now. There was a time when Gus would likely have gone for it, but the decision to play it safe, even knowing the punt team is a liability and unlikely to flip the field, may be one of the red-letter mistakes of his tenure. The next time Auburn touched the ball, they were at their own 3.
I don't have any personal grudge against Gus. I supported his hire in 2012, and I think a lot of his perceived problems can be overblown. But games like Saturday are pretty much impossible to defend. Like the Texas A&M game in 2014, like the Georgia game in 2015, like the Georgia game again last year. In every case, Auburn had established something positive in the weeks prior. One-loss Auburn had just won a thrilling top-five matchup at Ole Miss in 2014 when a lousy A&M team rolled into Jordan-Hare. The Tigers laid an egg in the first half and ended up not being able to overcome the deficit they had fallen into and their own critical mistakes in the 4th quarter. I don't even know if it's debatable that the program hasn't truly recovered from that loss. What looked like a likely 10-win season became an 8-5 one, establishing a rut AU hasn't broken out of.
The Georgia game in 2015 isn't as clear an example, but it still fits. After all the disappointment of the first month-plus of that season, the Tigers had steadied through late October, and a surprising win at A&M seemed to give fans hope that Auburn could do something with Georgia and Bammer set to visit Jordan-Hare in November. Auburn was reasonably competitive in both games, but the loss to a crappy Georgia team (in Mark Richt's final season there) just flat-out sucked. The Tigers would basically replicate that performance in another loss to Georgia last year, but this one pissed away an impressive month and a half of football and left a sour taste on what could've been a very positive year. Like last year, with Auburn receiving not-unreasonable praise from the national media and the fans once again beginning to see how this team could be a realistic playoff contender, the Tigers managed to lose another game against an OK-ish conference rival Saturday. And they did it by being their worst selves through most of the second half. In a business where high expectations can be your downfall, Malzahn has shown a troubling tendency to build up everyone's hopes then dash them in pretty jarring ways. And it's that more than anything, more than the hardheaded playcalling, more than the scandals that may see the end of Jay Jacobs' tenure as AD, more than the difficulty of playing in the SEC, that's put him squarely back on the hotseat. If people from outside the program look at us and wonder how we can possibly go from being confident in our playoff chances to wanting to fire the coach so quickly, that's why. It's the like football version of getting the bends.
It certainly appears to be shaping up to be a busy year on the coaching carousel. Butch Jones is a dead man walking at Tennessee. Bret Bielema's not too much better off at Arkansas. Matt Luke never had a real chance to keep the job at Ole Miss. Barry Odom may not make it past year two at Mizzou. And I think Jim McElwain needs to keep this season from going totally sideways at Florida, or else he'll feel the heat. And that's just in the SEC. Gus isn't fired yet, and he has a decent enough chance to not be fired at all. But it's going to take something significant, in my opinion. Winning out would obviously do it, and maybe even winning one of the two games against Georgia or Alabama, but those teams are ranked in the top three for a reason. But right now, which is more likely? Auburn beating one or both of them, or Auburn losing at Texas A&M (the road game in this stretch that I was most concerned about before Saturday)? I'm not here to shovel dirt on Gus, and I certainly don't like that it seems like I am. I'm just here to point out what I think is, if not a fact, at least a strong likelihood that two more losses may be too many for him to stick around. The program appears to have plateaued in a very frustrating place. We've got a lot of negative stories circling around in the press, from Heath Evans' tweet to Nosa Eguae's response to Evans' tweet to Jarrett Stidham's remarks about not being able to audible. There's a bit of a feeding frenzy going on right now. (And if we can take Stidham's comments at face value, that's a pretty damn discouraging situation for the offense.) A win at Arkansas, which believe it or not still seems very likely given the state of that program right now, followed by a bye week will help ease some of these tensions, but the hard road of November will remain. Certainly Auburn can win any or all of those games, but after Saturday, there aren't many around these parts who trust Auburn to win those games. And for Gus, that lack of trust could be his downfall.
I'm not going to get into who I think should be the next coach (just remember, there's no way in hell it'll be Chip Kelly) or any more specific scenarios that could save Malzahn's job than I already have. We'll have plenty of time for that later. I'll also happily return to writing Massacre Island jokes and linking to videos of bros getting in fights at tailgates sometime soon, too. But right now, I think us Auburn fans are too busy trying to figure out how we find ourselves in this situation yet again. I'd like to trust the team again, but trust is a tough thing to come by these days. Tell ya what, why don't we just trust in the Lord?
Check back Thursday for a hopefully more lighthearted week eight preview.