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Showing posts with label Auburn Tigers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Auburn Tigers. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Two-A-Days: Auburn Tigers

Two-a-Days rolls on with our second installment, in which we take a closer look at the Auburn Tigers.

To read previous entries, click HERE.

Auburn in a flash:

Head Coach: Gene Chizik, second year
2009 Record: 8-5 (3-5 SEC), beat Northwestern in Outback Bowl
2009 Stats: Total offense, 431.77 ypg (2nd SEC, 12th nationally); Total defense, 374.08 ypg (11th SEC, 68th nationally)
Coaching Changes: None
Starters Returning: Offense (7), Defense (8), Special Teams (1)
Key Player Losses: QB Chris Todd, RB Ben Tate, DE Antonio Coleman
Big Games: Arkansas (10/16), LSU (10/23), Georgia (11/13), at Alabama (11/26)
Non-Conference Slate: Arkansas State (9/4), Clemson (9/18), Louisiana-Monroe (10/2) and Chattanooga (11/6)

Auburn rebounded in its first year under Gene Chizik to earn a berth in the Outback Bowl, and with the arrival of JuCo transfer QB Cam Newton and a schedule that is particularly favorable leading up to the annual Iron Bowl, there's every reason to think further progress will be made in 2010.

To get more on the Tigers, however, I checked in with Auburn beat writer Andy Bitter of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer to get some details on spring practice…

David Hale: Given all the turmoil of last offseason, it's ironic that Auburn is the lone SEC team that entered the spring with its full coaching staff still intact. Were things feeling a good bit more comfortable for the Tigers and for Gene Chizik this spring than last?

Andy Bitter: There was definitely a sense of continuity this spring and more than one coach remarked about how much ahead of last year the players were, both in their comfort with the coaches and in the system. It was especially noticeable in the quarterbacks. Although presumed frontrunner Cam Newton is new to the system, both Neil Caudle and Barrett Trotter are in their second year under offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's tutelage. It showed in the A-Day scrimmage, where Caudle and Trotter combined for 353 passing yards and three touchdowns (albeit against watered-down coverages).

DH: The quarterback battle probably grabbed the most headlines, and it sounds like Cam Newton is most people's favorite to land the job. Who stood out to you this spring and how do you see this process playing out into the fall?

AB: Despite the coaches' reluctance to name a starter, it is 99 percent sure to be Newton. The No. 1 junior college prospect in the country didn't transfer to Auburn to sit on the bench, not when opportunities to play were plentiful around the country. At 6-foot-6, 247 pounds, he certainly passes the eye test. Now it's a matter of him getting to know the offense (he has four more months to wade through the playbook) and settle into a groove (he was jumpy at A-Day, overthrowing a couple of passes in the end zone that should have been touchdowns).

As for the rest, Caudle had an OK spring, but nothing special enough to make you think he's made the leap from backup to major player. Trotter bounced back from an ACL injury that cost him last year to show enough that he could be a quarterback of the future, and redshirt freshman Clint Moseley, while fourth in the race, at least got his first taste of working with the team after performing a scout team role last year. Still, there's no doubt in my mind that Newton's going to be the starter.

DH: Ben Tate was the cornerstone of Auburn's offense last year, but he's gone now. Has Mario Fannin seized the job? How might guys like Onterrio McCalebb or incoming freshman Michael Dyer fit in to that mix?

AB: Fannin satisfied everything the coaches wanted to see from him by the end of spring, getting the No. 1 tailback blessing from running backs coach Curtis Luper, along with the same 1,000-yard prediction Luper gave Tate. Fannin eliminated his fumbling problems and worked on lowering his pads to better suit running between the tackles. There will be plenty of carries to go around, though. Malzahn has said repeatedly that you need more than one running back to succeed in the SEC. McCalebb has bulked up some, but his game will always be about speed. Luper said he won't hesitate to throw Dyer in the mix immediately, but if history is an indicator, it'll be tough for him to make an immediate impact. I could see him being a factor in the second half of the season, but the beginning of the season, and possibly longer, will be Fannin's time.

DH: On the defensive side of the ball, Auburn finished 11th in the SEC in total defense last year and 10th in rushing defense -- including allowing 25 TDs on the ground. How much has changed in that area this spring? Has anyone stepped up that could help turn that around?

AB: It's hard to tell. Auburn had so many defenders sitting out of spring drills that the feel-good story of the spring was about walk-on safety Ikeem Means, whose performance may or may not have been a mirage.

Three safeties returning from injuries -- Zac Etheridge (neck), Aairon Savage (Achilles', knee) and Mike McNeil (leg) -- still have major question marks. Furthermore, Daren Bates, a freshman All-SEC safety who moved to a hybrid safety/linebacker spot in the offseason, sat out spring drills following shoulder surgery, leaving plenty of question marks.

But one bright spot was cornerback Demond Washington, who moved to safety at the end of last year. If he makes strides, Auburn won't feel the sting of Walt McFadden's graduation as much. Also, defensive end Antoine Carter capped a solid spring with 3.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks in the A-Day scrimmage, giving Auburn hope that he can somewhat replace the production of Antonio Coleman, the departed SEC leader in sacks and TFLs.

The key will be the return of the injured players. If they can come back, Auburn will at the very least shore up the depth problems that troubled it last year. If not, it could be another year of the defense trying to patch up problems on the fly.

DH: Well you mentioned in the secondary, Auburn gets Aairon Savage and Mike McNeil back from injuries. How'd they look this spring, and how much of a difference might they make in the season to come?

AB: Savage didn't participate in contact drills, but coaches were encourage by the way he has moved around. (Of course, they said that last year when he was coming off a knee injury and he ended up tearing his Achilles' in the summer). Although he was a full participant this spring, McNeil still had a noticeable limp a year after breaking his leg in a spring scrimmage. That left plenty of reps for junior Drew Cole and Means, a walk-on who drew universal praise from the coaches for the way he flew to the ball and caused turnovers.

But Auburn will need something from the injured guys -- including Etheridge, who didn't participate in contact this spring but will likely return to the field following a scary neck injury last fall. The coaching staff appears to be banking on them to return if Bates' move to linebacker is an indication. If healthy, the trio of Etheridge, Savage and McNeil would provide bodies and experience to a secondary that was paper thin last year. Of course, expecting all three to get back to their pre-injury form might be wishful thinking.

***

Big thanks to Andy for his input. You can read his work in the Ledger-Enquirer HERE, view his blog HERE or follow him on Twitter HERE.

So, what do you think about Auburn's potential in 2010? More progress from last year or time for a step back in Year 2 under Chizik?

And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at dhale@macon.com.

NEXT UP:

Monday, November 16, 2009

Grading the Game: Auburn Tigers

I've got an afternoon appointment, so I'm forced to condense the grades a tad. So figure on about 9,000 words instead of 10,000 this week. Here we go...

QUARTERBACK: Here's Joe Cox's line for the game Saturday:

8 completions, 17 attempts, 139 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT

OK, that wasn't his actual line. That is what his line would have looked like if Josh Bynes had intercepted Cox's third quarter throw to Orson Charles rather than allow it to tip off his hands and into Charles' waiting arms for a 34-yard gain on a third-and-8 play.

When Mark Richt called it the turning point in the game, he wasn't exaggerating. It was a fluke play that went Georgia's way, and the results of the game were much different because of it.

So does that mean we can still bash Cox for another lackluster performance?

I say no, and here's why:

-- Georgia was due a good bounce sooner or later. I can't honestly think of a single time when the breaks have gone Georgia's way this season. The seemingly flukey plays that have gone Georgia's way this season -- the PAT block by DeAngelo Tyson or the FG block by A.J. Green or Cox's fumble recovery by Carlton Thomas -- were all the results of good players making big plays. Luck hasn't been on the Dawgs' side once this season that I can recall.

-- Cox got one lucky break, but Auburn and Chris Todd got at least three. Todd should have had two more picks but Georgia's defense couldn't get out of their own way to make the interception, and Demond Washington had a fumble on a punt return that the Dawgs' once again botched an attempt to recover.

-- Cox should have had Tavarres King for a 57-yard touchdown throw the drive preceding Charles' immaculate reception. The ball was perfectly thrown, but tipped off King's fingers.

So let's call it even. Cox didn't deserve credit for the completion to Charles', but there were enough things that went against him and the Dawgs that it balanced out.

