The Auburn Tigers were back on the field for the first time on Saturday as they welcomed the Arkansas State Red Wolves to the Plains for a little tackle football. Electricity was in the air with the excitement and hope that comes with a new season. Tiger Walk was packed. The stadium was packed. It’s good to be back. As the eagle soared around the stadium (the greatest pregame ritual in the country in my humble opinion), goose bumps and voices soared with it. Pregame videos rocking. Music thumping. Band marching. Everyone was on the edge of their seat. It was finally time to put all those expectations to bed and start analyzing the results.
There was plenty for the Auburn faithful to be excited about. The offense looked explosive and exciting, piling on 52 points, 23 first downs, and a staggering 608 yards of total offense (367 on the ground). Freshman phenom Michael Dyer made his Jordan-Hare debut rushing for 95 yards on 14 carries.
Aairon Savage and Zac Etheridge both made triumphant returns from injury and getting back into the starting lineup. Savage has missed the passed two seasons with injuries – 2008 with a knee injury, then 2009 with a torn Achilles – but was awarded a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA and was back on the field and ready to go, racking up 7 tackles. Etheridge was carted off the field to end his season last year, but it was highly likely that it was the end of his career. Etheridge tore ligaments in his neck and crack a vertebra while colliding with defensive end Antonio Coleman during a tackle in the Ole Miss game last season. But Zac returned to practice and was cleared for contact a couple of weeks ago. He had 4 tackles in his return against Arkansas State.
The defense gave up 366 yards to the Red Wolves attack, 323 of those through the air. Arkansas State established sustained drives that were 10+ plays. They controlled the ball for much of the first quarter. The visiting Red Wolves were the first team to strike where it hurts – the scoreboard. Not exactly what the Tiger fans were hoping to see out of the revamped defense. The Tigers’ only prevented Louisiana Tech from scoring 20+ points last season. No such luck here. The Red Wolves put 26 on the board.
Ted Roof is not an SEC caliber coordinator in my opinion. Given the speed and talent of the Auburn defense, the consistent lack of results is troubling. The Tigers finally have something they didn’t have last year as well – depth. Granted a lot of it is young talent, there is still talent in the depth chart. Experience in the starting lineup, and talented youth in the depth chart. Tough combo to beat… unless you’re the opposing offense it seems.
Roof’s zone defense is soft and reactive. The Tigers almost never blitz. And when they do, it’s usually only one extra person. The corners consistently play 10 yards off the ball. The linebackers drop deep. This leaves gaping holes in the flats and underneath across the middle. Rather than utilize the speed of the secondary and running tight man defense to force bad throws, or the speed of the linebackers and run zone blitzes, Roof runs this weird mini-prevent. Which as my pop says, all it does is prevent you from winning. It’s a bend-but-don’t-break defense that bends all the way to the endzone. Arkansas State consistently attacked the lack of coverage on the slot receivers by running little bubble screens and quick hits to get their receivers the ball in space, allowing them to pick up 6 or 7 yards at a time.
Roof is slow to make adjustments. It took him an entire half to adjust the linebackers to get out onto the slot receivers and pull in the corners tighter. I can’t understand why it would be so hard to see that what you are doing isn’t working and adjust. It cost Auburn many games last year, including the Iron Bowl. Alabama simply ran two plays down the field on their game-winning drive – a 7-yard hook route to Julio Jones and a swing pass to Trent Richardson.
But there is light on the horizon for the Auburn faithful. QB Cam Newton shined in his debut. He was crisp throwing the ball, and when the opportunity presented himself, Newton tucked the ball and gained positive yards – a lot of it. Newton finished the day 9-14 for 186 and 3 touchdowns passing, and 171 yards on 15 carries plus another 2 touchdowns on the ground. He looked composed and confident in the pocket, and elusive out of it. The thing that impressed me most was even when Newton was scrambling, he still had his head up looking downfield for a target. Once he decided to tuck it though, he was off. His release is quick. His pass was accurate. His arm is big. Incredibly quick for a man his size, Newton will be a tough man to sack for opposing defenses. Good start to the season for Newton and the Auburn offense. They’re gonna need it.