Sunday, October 4, 2009

Looking back on Auburn's 26-22 win over Tennessee

Another asterisk can be erased from the Auburn resume. Yes, the Tigers started 4-0 and beat a decent team in West Virginia. However, they had yet to beat an opponent away from Jordan-Hare Stadium. By the way, Auburn coach Gene Chizik had never won a road game as a head coach. Auburn’s 26-22 win over Tennessee won’t soon be remembered as a masterpiece, but it did show the Tigers can go into a place like Neyland Stadium and win. Tennessee might not be a great team – rather it proved to have numerous and obvious flaws on Saturday. Still, an SEC road win is impressive -- especially in the league's biggest stadium.

Auburn will find ways to score points even against the best defenses. The 26 points scored are easily the lowest output of the season, but against what was easily the best defense the Tigers have faced to date. Despite all its flaws, Tennessee still fields a championship-caliber defense. There isn’t a better defensive player in the SEC – and possibly in the nation – than UT S Eric Berry. Auburn still could have easily scored more than 26 points if a couple different breaks went its way or if the defense needed additional scores.

The Auburn secondary, meanwhile, could be in trouble. Giving up 181 yards and two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to UT QB Jonathan Crompton does not bode well for a unit preparing to face Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett. Crompton is almost certainly among the two worst starting quarterbacks in the conference. Mallett, in contrast, is one of the conference’s best drop-back passers.

Lastly, Philip Pierre-Louis didn’t do much in his season debut. He did, however, add some stability to the punt return game. If he can just catch the ball regularly, it would be a significant boost to the unit. If he can also make something happen in the game, he could be a crucial part of the team.

RB Ben Tate
The senior tailback did a little bit of everything on the ground Saturday night. He reversed field for a decent gain on one play. On another, he juked defenders on the way to the end zone. Then there was also the play where he trucked Berry. Tate finished with 128 yards and a touchdown on 25 rushes and helped Auburn own a nearly 10-minute advantage in time of possession.

K Wes Byrum connected on his 21-yard chip-shot field goal. The kick bumped Auburn’s lead back to 10 points and capped a nine-play drive that lasted 3:32, leaving Tennessee with just 34 seconds. Byrum finished with four field goals. He did miss one, ending his perfect season, but is now 11 of 12 on the year.

All year, Auburn has faced teams that predominantly have wanted to run the football or mix it up. Next week against Arkansas will be the first time the Tigers have opposed a pass-happy team interested primarily in passing the ball. How will the secondary fare in its first real test? The X-factor could be the defensive pass rush. Auburn got to Crompton several times last night, but never in time to drop him for a sack. This is especially a challenge for DE Antonio Coleman, who failed to register a tackle last night. He finished with just one quarterback hurry to his credit. Getting to Mallett will be imperative.

Though the special teams were largely good on Saturday, the kickoff coverage still seems a weak spot. A few Tennessee returns seemed one block away from a touchdown.

Just because Tennessee’s defense was easily the best Auburn has face this year, the question will be asked if this team will settle for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns against elite units. To that, I would say the UT defense is probably among the two or three best Auburn will face all season – possibly behind only Alabama. That Auburn managed 26 points and had a chance for significantly more, I think, bodes well for the Tigers in the long run.

RB Onterio McCalebb – Though McCalebb rushed for just 51 yards on 13 carries, McCalebb finished with 204 all-purpose yards. He had a few big receptions and also turned in a critical 52-yard kickoff return that set up Auburn’s game-clinching field goal.

QB Chris Todd – He didn’t finish with the sexy stat lines he enjoyed over the past two games, but he managed the game well and made wise decisions. Todd also bought himself additional time by scrambling away from defenders. He finished with 218 passing yards and a touchdown pass to WR Terrell Zachery.

LBs Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes – Stevens led the team with 11 tackles, including one for a loss. He also had a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry. Bynes added nine additional tackles, a pair of pass breakups and a quarterback hurry. He also recovered a fumble that set up Auburn’s second field goal.

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