The throws to Charles and King also illustrate a larger point I've tried to make all season but no one seems to want to listen to: Cox can throw the deep ball as well as almost anyone in the SEC. His throw to Israel Troupe, the long balls to King… he places them well and he gets plenty of air under them. His problem is not the deep ball. His problem is those 15-yard routes over the top where he needs to get enough zip on the pass to put it over the head of a linebacker to connect with his receiver five yards farther down the field. He doesn't have the arm strength to make those throws consistently, but when he can simply sit back and heave it downfield -- he does it pretty well.

Of course, all that is pretty easily illustrated if you want to watch the film or look at the stats. What isn't easily seen by anyone who isn't in the huddle is the leadership Cox has brought to the offense this season.

I know, I know. There are already people who can't stand Cox any longer and are sitting on their sofa, shaking their heads and saying, "That Hale guy just won't give it up. He'll defend Cox to his death because he doesn't know the first thing about football." I get it.

But this isn't about defending Cox's ability as a quarterback. Clearly he's made some very bad decisions and some very bad throws at some very bad moments this season. I'm not defending that.

But in four of Georgia's six wins, the Dawgs have had to come from behind this year. In three of those, Georgia trailed by double-digits early. In the other, they needed a field goal late. And in one of the four losses, Georgia rallied from a six-point defect with less than three minutes to play against one of the best defenses in the SEC, only to see their own defense and special teams throw the game away.

That's five really impressive comeback performances in just 10 games. And let's look at that offense again: The line has been a wreck most of the season. The Dawgs have only had three wide receivers to work with virtually all year. There has been a complete carousel at tailback since Day 1. All three tight ends getting playing time are young and inexperienced. Even the offensive coordinator is probably in a little over his head in his first year calling plays without NFL-level talent at QB and RB.

And then there's Cox, who has without question been the steadying force.

I know you can watch the games on TV or from the stands and see that Cox has his flaws. Trust me, I see those flaws, too. But having been in the locker room after the games, having talked to all those kids surrounding Cox in the offensive huddle, I can promise you, Georgia wouldn't have six wins without him. Nowhere close.

Again, I'm not absolving Cox of any of the bad throws this year. But I think if we all took a step back and stopped comparing him to what Matthew Stafford was last year or what we all think Logan Gray or Aaron Murray might have been this year and simply judge Cox on what he is, I think there's a lot to like about the performance he's turned in this season.

And if you don't believe me, I'll ask you this: After seeing him go toe-to-toe and win against Ryan Mallett, Stephen Garcia and Chris Todd, how many starting QBs in the SEC would you rather have today than Joe Cox? He's not No. 1, but he's a long way from No. 12.

Final Grade: B

RUNNING BACKS: Remember a month ago when everyone was worried about what would become of the Georgia backfield? Remember how desperate it seemed Georgia would be to land a top tailback recruit? Remember how bleak the future appeared?

Anyone still worried?

Sure, Georgia would benefit greatly from bringing in another top recruit at the position, but Washaun Ealey and Caleb King have looked like an exceptional combo for the past three games. For the second straight week, Ealey came up just shy of 100 yards on the ground, picking up 98 yards on 18 carries en route to the SEC's freshman of the week honors.

King was even better. He ran just 10 times but averaged 6.6 yards per carry and scored Georgia's final two touchdowns.

The most impressive part of both of their efforts was how much they showed after first contact. That was the bug-a-boo for Georgia's runners all season, but against Auburn, King and Ealey ran exceptionally hard and picked up some big gains after that first hit.

The two players really seem to compliment each other well, and it was obvious by late in the third quarter that King and Ealey were still fresh, and Auburn's front seven were worn out.

And, of course, it's worth noting King's unbelievable block that set up Cox's long bomb to Israel Troupe in the second quarter. You can see the still frame HERE or watch the video HERE.

Of course, if you watch the video, you'll have to do the pausing and rewinding yourself since ESPN spent two full minutes after the play without showing a single replay, without mentioning King's block, without mentioning the fact that it was Troupe's first catch and without mentioning anything about the play call. Instead, we were treated to Bob Davie complaining that players had no business having Facebook accounts. I wish I was making this up.

Final Grade: A (and an F for Bob Davie)

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: Let me join the chorus in saying it absolutely sucks that A.J. Green will not be able to finish the season the way he started it.

Green was in position to win All-SEC honors (which he still should do, in my opinion), be in line for national awards, set the Georgia record for receiving yards in a season and place himself among the truly remarkable receiving seasons in the SEC, all while commanding the full attention of every defense he went against.

And now, he'll likely miss three-and-a-half of the final four games of his regular season.

It's a shame for him and it's a shame for the fans who won't get to see him out there. He's easily the most fun player to watch that I've covered in my time in the newspaper business. (With apologies to Calvin Johnson, who didn't ask to have Reggie Ball as his QB.)

But rather than lament the loss of Green -- for this week at least, and perhaps next week against Georgia Tech as well -- let's take a look at what remains.

Israel Troupe came out of nowhere against Auburn. I think every person in the stadium -- from the press box to the Georgia sideline -- was asking who the heck that was that caught the 50-yard bomb from Cox in the second quarter. "Wait… No. 28? Isn't that Israel Troupe? Where did he come from?"

Of course, the next thought was generally, "Where's A.J.?" And Troupe's big catch -- his first of the season and the first TD of his career -- was generally overshadowed by the image of Green walking solemnly into the tunnel and back to the locker room.

But Troupe proved why he was so highly recruited coming out of high school, and his second catch -- a diving grab across the middle for 12 yards that kept a scoring drive alive -- was perhaps even more impressive than the long TD.

The question is: Does this mean we'll see more of Troupe?

Mark Richt said Sunday that he was "very disappointed" in the run blocking done by Georgia's receivers against Auburn and that the job of replacing Green would be an open competition this week during practice.

That's hardly a ringing endorsement for anyone, but it might be more of a comment on freshman Rantavious Wooten, who had a seven-yard run in the game but was held without a catch (or even a target that I saw) against Auburn. Wooten was the de facto starter with Green out against Tennessee Tech two weeks ago, but he clearly wasn't the favored option Saturday, and that may well be the case going forward, too.

Tavarres King and Orson Charles each had long receptions against Auburn, too. Charles made a nice play to haul in a pass that had bounced off a defender's hands, while King wore out Neiko Thorpe throughout the game, but was only able to haul in one catch.

But I think the stat of the game was this: Despite heading to the locker room midway through the second quarter, A.J. Green still led Georgia in receptions Saturday.

It has been seven games since someone other than Green had at least three receptions and at least 50 yards in the same game, and that includes the past two contests when Green was absent for the vast majority. Georgia's offense should have plenty of opportunities to move the ball against a banged-up Kentucky defense and a Georgia Tech unit that has had its share of problems. But if the Dawgs want to be competitive in either game, they'll need to find someone who can be a consistent threat with Green on the sidelines.

Final Grade: C (The handful of big plays offset what was otherwise a weak effort)

OFFENSIVE LINE: It probably took a few weeks too long, but credit Stacy Searels for finally finding a lineup that works.

Since moving Clint Boling to left tackle against Florida, Georgia's tailbacks are averaging 162 yards per game on the ground. In the seven games prior to the move, the Dawgs' tailbacks averaged 102 yards per game rushing.

(*Note, that's tailbacks only, not including stats for QB runs, sacks or gadget plays with Branden Smith, etc.)

The average yards per carry is up nearly 1.5 ypc for the tailbacks with Boling at left tackle and Josh Davis on the right side, too. And the best part has been the consistency. Since the change on the line, Georgia has averaged fewer than three runs per game that went for zero or negative yards (8 total in three games, including two by Carlton Thomas and Kalvin Daniels at the tail end of the Tennessee Tech game when the backup linemen were in).

In the seven games prior to that, Georgia's tailbacks were averaging nearly five plays for a loss or no gain on the ground (I had conveniently done that research just before the Florida game if you want to check it out). So if we discount a couple of bad runs behind Casey Nickels, Kevin Perez, et al (no offense to them), Georgia is averaging three fewer negative-yardage plays per game since the changes on the O line.

The general theory is this: The O line is almost completely responsible for what happens in the backfield. The runner is almost completely responsible for what happens beyond 5-6 yards downfield. In between, it's a combo of the two.

