Reaction: AU 42, Utah State 38

Most Auburn fans thought Mike Dyer's winning touchdown would have come earlier that with 30 seconds remaining in the game. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
Most Auburn fans thought Mike Dyer's winning touchdown would have come earlier that with 30 seconds remaining in the game. (AP Photo/Dave Martin) /

“It’s better to have an ugly prom date than no prom date at all.”

An old expression that has applied to Auburn football more than once over the years, that quote was certainly fitting after Saturday’s game. Auburn 42, Utah State 38 was a lot of good things. It was a win, it was exciting and it showed off a few strengths the 2011 version of the Tigers will have. But more than anything, it was a sobering reminder that this is the youngest team in the SEC and that it will not be easy to replace the departed experience from 2010 — especially on the defensive side of the ball.


The passing game will be fine. 17-of-23, 261 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions. That was Barrett Trotter’s line in his first appearance as Auburn’s starting quarterback. Trotter is not Cam Newton. He doesn’t possess the pure size, speed and power to turn a broken down play into a big gain or a zone read into a 60-yard touchdown. But Trotter does have enough speed and agility to keep plays alive and pick up yards on the ground, and he looked like a better passer than Newton in his first start, showing accuracy from the pocket and on the run, whether throwing deep, intermediate or short.

For the most part, the offensive line held up against a veteran Aggie defensive line, and the receivers appear to be ready to play well in place of  Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery. Emory Blake looks like a true No. 1 receiver, Travante Stallworth showed why he earned a starting gig, and Trovon Reed made some nice plays on the ground after catching short passes. When he was actually incorporated, tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen made some clutch catches and managed to get into the end zone. Reed could stand to get up field instead of dancing laterally after the catch, but that’s nitpicking. All three receivers have the speed to be deep threats, and the passing attack should be formidable all season.

True freshman Tre Mason is going to be a force to be reckoned with on kickoff returns. (The Birmingham News/Hal Yeager)
True freshman Tre Mason is going to be a force to be reckoned with on kickoff returns. (The Birmingham News/Hal Yeager) /

The special teams could be truly special. Auburn fans saw the best combined performance out of the kickoff and kickoff coverage teams in the Gene Chizik Era. Tre Mason racked up 176 yards and a TD on four kickoff returns and Quan Bray added 55 yards on two returns. Combine that with a 26-yard return from Onterio McCalebb and Auburn averaged 36.7 yards per return, mostly from two true freshman. It won’t be as easy against quality SEC competition, but the kickoff return game is going to be a threat all year.

In the past few years, the kickoff coverage team has given up plenty of yards, so Cody Parkey has come up with a solution: Just kick the ball through the damn end zone as much as possible. Parkey kicked off seven times against Utah State, and four of those went for touchbacks. If he can keep that up, opposing teams aren’t going to have many opportunities to do damage on kick returns. Chandler (not Chris) Brooks chipped in with a gem of an onside kick. Auburn had to have perfect execution in that situation, and Brooks delivered.

Auburn did not attempt a field goal, so it remains to be seen how that facet of the game will turn out, and the punt and punt return teams didn’t do anything extraordinary. But special teams as a complete unit appear to be a strength for the Tigers.

Auburn still refuses to say “die.” The biggest theme from the championship season of 2010 was that no matter the situation, Auburn refused to lose. On opening day in 2011, Utah State badly outplayed the Tigers and, after taking a 10-point lead with 3:38 to play, certainly deserved to leave the Plains with a win. Following the Aggie touchdown, the Auburn offense came out sharp and put together a scoring drive in a minute and a half. Given a chance to go for the win after a recovered onside kick, the offense put together another crisp drive and scored the winning TD with 30 seconds remaining. Auburn had no business beating Utah state with three minutes remaining, but the Tigers won anyway.

No turnovers. It can’t be said how important ball protection will be in conference play. The fact that a brand-new quarterback didn’t throw an interception and the running backs and new receivers didn’t even fumble, let alone lose a fumble, is big. In a year where the margin for error will likely be thin, not allowing extra opportunities for opponents will be key.


The defense is, well, terrible. Everyone knew the secondary wasn’t going to be very good, and while it didn’t give up very many deep passes (mainly because Utah State didn’t attempt too many deep passes), Aggie true freshman quarterback Chuckie Keeton was able to complete short and intermediate passes all afternoon. Auburn’s defensive line play was unknown going into Week 1, but the hope was that it would have enough talent to plug holes and get after the quarterback now and then. For the most part, neither of those things happened. Auburn couldn’t stop the run as the Aggies compiled 227 rushing yards. The combination of a wildly successful rushing attack and the ability to complete short passes allowed Utah State to sustain long drives with short-yardage third- and fourth-down conversions. The Aggies were 10-of-17 on third down and 3-of-3 on fourth down. All those conversions led to touchdown drives of 16, 15, 14 and 14 plays. Thanks to those long drives, Utah State was able to win the possession battle 37:41 to 22:19. That kept Auburn’s talented offense off the field and wore down the young Tiger defense.

