Saturday, October 10, 2009

Looking back on Auburn's 44-23 loss to Arkansas

All year, Auburn has asked – neigh – begged for respect. The Tigers finally got some this week and the players said all the right things. It didn’t matter to them. The only time rankings matter is after the season. They want to be ranked higher. Perhaps not coincidentally, the first time Auburn got any love from the national media, it played its worst game of the season. Think that’s a coincidence? How about this? “As a whole, I don't think our week of practice was as good as it should have been,” QB Chris Todd said. “It starts with practice. Coach got on us a little bit the way we practiced this week and it showed in the game,” RB Ben Tate said. Sounds like it might not have been a good week.

The Auburn passing game has work to do. The Razorbacks dared Todd to beat them. He couldn’t. They took away Auburn’s screens and flat passes for the majority of the game and basically said Todd had to beat them vertically. The incomplete pass intended for WR Terrell Zachery was a microcosm for the game because of the missed opportunities. It also provided a blueprint for opponents – know that Auburn will take its shots down the field, but take your chances.

This Auburn defense is in trouble. There’s no denying that Arkansas runs a good offense, but Alabama held the Razorbacks to just seven points. Arkansas did whatever it wanted to offensively against Auburn. RB Michael Smith averaged 8.1 yards per carry, going for 145 yards and a touch. QB Ryan Mallett torched the Auburn secondary on virtually every play but CB Walt McFadden’s spectacular interception. The Tigers managed a meager pass rush – when it provided a pass rush. If McFadden is out for any amount of time, that secondary is in trouble.

Yet again, special teams miscues spelled trouble for Auburn. This time, they added to an already lackluster performance. Dennis Johnson broke kickoff returns for 50 and 70 yards – the latter of which helped the Razorbacks ice the game. Mario Fannin also lost a fumble on a kickoff return. Arkansas scored three plays later.

QB Ryan Mallett
This could have gone to Mallett or Smith. I gave the nod to Mallett because of the big chunks of yardage he gave the Razorbacks simply by putting the ball in exactly the right spots. He finished 24-of-37 passing for 274 yards and two touchdowns. His best play probably came on the deep pass down the sideline to WR Greg Childs, which went for 38 yards.

RB Ben Tate
In posting his fourth 100-yards game of the season, Tate set a career high with 184 rushing yards. He also scored a pair of touchdowns. Tate already has more rushing yards (766) and rushing touchdowns (4) than he had all last season and has established himself as a candidate for some preseason accolades.

Johnson’s 70-yard kickoff return set the Razorbacks up for a touchdown. Not only did Arkansas score to basically put the game away, but it came on the heels of Auburn’s 20 unanswered third-quarter points. The return changed momentum for the final time on Saturday.

Where is the pass rush? DE Antonio Coleman said he thought the Tigers rushed well at times. Probably so, but this “attacking” defense has struggled in sacking the quarterback of late. Tennessee and Arkansas both passed more than 35 times. Auburn had one sack to show for all those passes. When the front four proved it couldn’t get to the quarterback, where were the blitzes? Auburn’s secondary was obviously overmatched on Saturday and isn’t good enough to defend elite receivers for long periods of time. It needs help from the pass rush, which has been difficult to locate in the last two games.

Where were all the running plays in the first half? They seemed to work pretty well in the third quarter. Arkansas does have a decent run defense, but Auburn seemingly tried to pass too much during the first half.

How will Auburn bounce back from its first loss of the season? Gene Chizik seems to think the Tigers will be fine. The schedule sets up well because they now have a home game against an average Kentucky team.

RB Michael Smith – Not only did Smith gain 145 yards and averaged 8.1 yards per carry, he also helped the Razorbacks hold onto the football for an amazing 38:27. He only had 180 rushing yards coming into the game, but nearly doubled that number despite sitting out the entire fourth quarter with an apparent hamstring injury.

LB Jerico Nelson – The Arkansas linebacker finished with 10 tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

LB Craig Stevens – This is almost entirely because I felt like being nice to Auburn. He led the team with 12 tackles. It’s difficult to justify anyone other than Tate getting a helmet sticker, but Tate already got the game ball. If I overlooked someone, let me know.

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