I think clearly Georgia's primary ball carriers -- Caleb King and Washaun Ealey -- have done a much better job of late than the running game did early, but the reduction in negative plays shows that the change on the O line has paid real dividends, too. Of course, you have to wonder how much different those LSU and Tennessee games -- when UGA's running attack floundered the most -- might have looked if Georgia had made these changes a bit earlier.

My favorite detail from Saturday's exceptional performance, however, came from Caleb King. After the game, I asked him about his second touchdown that proved to be the winning margin. He said Ben Jones came up to him as they broke the huddle and simply said, "Get behind me. We're going to the end zone." That's exactly what happened. Mike Bobo had been asking for the line to command respect all season. It seems like they're finally doing it.

One other positive note for the O line: The penalties were way down this week. The Dawgs had a couple of early flags, but it was smooth sailing after the first quarter, and it didn't even take players being pulled from the game to make it happen.

Final Grade: A

DEFENSIVE LINE: Auburn ran the ball effectively at times, averaging just a touch over 4 yards per carry on the ground (not including sacks) but each time the Tigers handed the ball off, there was a palpable sigh of relief from the Georgia fans.

The Dawgs' defensive front was strong, and the secondary… um, not so much.

So why did Gus Malzahn continue to go to the well in the running game rather than continue to exploit Georgia's beleaguered secondary? You've got me, other than that he, like every offensive coordinator, believes in balance.

It did seem like Auburn went away from what it was doing successfully early, but give Georgia's defensive front credit for continuing to frustrate Auburn's running attack throughout the game, regardless of the circumstances. Ben Tate, one of the SEC's top runners, averaged just 3.3 yards per carry in the game.

The defensive line also racked up three more sacks in the game, and all three of them came at absolutely crucial moments.

After Auburn's first two drives were surgical in their precision and Chris Todd was dominant in the passing game, the Tigers set up shop in Georgia territory for their third drive with a chance to put the game away. On the previous drive, Auburn had converted three third-and-longs en route to a touchdown, so when the Georgia defense faced a third-and-12 at its own 46 on the Tigers' third series, you know what had to be going through their heads.

But instead of Todd dropping back and completing his 10th pass in 12 attempts, Geno Atkins met him in the backfield and dumped him for a nine-yard loss to force a three-and-out that Willie Martinez later said changed the tone of the game.

Georgia kicked a field goal on its first drive of the third quarter to pull to within four and the defense desperately needed to prove it was up to the task on Auburn's first drive of the second half. A six-yard run by Tate on first down didn't exactly inspire confidence, but the line was able to get in Todd's face and force an incompletion on second down and Justin Houston dumped Todd for a loss of six on third down to force yet another punt. That would essentially be the tone of the second half -- Todd simply wasn't the same quarterback.

Then, on Auburn's final drive, Cornelius Washington made what might have been the most undervalued play of the game. Bacarri Rambo had just broken up what could have been a game-tying touchdown at the 2-yard line, but lay motionless on the field for nearly 15 minutes. When play resumed, Auburn faced a third-and-11 from the Georgia 23. Malzahn had ample time to draw up the perfect play, and Georgia's defense could hardly be blamed if they weren't emotionally prepared to get back into the game. But that's not what happened.

Todd dropped back to pass and Washington and Houston were immediately in the backfield. Houston supplied the initial pressure from one side, forcing Todd right into Washington's waiting arms for a sack and a loss of seven.

And let's not forget the fourth sack that never happened because Chris Todd astutely found an open receiver -- his right tackle.

Demarcus Dobbs had great pressure twice, too, and both times it resulted in interceptions, once after Dobbs hit Todd's arm as he threw.

Overall, Georgia had nine tackles for a loss in the game, 5.5 of them coming from D linemen. And while we mentioned how bright the future might look with Washaun Ealey and Caleb King in the backfield, Georgia fans might want to start getting equally excited about the Washington-Houston duo on the defensive side of the ball, too. Those guys are going to be good.

Final Grade: A

LINEBACKERS:
There were some very good moments by the linebacking corps and some very bad ones.

For starters, Rennie Curran got back on track in the tackle department, leading Georgia's defense with 12 takedowns in the game. That's his first game in double digits since LSU.

Curran's understudy, Christian Robinson, had a nice game, too. He had four tackles, including one of Ben Tate in the backfield on first down from the Georgia 22-yard line on that crucial final drive. Rambo's pass breakup saved the game, Washington's sack changed the momentum and Brandon Boykin's coverage sealed the game. But it was Robinson's takedown of Tate on first down that set the wheels in motion for those next three huge plays.

Akeem Dent got his first start of the season after battling his way back from a series of hamstring injuries. He finished with six tackles, including 1.5 for a loss. In another of the "what if" moments of this season, you have to wonder how much better this linebacking crew might have been if Dent and Marcus Dowtin had been healthy all year.

Those were the good. Now the bad:

Auburn was prolific with the screen passes. Georgia's linebackers and DBs weren't able to stop any plays up front before they had already gone for long gains. That helped the Tigers convert several third-and-longs, and was the key to their early success on offense. The read-and-react on the screens did improve a bit as the game went along, but the LBs looked completely unprepared for it in the early going.

And finally, Darryl Gamble is a mess in coverage. I have no clue why Gus Malzahn went away from what was working early in the game for Auburn, but even more perplexing is his limited use of tight end Tommy Trott. Trott caught just one pass in the game, despite generally overmatching Gamble in coverage, and not surprisingly it went for 34 yards -- the biggest gain of the day in the passing game for Auburn.

Final Grade: C

SECONDARY:
It was awful early. I'm not sure how much more can be said about the DBs that we haven't already said. Bryan Evans is often overmatched. Prince Miller isn't anywhere close to a No. 1 corner. Brandon Boykin continues to be the best cover corner Georgia has, but even he was burned at times Saturday. But for the sake of optimism, let's look at some of the good moments:

-- Boykin and Reshad Jones each had interceptions in the game, marking the first time all year Georgia had two takeaways in the same game. Boykin's interception came as a direct result of Dobbs' getting pressure on Todd and hitting his arm in the middle of the throw. Jones' pick came following pressure from the D line, too, and was essentially a gift throw. The secondary could have had two other picks, too, but failed to haul them in, including one embarrassing moment in which two defenders collided going after the ball.

-- Bacarri Rambo made the play of the day in saving that touchdown, then inspired his teammates to two more great plays to seal the game. That kid's going to be really good.

-- Boykin showed his exceptional cover skills on the fourth-down heave by Todd, and Bryan Evans made up for some bad moments by ensuring the ball fell incomplete after Mario Fannin made a nice second effort after Boykin's initial contact.

-- After starting the game 14-of-16 passing for 164 yards and 2 TDs in the first 24 minutes of the game, Todd finished 6-of-12 for 74 yards with two interceptions and no TDs in the final 36 minutes of action.

Overall, it was another troubling performance by the secondary, but one in which they responded well to early adversity and ended up coming through when it mattered most. If I was feeling generous, I might even give them the benefit of the doubt that the early struggles were more a matter of getting used to the tempo of Auburn's offense than anything. I'm not sure I'm feeling that generous, but I will say there was probably more to feel good about than there is to complain about from this performance.

Final Grade: C+

SPECIAL TEAMS:
So Brandon Boykin set the school record for number of kick returns in a season. That, of course, is a pretty dubious record for Georgia's defense, particularly since it comes with three more games left to play this season. That's a lot of kicking off the opposition is doing.

Anyway, in the interest of time, I'll just add two things here:

1.) Blair Walsh = money in the bank.

2.) Directional kicking = very, very stupid. Two more kickoffs get added to "The List."

Final Grade: D

COACHING: Overall, it was a solid effort, and regardless of how much you might want him gone at year's end, Willie Martinez deserves some credit for keeping his unit together after that rough start and holding the SEC's leading offense to just three points after those first two drives.

Regarding the directional kicking, I can only assume Jon Fabris was getting bored by all the touchbacks Blair Walsh has been kicking and decided he needed the challenge. I'll also point out that both of those directional kicks that resulted in big returns for Auburn were perfectly placed by Walsh. The returns were the fault of awful coverage. And while ESPN tends to avoid discussing Georgia for more than 3 seconds, Loose Boltz, Mark May and company actually spent a while going through Demond Washington's 99-yard return and pointing out how awful Georgia's coverage was. The Dawgs had three safeties back, and all three were out of position.