Hurting the D’s chances of making key stops was terrible tackling. Darren Bates stood out as particularly bad, but just about every Auburn defender was guilty of giving up chunks of extra yardage thanks to missed tackles. Against power running teams in the SEC — like, say, Week 2 against Mississippi State — the Auburn D must find a way to get off the field, otherwise it will be a very long year. Learning how to tackle is vital if the defense is going to improve.

The interior of the defensive line looked more like a set of Wal-Mart greeters. Led by Nosa Eguae and Cory Lemonier, the defensive ends actually played fairly well. The ends were able to disrupt a few plays off the edge and get some pressure on Keeton. The defensive tackles, on the other hand, may as well have not even been on the field for much of the game. Jeffrey Whitaker, Kenneth Carter, Angelo Blackson and Devaunte Sigler received most of the playing time on the interior and allowed a few big runs right up the middle, including the Aggies’ first score, a 43-yard scamper. The fact that linebackers Jonathan Evans and Jake Holland, and safeties Neiko Thorpe and Demetruce McNeil were the four leading tacklers shows how much space was available in the middle. Until it is greatly improved the defensive interior could be the downfall of Auburn’s defense.

The rushing attack was alarmingly non-existent. Dec. 1, 2007: UCF 44, Tulsa 25. That was the last time before Saturday that a Guz Malzahn-coached offense recorded fewer than 100 yards rushing in a game. Against Utah State, Auburn only managed 78. Mike Dyer led the Tigers with 58 yards on the ground and two touchdowns, including the game-winner with 30 seconds remaining in the game. For a team that rolled up more than 440 yards on the ground against LSU’s vaunted defense last year, Saturday was a rude awakening. Auburn fans had heard during fall camp about how Malzahn wanted Onterio McCalebb to be an every-down back, carrying the ball inside, as well as outside. Malzahn kept forcing the ball inside with McCalebb, and the Aggie defensive line kept swallowing him up. It was only when Malzahn abandoned that tactic did the rushing game gain any traction. With the young offensive line, it’s hard to tell if Auburn will be able to run the ball with consistency in 2011, but allowing Dyer to be Mr. Inside and McCalebb to be Mr. Outside is the only way to get the job done.

Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ted Roof stuck with inept game plans for far too long. We’ve already pointed out Malzahn’s frustrating desire to force McCalebb to be an inside runner. In addition to that poor decision, Gustav insisted on forcing the running game as a whole, even though it was not gaining yards. That was especially inexcusable with the way Trotter was spreading the ball around with ease to his receivers. The fact that tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, perhaps the most reliable of all of Auburn’s pass-catchers, didn’t make a reception until late in the game shows how little Malzahn cared for the passing game until the situation was dire. It’s a known fact that establishing the run is necessary to run a successful offense in the SEC, but Malzahn needs to understand when to give up and go with what’s actually working. He was likely trying to work out the kinks against live competition, but it should have cost Auburn the game. The Tigers could have pulled away through the air earlier in the contest. Instead, it took the luck of recovering an onside kick to give AU a chance to win.

On the defensive side of the ball, Roof stuck with an equally frustrating and inept plan. For most of the game, Roof stuck with a simple zone defense that allowed the Aggie offense line to manhandle the Tiger defensive line. Without linebackers blitzing to put pressure on Keeton and the Utah State running backs, the Aggies used a running and short passing attack to grind out long scoring drives. It was clear that the defensive line wasn’t going to be able to stop the run on its own and that the soft coverage in the secondary would allow Keeton to dink and dunk Auburn to death, but Roof was too worried about isolating his green secondary in man-to-man coverage. When he actually called blitzes, Auburn blew up Utah State plays in the backfield, but Roof kept going back to the soft zone. Unless Roof makes an adjustment, every opposing offense on Auburn’s schedule will be licking their chops.


Despite the fact that Saturday’s game left some Auburn fans disgusted and some rival fans laughing at the Tigers, there were definite signs of hope. If Trotter and the rest of the passing game is as good as it was against Utah State, Malzahn will be able to make this offense click. As long as he goes with what’s working on any given Saturday, Auburn will be competitive in every game this year. The kickoff and kickoff return units should give the Tigers a definite advantage in field position, and Tre Mason and Quan Bray are going to be home run threats every time they touch the ball. As far as scoring goes, Auburn should be ok.

The best news for the defense is that the biggest improvement always seems to occur between Week 1 and Week 2. Everyone on defense struggled against the Aggies, but if Roof can adjust his game plan and the young guys can play up to their talent, good things could happen. If those things don’t happen, opposing offenses are going to do whatever they want. It’s as simple as that.

It certainly appears that pundits picking Auburn to finish with a 6-6 or 5-7 record are closer to being right than fans that picked the Tigers to win 8-10 games. That will change with the right fixes. Auburn fans should trust this veteran coaching staff to make those fixes. It might sound ridiculous, but it won’t be a surprise if a much better team shows up against Mississippi State.