Tossing and turning in my bed until around 4 A.M....I couldn't sleep. It was Friday night, and I was just too excited to get back on the Plains for a season of redemption. It had been a necessarily long offseason that provided a new coaching staff and one heck of a recruiting class for a first-year coach. The trip from Atlanta was an unusually long one...I was just so anxious to get started with the season. After my usual trip to Momma Goldberg's and watching Manziel make a fool of himself on TV, I was ready to make the walk to Jordan-Hare. The atmosphere was terrific in section 40, and the eagle flight injected a familiar feeling of excitement into my body. Auburn football is back on the Plains...
It was a tale of two halves for Nick Marshall, as he struggled greatly in the first completing only 2 of his 8 passes for 20 yards. Throughout the half, Nick looked lost in the pocket as it took him a little while on each play to make a decision. He also had the toughest time hitting the long ball which also carried over to the second half as well. Besides this issue, Nick improved dramatically in the second half as he completed 8 of his last 11 passes which helped bring his total completion percentage for the day to 52.6%. I expect his second half improvement to carry over to the Arkansas State game this week, which will hopefully lead to a bigger win for the Tigers.
Running Back: A-
The running game was a huge success last Saturday, as the Tigers gained 295 yards on the ground with the main production coming from backs Corey Grant, Tre Mason, and junior college transfer, Cameron Artis-Payne. It's been a long road for former Alabama transfer, Corey Grant, but all of his hard work from this off-season paid off as he carried the ball 9 times for 146 yards. It was a beautiful sight to see Corey plant his foot near the sidelines and cut up field on his way to a 75 yard run in the first half. Right now, Grant leads the nation in the yards per carry category with a 16.2 average. Tre Mason was his usual productive self accounting for 73 yards, and the power-back, Cameron Artis-Payne, joined the gang as he ran for 52 very tough yards on 10 carries. I had to dock some points on this grade because of Tre Mason's fumble that almost cost the lead late in the fourth quarter.
Wide Receivers : C
Exceptionally average, the Auburn wideouts came into this season with high expectations, but they came nowhere near those high goals on Saturday. The biggest disappointment of the game was not Nick Marshall in my mind...it was instead WR Ricardo Louis. All I've heard this spring and fall is how Ricardo is the most consistent playmaker on the team, but I saw none of it against the Cougars. Did it not seem like he went down way too easily? And that one long ball to him...I know it was overthrown just a bit, but at least dive for it. That was one of those plays where he needed to sacrifice his body to have a chance at a pass. Multiple dropped balls by both Louis and C.J. Uzomah made my body cringe in frustration. With a young quarterback, you have got to come up with those balls in order to boost his self-confidence. One of the lone bright spots from the corps however, was the terrific catch by Sammie Coates down toward the north end zone on the sidelines...he did a great job, starting with a subtle push on the defensive back, to come up with that ball and keep the drive alive.
Offensive Line: A
Biggest improvement by far from last season to present is the offensive line. These guys at this point last year couldn't hold a block to save their lives. Now, with Malzahn and o-line coach, J.B. Grimes, taking the reins, this unit is completely in sync. Nick Marshall had a surprising amount of time in the pocket, which opened up the opportunity for long and deep routes by our receivers. However, there were still a few holding calls that were unnecessary and complete drive killers. It's not easy to come back from a 2nd and 20 when you're driving down the field. One hold can kill the whole momentum of a drive, especially in this kind of offense.
Now, onto the defense...
Defensive Line: B
Most of the first half from this unit consisted of rotation, due to the fact that DE Dee Ford and DT Jeffrey Whitaker were out for this game because of injuries. Like I mentioned in my season prediction's post, the defensive line had a tough time getting to the quarterback, Connor Halliday, due to the short, quick passes that Mike Leach called on offense. As much as I would love to see Craig Sanders have success, he's just too undersized to be in that position, especially if he can't penetrate through the Cougar's line that consisted of 3 walk-ons. The line ended up getting their act together, especially at the DT spot when big boy, true-freshman Montravious Adams came in and wrecked havoc up the middle. I know it's a little cliché to say, but I really did see a lot of Nick Fairley in him...there is no way that this kid will be around for his senior year. He'll be up in the big leagues making the big bucks. This kid is the real deal, and if he can keep it up when Dee Ford comes back, this line will be unreal.
I decided to include the Star position, because Robenson Therezie's work came mostly from the passing side last Saturday. Therezie's performance was fantastic, especially as a backup to the injured Justin Garrett. The first half was a little shaky on the defensive side of the ball, as 21 points were allowed, but everything soothed out in the second as only 3 points were given up. There were many cases where it appeared as if we committed pass interference, but for the most part throughout the game, the refs let the kids play the game. There were some pass interference calls that weren't called, and then on the other side of the ball, there were some horse-collars that were not flagged. All in all, I was pretty impressed and surprised by the secondary against the air-raid power of Mike Leach...even if this unit gave up 344 yards through the air, they still made some huge stops down the road to limit the scoring to 24.
I truly hate to bash any player at any time, but what Jake Holland put on the field last Saturday was not Auburn football. I do have some faith in the kid, but he has got to put a better product on the field and stick his head out there from time to time during the game to make some tackles. The defensive line was forced to drop back into coverage because of the fact that the linebackers struggled greatly with the pass. This unit has got to improve if we want to become a threat in the SEC, because the similarities between all the SEC powers is the fact that they all have strong linebackers that are willing and able to play hard nosed football.
Special Teams: A
The special teams were a huge reason as to why we won this game. Washington State started each one of their possessions on their own side of the field, and the majority of ours were either at midfield or in Wazzu territory. Cody Parkey was the Tiger's secret weapon as he connected on 3 out of his 4 field goal attempts with a long of 47. The ONLY negative to the special teams was Parkey's kick out of bounds on the kickoff, but with the latest rule change, kicks out of bounds start at the 35 instead of the 40, so the flag wasn't the biggest killer.
While it wasn't a pretty game, perse, we got the job done and ended up with a W. Say what you will about the problems we saw on the field, but I can already tell that this squad is lightyears ahead of last year's, and I am truly excited and intrigued to see what Gus will come up with this week. Can't say I felt the same way about Chizik...