And I'm curious as to why Mike Bobo decided to throw so much early. Georgia went without a first down in the first quarter, and I think most of that comes back to Bobo's play calling. Auburn's run defense is not good, and as Tigers beat writer Andy Bitter told us before the game, Georgia should have expected to be able to run effectively.

Instead, Georgia threw a quick screen for a loss of five on first down on its first drive, which resulted in a punt. Then tried to get gimmicky on first down on their second drive, pitching a toss sweep to Branden Smith that went for a loss of one on their second drive. Again, another three-and-out.

There is no doubt a time and place for both of those plays, but you should be using your run game to set up the gadgets, not the other way around. Not surprisingly, when Bobo got his head on straight and got back to basics, the results were immediate. On Georgia's third drive, the Dawgs opened with a handoff to Caleb King, who ran around right tackle for a gain of seven and four plays later they were celebrating a touchdown.

Finally, I wanted to end with this. I noted in my Sunday Teleconference Notes that Richt avoided a definitive answer when asked if this year's defense was better than last year's unit.

The reaction from most of you has been the same: Oh, that darned Mark Richt is trying to cover up for Willie again.

I just don't see how anyone could read it that way. First off, please remember that Richt is not going to give any of his assistants The Blair Walsh Treatment while the season is still going on, so you would all be well served to stop expecting it.

I've heard a number of other people complain that Richt gave Willie a big hug after the game. Um, they'd just won an emotional game after the defense held strong on the final drive. What did you want Richt to do? Punch him in the face?

And third, look again at Richt's reply. He didn't say, "Yes, if you take into account all the turnovers and adversity, the defense has been much better." That would have been an easy and probably expected answer. Instead what he said was, I wish I could have seen what the defense would have looked like without all that adversity. I think that's probably a more clear picture of Richt's feelings. He desperately wants the defense to have played better, but he's looking at the situation for what it is. To me, it almost seemed like a statement of resigned admittance that, regardless of what might have been, there's little left to deal with but the reality of what is.

Again, maybe I'm reading too much into it. I don't know. But I can't help but remember last season when Richt indignantly said that fans weren't qualified to judge his staff and promised no changes would be made with weeks left to play. His answer to an innocuous question about the D's performance this year, particularly on the heels of a game when the D actually made some big plays, seems in stark contrast to that.

Final Grade:
B

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Live Blog: Georgia vs. Auburn

PREGAME:

-- ESPN's camera cranes that run up and down the walkway behind the hedges have flat-screen TVs on the side. That's classy.

-- So Colt McCoy tied David Greene's record for wins. This in the same season that Tim Tebow "broke" Herschel's SEC TD record. In the same season that Georgia had four losses sooner than any year since Mark Richt took over. I think the law of averages says things have to balance out by Georgia winning a national title next year.

-- I'm guessing no black uniforms today.

-- The Ole Miss thumping of Tennessee shakes up the bowl picture a bit for Georgia. If the Dawgs win tonight, that'll put them two games up in the standings over the Vols. Of course, UT has to winnable games to close out -- Kentucky and Vandy. If they win both, they'd be a game behind Georgia (assuming UGA wins tonight and beats Kentucky) which would make the choice for the SEC rep in the Outback Bowl an interesting one. The Dawgs would be higher in the standings, but the Vols would own the head-to-head in blowout fashion. Of course, all of that is a moot point if Georgia doesn't take care of business tonight.

-- A few pregame predictions for tonight: Caleb King finds the end zone; Reshad Jones has an INT; Joe Cox completes 60 percent of his passes; A.J. Green tops 100 yards; Uga considers biting an Auburn player but reconsiders and simply lays around listlessly instead.

-- Billy Payne was honored on the field for winning the Distinguished American Award by the National Football Foundation. That beats the heck out of my Distinguished Person In My Living Room Award that I presented myself with earlier today. I followed it with a nap.

-- Man, Florida is such a fraud. Seriously, how have they been any more impressive than TCU this season? By the way, I don't want to jinx it, but my picks are looking pretty good this week.

-- And if you're looking for a prediction for this game -- I'm on an absurdly tight deadline, which means this one will come down to the final drive.

UPDATE, START OF FIRST QUARTER

-- I liked South Carolina's uniforms today. All the players had names on the back of their uniforms signifying qualities that represent the U.S. armed forces. Classy. Plus it can only help South Carolina's players for fans not to be able to identify which players are to blame for bad plays.

-- I'd just like to point out that Georgia has been significantly worse since they changed the pregame intro music to Nickleback before last season. I hate Nickleback.

-- Yup, red jerseys. I would have gone with purple. Nothing gets you fired up like purple.

-- Potential update to the pregame intro.... "This Saturday is about Finishing the Drill".... "This Saturday is about representing the Bulldog Nation".... Umm... this Saturday is about becoming bowl eligible.

-- Garrison Hearst is the honorary captain tonight. I think he's going to slip into Richard Samuel's uniform and play a few series, too.

-- Georgia will kick off to open the game. Demond Washington returns it to the 26 where the Tigers will get set for their first drive.

-- Onterrio McCalebb is playing after all, and he takes the first carry of the game for a 3-yard gain. Nice tackle by Rennie on the play.

-- Chris Todd's first pass zips just passed a diving Bryan Evans for a sizeable gain close to the 45.

-- Ben Tate uses back-to-back runs to get into Georgia territory. Not an impressive start for the UGA D. Todd follows that by hitting Adams to the 26. Evans in coverage again. Guess Auburn's been watching the film.

-- Darvin Adams hauls in another reception over the middle of the field, finding a hole in the middle of the zone between Reshad and Evans to set up a first-and-goal at the 10. At this point, Willie should breathe a sigh of relief every time Auburn runs the ball.

-- Second flag of the game (the first was declined) on Georgia for offsides on Demarcus Dobbs. Second-and-goal at the 5.

-- Todd eludes pressure and finds a wide open Kodi Burns in the end zone for the touchdown. Prince Miller was in coverage... if you can call it that. Auburn 7, Georgia 0 (9-74-3:47)

-- Interesting note on that drive: Dobbs was flagged for offsides. He didn't come out of the game. Maybe Richt's rule only applies to offensive linemen.

-- Squib kick fielded by Justin Fields and returned to the 34. Brandon Boykin's reputation is starting to catch on, I guess.

-- Quick out to A.J. is read immediately and goes for a loss back to the 29. Wow, so this is what happens if you watch film, know what's coming, and the opposition does the same things they always do?

-- Flag... Josh Davis for false start... And Vince Vance goes out to replace him but turns aorudn and trots back off the field as Georgia was nearly whistled for too many men on the field. Now THAT would have been funny. Man, Georgia can't even get the punishment for the penalties right.

-- Another flag following the third screen in three plays. This time it's offsides on the defense, however, which gives Georgia a chance to run a fourth ineffective screen.

-- Ben Jones nearly sails the snap over Cox's head. Cox leaps, hauls it in and runs forward for a 2-yard gain. The boos come early. Not good.

UPDATE, FIRST QUARTER, 9:12 REMAINING

-- Nice play by Prince Miller who sniffs out a screen to McCalebb and drops him for a 3-yard loss to the 15.

-- Rennie loses his helmet on the next play. Wonder if he's doing his Brandon Spikes impression. Third-and-seven.

-- And we have another flag. Delay of game on Auburn this time. Richt sends in a replacement for Chris Todd, too.

-- McCalebb takes a shuffle pass and picks up the first down easily. Georgia's D looks like its stands no chance against this Auburn offense.

-- On another third-and-7, Todd laces a pass to Adams, who was covered by Boykin. The coverage wasn't awful, but Todd placed it perfectly.

-- Kade Weston barrels into the backfield and tackles McCalebb for a 10-yard loss. That's the first time the pressure has really been effective.

-- Boykin misses a tackle on Ben Tate, who picks up 10 to set up a third-and-10. Wonder what will happen here.

-- Quick screen to Mario Fannin who goes around the left side and eludes three tackles for the third straight third-and-long conversion for Auburn. What a disaster.

-- Todd hits a wide open Terrell Zachery in the end zone. I won't even bother to comment on the play except that we just discussed whether Willie would be fired at halftime or last until the third quarter. Yikes. Auburn 14, Georgia 0. (11-82-5:57)

-- Hey, at least Gordon Beckham is here.

UPDATE, FIRST QUARTER, 3:15 REMAINING

-- Hey, more flags. These come on the kickoff and one hits the line judge in the back of the head. Good times. And the result... a personal foul on Georgia -- Montez Robinson -- pushes them back to the 14-yard line.

-- Toss sweep to Branden Smith who goes nowhere. Really making things happen here.

-- And it's time to punt again. What about having Willie and Bobo switch jobs for the rest of the game? I mean, when Willie's involved, the scoreboard lights up. When Bobo's calling plays, it's punt city. It makes sense.

-- Washington returns this punt to the Georgia 44, which means a three-and-out for the Dawgs. And by that I mean three plays before Auburn scores.

-- Total yardage so far: Auburn 156, Georgia -2. See what I mean about swapping Willie and Bobo?

-- Third-and-12 results in a huge sack by Geno Atkins. A flag comes in, but it actually goes on Auburn. Maybe the tide has turned. Perhaps Georgia just needed to get down big to inspire the troops... it's the like the scoreboard equivalent of a black jersey.

-- Last play of the quarter for Georgia... and Caleb King actually has a nice run, picking up seven yards to the Georgia 20. But it's still another first quarter without a first down and without a point. In Georgia's four losses this season, they have a combined seven points and 13 first downs. Today: Zero and zero.

UPDATE, START OF SECOND QUARTER

-- Well at least the Redcoat Band is keeping the energy high. "Smooth Criminal" is definitely my favorite Michael Jackson song.

-- And a nice cheer for Caleb who picks up the Dawgs' first first down of the game to the 26.

-- A.J. goes in motion and literally hides behind the right tackle, then jumps out into the flat as Cox roles out and connects for a 12-yard gain. Good stuff.

-- Another quick out to A.J. at the line of scrimmage and Green dashes down the sideline with a stiffarm to midfield for another first down. This kid has a chance to be good.

-- Holy cow... Israel Troupe wide open down the sideline and Cox connects for the touchdown. I can't blame Auburn for being surprised. Seriously, Troupe? It went for 50 yards. Auburn 14, Georgia 7. (5-87-1:51)

-- Bad news... A.J. is being taken to the locker room. Looked like he was holding his left arm. Yikes. The good news doesn't last long.

UPDATE, SECOND QUARTER, 13:04

-- Hey we can add another example to our awful kickoff list... A directional kick after a key TD and Auburn returns it to the 39.

-- Third-and-eight and -- wait, you'll be shocked by this -- Todd dumps a screen pass to Tate who does down the middle of the field like it was Moses parting the Red Sea and is brought down at the Georgia 40. Awful. Just awful. That's four third-and-longs converted by Auburn already.

-- Third-and-six for the Tigers. I'd call for a screen here. Instead, Todd looks deep, finds no one and keeps it himself. Cornelius Washington brings him down at the 36. The Tigers pooch punt and give UGA the ball at the 3.

-- Update on A.J.: Injured shoulder and the press box announcement is that he is "out for now." Umm... yeah? Wait... what about now? Or to quote "Spaceballs"... When will then be now? Soon!

-- Back-to-back runs by Ealey takes the ball across the 15 for the first down. I don't understand why Bobo didn't run the ball more early. Set the tempo. Auburn's run defense is awful. Why get cute right off the bat?

-- Nick Fairley gets around Clint Boling and dumps Cox for a 15-yard loss at the 1. Hey, at least it wasn't a safety. Or a fumble.

-- Third-and-12 and Cox's pass to Tavarres King is broken up by Neiko Thorpe, who either timed his hit perfectly or should have been flagged. It was close. Butler's punt hits Branden Smith and rolls out of bounds at the Auburn 45.

UPDATED, SECOND QUARTER, 6:34 REMAINING

-- Todd goes over the middle and hits a sliding Mario Fannin for a 26-yard gain to the Georgia 44. Georgia's pass defense is brutal. I know Ben Tate's good and all, but why even bother running at this point if you're Auburn?

-- Todd's pass to Adams in the end zone falls incomplete. Nice effort by Adams, who nearly hauled in a one-handed grab. Adams was shaken up on that play, too. Looks like his elbow. Third-and-8... screen time!

-- Just a stat update: Todd 13-of-15 for 162 and 2 TDs. Somewhere Jonathan Crompton is nodding and smiling and malevelontly stroking his moustache.

-- Flag for holding on Auburn sets up a third-and-16. Todd's arm is hit as he throws by Dobbs and Brandon Boykin intercepts the wobbler. The best part? When Boykin came off the field, Willie accidentally hit him in the face with his hand as he half-heartedly attempted a high five. I'm not even going to make a joke about that.

-- Georgia takes over at its own 25. Cox under pressure again and is sacked at the 19. He had Caleb on a screen but didn't throw it, and the blocking couldn't hold up. It's a loss of six.

-- Another incompletion by Cox and a run on third-and-16 that goes nowhere draws a huge round of boos from the fans. I'd make a joke about all the recruits being here, but I think they might be booing that play call, too.

-- Washington boots the punt and, in pure Richt fashion, the ball just doesn't bounce Georgia's way, skipping past a Georgia defender and rolling out of bounds. Auburn takes over at its own 39.

-- Third-and-4 and for some inexplicable reason, Auburn runs. Rennie & Jeff Owens make the stop and the Tigers are now mulling over what to do on four down, eventually sending out the punt team before being flagged for a delay of game. For an "up tempo" team, Auburn sure does get called for delay of game a lot.

-- Brandon Wood was a fingertip away from blocking that punt, but instead it goes out of bounds at the 3. Georgia will have 85 seconds to go 97 yards.

-- A.J. update: Left shoulder sprain, and he's out for the game. Not exactly the news you wanted to hear, I'm sure.

-- And Georgia decides to simply let the clock run out. They had three timeouts, so they could have still run the ball out from the goal line, but instead they'll be happy to go to the locker room with a 14-7 defecit, getting the ball to start the second half.

UPDATED, START OF THIRD QUARTER

-- The blogging will need to be a little sparse this half as I've got to get my game notes and game story written ASAP thanks to our 11 p.m. deadline in Macon. You see, the philosophy here is simple: If we limit our coverage by making deadlines super early, people will obviously buy more newspapers and therefore the industry will be rejuvenated and that Internet fad will go the way of the electric car and good albums by The Killers.

-- Third-and-1 for Georgia from the 38. Caleb King goes up the middle for the first down.

-- Wooten in the game for Georgia. Cox goes deep down the other side of the field where Tavarres King has man coverage. The throw is placed well but King can't haul it in.

-- King takes the delayed handoff up to midfield to bring up a third-and-4. Three wide for Georgia with King in the backfield. Cox keeps it, goes straight down the middle and out toward the sideline for a 17-yard gain. See, Joe wasn't kidding about running more. Auburn D -- you just got a visit from the Ginger Ninja!

-- Auburn has a linebacker named Eltoro Freeman. I've now decided I'll be naming my first born Eltoro Hale. It's got a real ring to it.

-- Cox pass to Branden Smith isn't particularly well placed and Smith can't haul it in. That brings up third-and-9. Cox goes deep again for King -- same play as earlier -- and the ball was perfectly thrown but slips through King's outstretched hands in the end zone. That should have been six, but instead, Walsh comes in to attempt a 51-yarder.

-- And it's good... that's 5-of-5 by Walsh on 50-plus yard kicks. Auburn 14, Georgia 10 (9-38-3:45)

UPDATED, THIRD QUARTER, 10:10 REMAINING

-- On second down, Bryan Evans had an easy shot at an interception but couldn't come down with it. On third down, Justin Houston barreled through the line of scrimmage and sacked Todd for a 7-yard loss. Credit should go to Willie, I guess. The defense has improved dramatically since the first two drives. This sure doesn't feel like a 14-10 game, but that's the score and Georgia sets up at the 18 with a chance to take the lead.

-- Back-to-back runs by Ealey go nowhere. I won't criticize since I was just criticizing the lack of runs in the play calling. It does, however, bring up a third-and-8.

-- Joe Cox just threw one of the ugliest passes he's thrown all season. The ball should have been picked off by Auburn's Josh Bynes, but instead it tipped off his hands and was hauled in by Orson Charles for a 34-yard gain. That might be the first time the ball really has bounced Georgia's way all season. Wow.

-- Wooten and Ealey have back-to-back runs down to the Auburn 30. Branden Smith's presence seemed to throw the Tigers on that one. Good play call.

-- An Ealey run and an offsides call on Auburn gives Georgia a first down just inside the 20. This drive pretty much has to end with six.

-- And it does... Ealey goes around left end and no one is home for Auburn. He's dumped right at the goal line and the refs call for a review. Ealey had a nifty little spin move around the 2 and looked like he might have stepped out with the ball at the 1.

-- It's a 19-yard gain for Ealey, but not a score. Georgia sets up with a first-and-goal at the 1.

-- Ealey works his way into the end zone on the next play. He was hit behind the line but fought and dove forward to get in. Man, you have to wonder what might have happened if Ealey had been looking this good right out of fall camp. He's been exceptional for the better part of a month now. Georgia 17, Auburn 14 (8-82-4:33)

-- Not only did he score the go-ahead touchdown, but Washaun estutely identified Uga VII hiding behind Box of Fries No. 1 on the Jumbotron. The guy is just money.

-- Darius Dewberry being taken to the locker room now, too. Not sure when he got hurt.

UPDATED, THIRD QUARTER, 4:51 REMAINING

-- It suddenly smells very bad in here. I'm going to go ahead and blame the halftime hot dogs. Those things aren't good for you.

-- Kodi Burns on the Wildcat, hands off to McCalebb who goes for a big gain down to the Auburn 37.

-- Todd hits Tommy Trott for a huge gain down the middle. He had a ton of time and found Trott in man against Darryl Gamble who was beaten badly. The play goes for a first down all the way to the Georgia 24.

-- Third-and-3 from the 17. Todd throws to his left tackle, which surprisingly draws a flag. I'll give Todd credit -- at 6-8, 305, the kid is an inviting target.

-- That brings on Wes Bynum for a field-goal attempt. He's missed just one all season, and this one is from 37. It hits the left upright and bounces through... and once again the ball stops bouncing Georgia's way. Tie ballgame. Georgia 17, Auburn 17 (7-56-2:37)

-- Amusing anonymous comment: "
Bob Davie called Willie Martinez a "great" defensive coordinator. Interesting. That says a lot about Bob Davie."

-- Amusing comment from Brad: "Was Dewberry hurt on the sideline? Cause I haven't seen him since about 2006."

-- Boykin takes the kickoff and returns it to the 31. Boykin's second return before the half actually set a UGA record for most kick returns in a season with 29. That's what happens when your defense allows a lot of scoring, I suppose.

-- Holy cow... where has Israel Troupe been all year? He lays out to haul in a pass from Cox for a 12-yard gain. That was downright beautiful. It would make "SportsCenter" tonight if ESPN cared about Georgia highlights.

-- I'm not sure how effective rolling Cox out is. He's so slow that it just gives the D more time to read the play.

-- Another flag and another high snap from Ben Jones. The latter is negated by the former, a false start. Again, no personnel change. Ah well, it was fun while it lasted. Second-and-14 at the UGA 44.

-- Handoff to Branden Smith but Bynes is all over it, making a great play in the backfield for a 2-yard loss. That'll bring up third-and-16 to start the fourth quarter. And sadly, that'll do it for the live blog for tonight. Gotta have my gamer written as soon as the final whistle blows.

ONE LAST UPDATE...

-- Just like to point out that I predicted the Caleb TD and the Reshad INT. Thank me later.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Behind Enemy Lines: Auburn Tigers

It's Friday, another rival comes to town, so that means it's time to check in behind enemy lines with Auburn beat writer Andy Bitter of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.

I zipped off a few pointed questions to Andy earlier this week, and he was kind enough to give us the inside scoop on how the Tigers are preparing for tomorrow's showdown between the hedges...

David Hale: So Auburn wins five in a row to start Gene Chizik's career there. Then they drop three in a row, including an ugly one to Kentucky at home. Now they've won two more in a row. Looking deeper at the home/road splits, it looks like the Tigers play much better at Jordan-Hare than they do on the road, too. So what Auburn team are you expecting to show up Saturday?

Andy Bitter:
That's tough to tell. This is certainly a streaky team, and right now it's in one of it's hot streaks. That three-game losing streak really came out of nowhere, though. And it's hard to figure out why the offense, after dominating the first five weeks, suddenly dropped off the face of the earth. But now Auburn appears to have shored things up on the offensive side, so it would surprise me if it laid an egg in Athens. And it's true that the Tigers have played poorly on the road, especially their last time out at LSU, a 31-10 loss that wasn't even that close. But Auburn has historically played well in Athens (the road team in this series always has), so I think you'll see at the very least a competitive team out there Saturday.

DH: Chris Todd certainly seems to have blossomed this year and Auburn is now one of -- if not the -- most potent offenses in the SEC. What's been the key to the turnaround?

AB:
A lot of people began to question the health of Todd's surgically-repaired shoulder when Auburn struggled through that rough patch last month, but he's bounced back with two games where he's thrown the ball well, particularly downfield. I don't know how much of his bad performances were based on Todd as much as it was the entire offense not clicking. He had very little protection in those games and other teams appeared to have a better idea of what Auburn was trying to do on offense (ie. they were jumping bubble screens, etc). So as much as people want to pin those problems on Todd and Todd alone (it's a popular thing to do on the Plains), I think that's unfair. He's a fairly resilient quarterback who's gone through a lot in his career. This seems to be one of those bounce-back times.

DH: Teams have made a habit of rolling a safety over the top to help stop A.J. Green this season, with limited success. What's Auburn's plan, and will someone like 5-9 Demond Washington be up to the challenge of going up for jump balls against someone like Green?

AB:
First of all, Washington is 5-9 in high heels. I'd put him more around 5-7 or 5-8. But he does have cover skills. He was a cornerback prior to moving to safety, so matching up with a receiver, even one as physically gifted as Green, won't necessarily be daunting to him. Despite Washington's limited size, he still shows pretty good ball awareness when it's up there. (That being said, I don't like anybody's chance of going up for a jump ball against Green.) But Washington had pretty well established himself in a rotation at cornerback before moving back there. And he's pretty fearless when it comes to sticking his nose into the mix. Will that hold up over the long haul? For someone his size, probably not. But for these next two games, Auburn hopes he can get the job done.

DH: Auburn ranks 93rd nationally, allowing nearly 170 yards per game on the ground. Georgia ranks 83rd nationally, mustering just a shade over 130 yards per game on the ground -- although they have looked improved recently. So which unit might be in line for the better day?

AB:
The Tigers fared a little bit better on the ground against Ole Miss, save for one bust when Dexter McCluster broke off a 79-yard touchdown run. But it's still an ongoing problem. Tackling issues have been a constant problem all year. And although Auburn has shored up its weak-side linebacker spot with Eltoro Freeman, he's still out of place on occasion, leaving the defense open to big gains. The only real ground game Auburn has shut down this year is FCS Furman. I think Georgia is quite a bit better than the Paladins, so I'll say the Bulldogs get healthy on the ground this week.

DH: Wes Bynum is one of the SEC's best kickers, but the rest of Auburn's special teams have been a mixed bag, particularly in the punt-return game. Given that Georgia has one of the country's top punters, is that a concern for the Tigers?

AB:
I think Auburn's almost to the point where it will do punt returns high school style, with a guy back there under instructions not to touch the ball under any circumstances. It's comical. I think Philip Pierre-Louis had three punt return attempts last week against Furman. Two went for negative yards and a third was muffed for a turnover. It's an overlooked part of the team that hasn't cost it a game yet but probably will. Gene Chizik has taken a bigger role in deciding the punt returner and claims to have made it a top priority this week, but if you don't have anyone with that particular skill set that you can trust, there's not much you can do to hide it. All four of the guys the Tigers have tried back there have looked shaky. I can't imagine that suddenly changing this week.

DH: Any injury updates? Will Onterio McCalebb play?

AB:
Wide receiver Travante Stallworth (knee) is out. McCalebb doesn't sound like he will, judging by the coaches' comments (they won't come out and say anything definitive, of course). They're preparing Anthony Gulley to be the speed sweep guy in his place. He scored two touchdowns last week despite having never played running back before. So I don't know if McCalebb's absence is that big of a deal other than just his raw speed.

DH: We heard Lane Kiffin say that he thought the Georgia game was the most important of the year for his program in terms of getting things rolling in the right direction and helping with recruiting. Auburn has dropped three in a row to Georgia, and they have a first-year coach who needs to recruit Georgia heavily, too. So where does this one rank for Chizik? How about for the players, some of whom stand to graduate without ever having beaten the Bulldogs?

AB:
To steal a Chizism, "it's huge." Then again, he says that all the time. I think it's an important game, like you said, but still ranks behind the Iron Bowl, obviously. Chizik has made recruiting the state of Alabama such a priority that he hasn't really said much about recruiting Georgia, where Tommy Tuberville pulled a lot of talented players from during his 10-year run. Six of Auburn's 20 commits are from there, so it's obvious they're not ignoring it altogether. I think, as you pointed out, the greater motivating factor is beating Georgia for the first time in a while. It doesn't sit well with a lot of seniors that they haven't notched a "W" against the Bulldogs. And the whole Soulja Boy fiasco still bothers a bunch of them to this day. So yes, I think a win here would be doubly satisfying for Auburn, especially since it would likely lock up a trip to one of the SEC's premier bowl games.

Big thanks to Andy for some great insight. You can check out more of Andy's Auburn coverage at the Ledger-Enquirer HERE, read his excellent Auburn blog HERE or follow him on Twitter HERE.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Notes: Curran Mulls NFL Future

With the season winding down and the hype surrounding next year’s top NFL draft picks heating up, Rennie Curran knew he would have some tough decisions to make.

The junior linebacker is second in the SEC in tackles and is on pace for his second straight 100-tackle season at Georgia, and many draft services see him as a potential early draft choice. So from family and friends to fans who see him on campus, he’s already being hounded about his future.

“That’s one thing people always want to know,” Curran said. “They see you in that position and you’re ranked high and having a good season, and they want to know.”

Curran said Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, teammates last season who were both selected in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft, set a nice template for how to handle things, and that’s a path Curran plans to follow.

“Knowshon and Stafford, I watched them go through the same thing, and they did a good job handling it,” Curran said. “Right now, I’m just focused on the season, honestly. It crosses my mind just like it would anybody else who was in the situation I’m in, but it’s a good situation to be in and have to think about. But for the most part, I’m just focused on what got me here, which is working hard and finishing strong, because that’s all I really feel like matters.”

BACK TO THE BENCH

He’s the reigning SEC defensive lineman of the week, but that doesn’t mean Montez Robinson will be seeing a ton of action this week, head coach Mark Richt said.

The freshman defensive end earned his first serious playing time of the season against Tennessee Tech, racking up five tackles and two sacks while filling in for injured starter Justin Houston. But Houston’s injured elbow appears healthy this week, and that means Robinson will be back to his role of backup.

While his big week didn’t bump him up the depth chart, however, it wasn’t without it’s benefits.

“It’d be difficult to get him the same amount of reps he got last week with Justin being back, but he’s progressing and gaining confidence in himself, and we’re gaining more confidence in him,” Richt said.

Beyond the confidence boost for Robinson, it was a nice reminder for Georgia’s coaches that a once glaring hole on defense now appears to be turning into a strength.

Georgia was so thin at defensive end in the spring that two walk-on tight ends were forced to switch positions so the team could scrimmage, and when starter Rod Battle went down with a season-ending injury early in the year, things look bleak.

But Robinson’s emergence, coupled with Houston’s strong play and improved seasons from Demarcus Dobbs and Cornelius Washington, depth is far less of an issue that Richt might have imagined.

“Considering what happened a year ago and Roderick going out relatively early, you might have thought, well, here we go again,” Richt said. “But it really hasn’t been that way.”

ALIVE AND KICKING

This week’s matchup against Auburn has earned some buzz due in part to the tremendous talent both teams sport at kicker. The Tigers’ Wes Bynum and Georgia’s Blair Walsh are both among the country’s most accurate field-goal kickers, and while Walsh struggled in kickoffs last season, he has turned that around and is now the SEC’s leader in touchbacks.

All that success has been good for Georgia, but it has left Brandon Bogotay, the junior college transfer from San Diego brought in to challenge Walsh for the job, without much playing time this season.

“Every game I want to get in, so I’m just waiting for my shot,” Bogotay said.

Despite the lack of playing time – which has involved just one kickoff this season – Bogotay isn’t complaining. In fact, he’s thrilled to see the kicking game doing so well.

“Everyone wants to get their PT, but we push each other, we get better from each other, and it’s really all about the team,” Bogotay said. “As long as one of us is performing, I’m going to be happy.”

WAITING IN THE WINGS

There weren’t many members of Georgia’s 2009 signing class that haven’t seen the field this season, and several of those being redshirted are due to injuries. But of the six healthy players still waiting their turn to see the field on game day, Richt said many have adopted a healthy attitude toward work on the scout team.

“The great majority of their life right now is being on the scout team, but they can get better by doing it,” Richt said.

Richt pointed to past scout-team stars like Odell Thurman and Thomas Davis as examples of how this year’s redshirts are handling the job.

“Every day they said, ‘We’re going to give these guys as much grief as possible,’ and they got better,” Richt said. “I think we’ve got a little bit of that going on right now.”

Quarterbacks Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger both earned praise from offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who said that both have gotten far more work with the first- and second-team offenses in practice this season than past freshmen quarterbacks, due in part to starter Joe Cox’s injury that keeps him from throwing on Wednesdays.

Linebacker Chase Vasser suffered a minor injury after a scooter accident on campus earlier this season, but Richt said he’s healthy again and performing well.

“Chase has done a good job on the scout team for us, and he’s back on track doing fine,” Richt said.

Georgia’s two freshmen offensive linemen – Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee -- have helped the scout team look far more impressive than years past, too.

“We’ve actually had one of our better offensive scout teams in a while. We’ve had some really good offensive linemen over there that have been able to give us a better picture.”

But the star of the redshirts, Richt said, might be defensive tackle Kwame Geathers, who has come particularly far from his first days on campus, when he arrived three days after the start of fall camp, slow and overweight.

“I don’t know the number that he dropped, but it was probably in the 30-pound range if not more,” Richt said. “That guy really did a phenomenal job of really getting his body down to where he could run and have some stamina.”

REMEMBER WHEN

Throughout a tumultuous season that has seen Georgia drop four of its first nine games, Richt hasn’t had much of a roadmap for navigating the troubled waters in Athens. But his best comparison has been to look back at the Bulldogs’ 2006 season, when after a 6-4 start, Georgia won its final three games – all against ranked foes.

That run began with a shocking upset of Auburn on the road, a game in which Richt admitted afterward that he didn’t think his team could win. Now, as the Bulldogs try to rally to another strong finish, he’s doing his best to instill confidence in his players by reminding them of how much that 2006 team overcame.

“There’s definitely some parallels and some similarities,” Richt said. “We don’t know how it’s all going to finish, but as you’re looking for something to build on or put in front of your team to tell them that you can do it, you want to grab those positive comparisons.”

BIG WEEK FOR RECRUITING

The biggest group of recruits to visit Georgia on a game day since Richt has been in Athens came when the Bulldogs hosted Auburn in 2005, he said. Most years, the Georgia-Auburn game draws a hefty crowd.

This year’s game may not draw quite as many recruits as the ’05 game did, Richt said, but it will be close, and the players who will be in Athens rate pretty high on Georgia’s wish list.

“It’s big, it’s what you would expect for Georgia-Auburn,” Richt said. “I know that as we covered the names that are coming in, not only is it a long list, but it’s a list of outstanding players for 2010, 2011 and even a couple of 2012s in there.”

Of course, the problem then becomes handling such a big group of players, but Richt isn’t complaining.

“It’s going to be a difficult day to manage because you want to spend time with these people and let them know how much you care about them,” Richt said. “When there’s such a massive number, it’s very difficult to get everybody the amount of love they probably feel like they deserve. But that’s a good problem to have.”

FIRST CATCH FEELS GOOD

When he got to Georgia, tight end Arthur Lynch was already well aware of his role on the offense. Aron White and Orson Charles were both lean, athletic tight ends with immense receiving skills. Lynch was the brawn.

But with Georgia’s big lead in the fourth quarter last week, Lynch got his first chance to show that he’s capable of more than just pushing people around, picking up two receptions back to back – the first two catches of his career.

“That was a cool experience,” Lynch said. “We were up big and the other team was playing hard, but they called the same route twice and I caught it. It was cool to get in there and see what it was like. I’ve been playing at spots blocking, but in terms of route running and out catching passes, I hadn’t had the opportunity to do that until that game, so it was definitely cool to get a part of the offense.”

PARKING PROBLEMS

Tailgaters may want to be aware of some reduced parking around campus for Saturday’s game against Auburn. Due to the wet weather brought by Tropical Storm Ida, several grass-covered areas typically used for parking, including the lots near the intramural fields off East Campus Drive, will not be available. The school also urged fans to carpool, to avoid using pull-behind trailers and reconsider placing heavy objects on the wet grounds in other grass-covered parking areas.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Video Blog: Gene Chizik

Auburn coach Gene Chizik talks about his new offense and whether the spread can work for the Tigers.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Two-A-Days: Auburn Tigers

We're kicking off a two-week series today that I'm calling "Two-A-Days."

I've traded emails with beat writers for each SEC team, along with Georgia's three other BCS-conference opponents over the past couple of weeks to get some insider insight into what fans can expect from UGA's competition in 2009.

Each day, Monday through Thursday this week and next, we'll preview two teams, culminating with a final day in which we take a big-picture look at the SEC and take a deeper look at the biggest issues facing your Georgia Bulldogs. To submit a question for the Georgia entry in Two-A-Days, send me an email with the subject line "Two-A-Days" and I'll do my best to find you an answer.

Our first entry in the series is the Auburn Tigers.

AUBURN TIGERS
Head coach: Gene Chizik (first year)
2008 Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
Total Offense: 303 ypg (8th SEC, 104th overall)
Total Defense: 307.75 ypg (7th SEC, 29th overall)
On the docket: Auburn opens Sept. 5 vs. Louisiana Tech and visits Georgia on Nov. 14.

Auburn had a sub-par season last year with an offense that struggled mightily. The Tigers fired their offensive coordinator midseason, lost to arch rival Alabama, missed a bowl game and essentially ran their longtime coach, Tommy Tuberville, out of town. Gene Chizik was hired to replace Tuberville and turn things around, and I checked in with Andy Bitter of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer to find out how Chizik was doing this spring.

David Hale: Last year, Auburn tried the spread offense and it went over about as well as an Alabama jersey in the student section at Jordan-Hare. First Tony Franking gets canned, then Tommy Tuberville follows him out the door at season's end. Enter Gus Malzahn as the new offensive coordinator and Auburn is suddenly back to running the spread. What indications have you seen this spring that things might be different with the spread the second time around?

Andy Bitter: Gus Malzahn has been very specific and intentional with his words about his offense, particularly after last year's failed experiment. Malzahn contends this is not a spread offense, just up tempo. That means running the ball will still be a priority, with a smashmouth mentality (and looking at Malzahn's track record at Arkansas and Tulsa, he appears to be telling the truth).

Auburn fans are obviously wary of the up tempo promises after Franklin guaranteed his offense would be the fastest in the country, then slogged through six unimpressive games before being fired. Malzahn, at the very least, appears to be genuine with how fast-paced his offense will be, and, unlike Franklin, he has offensive assistants on board who are not going to sabotage his efforts. There will be growing pains in the first year, especially with major questions marks at quarterback, wide receiver and offensive line, but I would gather the Tigers will not panic and clamor for the old days of power-I formations if the offense struggles out of the gate. That in itself can be considered a step forward.

DH: Step one in making the offense successful will have to be identifying a starting quarterback. Kodi Burns seemed like the guy at the end of 2008, but Malzahn has been reluctant to hand him the job. How has he responded this spring, and what kind of competition have Neil Caudle and Barrett Trotter offered?

AB: From all indications, the quarterback race is wide open. Burns, Caudle and Trotter have rotated with the ones throughout the spring, with last year's partial starter Chris Todd sidelined by offseason shoulder surgery. Malzahn had hoped to find his guy by the end of spring but conceded that it would be difficult. At this stage, he has not yet narrowed the list down to two. That tells me he's not all that enamored by any of his quarterbacks. I would say Burns is still the frontrunner, but Malzahn's offense requires a precise decision-maker who isn't prone to improvising. Improvisation might be Burns' strongest attribute. Burns talks the talk of a starting quarterback. I can see how he is a leader on the field just by his demeanor off of it, but I question if he is accurate enough to be the guy Malzahn needs to run the show. It would not surprise me if this competition wasn't decided until the end of fall camp, with Todd being very much in the mix once his shoulder returns to full strength. That's how wide open it is.

DH: Rod Smith, Chris Slaughter and Robert Dunn are all gone for various reasons, which doesn't leave much experience in what was already a pretty unremarkable receiving corps. Who has stepped up this spring, and can new receivers coach Trooper Taylor find a decent group to work with in the fall?

AB: Other than quarterback, wide receiver is unquestionably Auburn's biggest question mark. Their leading receiver from last year, Montez Billings, hasn't practiced this spring because of an undisclosed injury and hasn't exactly gotten in the good graces of Taylor, who has said point blank -- fair or not -- that injured players aren't helping their cause by being on the sidelines.

Taylor has had high praise for junior Tim Hawthorne, but he's not a burner. Speedster Harry Adams was moved from cornerback to wide receiver last week to give Auburn a deep threat, but he doesn't know the position yet. Philip Pierre-Louis, a Franklin favorite, was a star last August, but he's still working back from an ACL tear that cost him the season. Auburn has two highly-touted freshmen coming into camp next year in Emory Blake and DeAngelo Benton. It says a lot about the state of the receiving corps that they might be able to step onto the field and contribute immediately.

DH: The first response to the hiring of Gene Chizik by the Auburn fans was less than enthusiastic. What has been the players' attitude during their first real work with Chizik, and have you noticed the fan response start to mellow a bit?

AB: I'd say the fan response did a complete 180 within a month and a half of Chizik being hired. By that point, all he'd done was good, putting together a staff of Malzahn, Taylor, Curtis Luper, Ted Roof and fan favorite and former Auburn star Tracy Rocker. He took some swings at some big-time recruits (and landed a few too), which certainly helped increase his popularity to the Auburn nation. And from now until at the very earliest September, he will not lose a football game. As long as that is the case, fans of any team are going to be positive about what's going on.

I think the players have fallen in line too. Chizik instituted some fairly strict rules around the athletic complex (no hats or earrings). I'd say it was a shock initially to the players, but they've embraced it, thinking it will translate onto the football field. I don't know if I necessarily agree that those kind of rules have any effect on the actual game (how many wins did Iowa State have the last two years again?), but if that's what it takes for the players to believe they will do better on the football field, it's probably worth doing.

DH: After seeing the team this spring, what jumped out at you in a positive way, and what would you say are the biggest questions Auburn still needs to answer before the season begins?


AB: I wouldn't say I saw much of anything this spring. Except for three 25-minute periods and the A-Day game, practice was closed to the media and public, keeping the inner workings of the Chizik and Co. shrouded in secrecy (the point of which, I must say, I just don't get).

The biggest positive I'd say is that this group sounds committed to running a unique, fast-paced offense, not some hybrid of its old offense with some no-huddle thrown in. It's going to be fast. And if Auburn fans feel like they've heard that before, they have. But I'd say it's genuine this time around.

The questions marks, as there will with any new coaching staff, clearly outnumber the positives. Quarterback will remain the team's biggest offensive problem until someone can emerge. Four offensive linemen are back. Ben Tate, Mario Fannin and Hargrave speedster Onterio McCalebb are plenty talented at running back. Receiver success seems to be a function of how good the quarterback is. But the quarterback starts it all, and nobody has stood out so far, which is a problem. Defensively, Auburn shouldn't be too bad. The defensive line has to replace a couple of strong tackles, but end Antonio Coleman is back to anchor the group. The linebackers are a little short-handed, but if junior college transfer Eltoro Freeman can step in right away, they have a chance to be good.

Again, though, it remains to be seen how well everything meshes together until the games start. Rocker said it himself after practice one day: the coaching staff is doing a fine job of working together, but they won't be able to tell if it's genuine until they go through some tough times. Until the Tigers see how they fare after going through a little adversity, I think there's a giant question mark surrounding the whole team right now.

* Andy Bitter is the Auburn beat writer for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. You can read his Auburn coverage online HERE or view his Auburn blog HERE. You can find his coverage of Auburn's A-Day spring game HERE.

NEXT UP: Georgia Tech with Macon Telegraph writer Coley Harvey.