Reaction: Clemson 38, Auburn 24

After opening with a 14-0 lead, Auburn couldn't stop Clemson. (AP Photo)
After opening with a 14-0 lead, Auburn couldn't stop Clemson. (AP Photo) /

It had to end sometime. After a BCS championship and a 17-game winning streak that spanned parts of three seasons, Auburn was finally knocked back to Earth in Clemson on Saturday. The Tigers started well and even looked as if they were going to blow out Cousin Clem. But the offense stalled and the defense suffered a meltdown of epic proportions — epic even for a Ted Roof defense at Auburn.

Gene Chizik had been given much praise over the course of Auburn’s winning streak, and he deserved every ounce of it. When a team wins 17 consecutive games, especially with the adversity Auburn has faced on and off the field, the head coach should be given credit. But if a head coach deserves credit after a win, he also deserves questioning after a loss. Chizik is going to have to take a serious look at Roof and the defense and find a way to make that unit better. He’s also going to have to convince Gus Malzahn to make Mike Dyer, the former BCS Championship Game MVP, a much bigger part of the offense.

Losing is always hard. It’s even harder when you haven’t lost in nearly two full years. This Auburn team has the talent and coaching ability to learn from this loss and bounce back for a successful season. The Tigers will get a week to fine tune things against Florida Atlantic, but after that, there are no breaks. October brings games at South Carolina, Arkansas and LSU, and a home game against Florida. If Chizik, Malzahn and Roof don’t find a way to correct this team’s problems, Auburn could go into October 3-1 and leave the month 3-5.


Auburn got off to a great start. For the first 15 minutes, Auburn was playing well enough to blow out Clemson. After punting on their first possession, the Tiger offense scored touchdowns on its next two. Meanwhile, the Tiger defense held Clemson to three-and-outs on its first two possessions and also forced a punt on its third possession. Daren Bates and Jake Holland each had clutch open-field tackles on third downs to stop Clemson drives, something Auburn had been lacking in its previous two games. Auburn outgained Clemson 182-90. The good Tigers rushed for 99 yards, including Mike Dyer’s 67, and Barrett Trotter was sharp, connecting on 5-of-7 passes for 83 yards and a TD. Trotter showed great poise on his touchdown throw, remaining patient on fourth down while Emory Blake ran his route and then delivered a 36-yard strike for the score. For the most part, the offensive line gave Trotter ample time to throw and did a nice job opening lanes for Dyer, Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason.

Even in the second quarter, things looked promising. After allowing Clemson to score and pull within seven, Auburn went on a 16-play, 90-yard drive to answer with a touchdown and extend the lead back to 14. At that point in the game, it looked like Auburn was going to be able to do whatever it wanted on offense, and the defense would be good enough to keep Clemson from matching Auburn’s scores. Basically, for the first one and a half quarters, the good Tigers were dominant.

Goodbye Dyer Cat, Hello Frazier/Bray Cat. One of the few problems with Auburn’s offense during the first two games was the Tigers’ version of the wildcat, the Dyer Cat. When taking a direct snap, Dyer never showed any other thought than running the ball himself, allowing opposing defenses to focus all their efforts on him. Against Clemson, Malzahn inserted Kiehl Frazier and Quan Bray into the wildcat formation. Since Frazier is a backup quarterback and Bray played QB in high school, they both seemed more at home selling fake handoffs. That, combined with their ability to throw, kept Clemson’s D off balance and allowed for gained yardage. The one time Dyer did feature in the wildcat was on his one-yard touchdown plunge in the second quarter. With the offense moving at a high tempo at the end of a long drive, using Dyer in the wildcat on the goal line worked out better than on third and short in the middle of the field.

Malzahn and Trotter stretched the field. Something that seemed to be missing against Utah State and Mississippi State was deep passes. Malzahn’s power run and short passing game sets up opposing defenses to be vulnerable to the deep pass. For some reason against the Aggies and Bulldogs, Malzahn didn’t elect to throw deep downfield very often. That changed on Saturday, as Trotter took advantage of Clemson’s man-to-man coverage to connect on some big plays. As much as running the ball and throwing short passes opens up opportunities for the deep ball, throwing the deep ball opens up more space for runs and underneath passes. That must be part of Malzahn’s gameplan.

Cody Parkey had another great game. Once again, Parkey didn’t allow an opponent much of an opportunity to do damage in the kickoff return game. Parkey kicked off five times against Clemson, and four of those kicks went through the end zone. On the one Parkey kick that was returned, Auburn’s coverage team did a great job to stop Andre Ellington at the 19-yard line. Parkey had one field goal attempt, a 38-yarder, and he nailed it. All in all, Parkey was one of Auburn’s best players on Saturday.


Malzahn needs to get over himself and give Dyer the damn ball. In the offseason, Chizik and Malzahn both stated how they wanted McCalebb to be an every-down back. In each of the first three games, McCalebb has been named the starter over Dyer. Malzahn is a great offensive mind, but he is dead wrong on this issue. Dyer carried the ball 16 times for 151 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday. He averaged 9.4 yards per carry, and, for some reason, only received 16 touches. After Auburn scored its third touchdown of the day, Dyer didn’t get a touch over the next three series. That’s right after he did the majority of the work on the 90-yard scoring drive to put Auburn up 21-7. In all, Dyer only carried the ball six times in the second half. Frankly, that’s unacceptable. This is a guy that broke Bo Jackson’s freshman rushing record, was named BCS Championship Game MVP, and, this season, is averaging 119 yards per game. Chizik stated in his Sunday teleconference that they would have to find a way to get Dyer more touches. That should be easy — just give him more touches. It’s pretty simple.

Late in the game, Trotter and the receivers got rattled. While Trotter and his receivers started very well, they wilted under the pressure of being down late in a tough road environment. Trotter completed 4-of-10 passes in the second half and missed badly on a few throws that could have extended drives. It wasn’t all his fault, though, as he was the victim of a few dropped passes. When Auburn was driving late to pull within score, Trotter telegraphed a pass that was picked off by Coty Sensabaugh at the 5. Auburn’s offense never touched the ball again. Thanks to Auburn’s poor defensive play in the second half, the offense didn’t have much time to do anything. But when Auburn did have the ball, the Tigers managed just three second-half points. That’s not good enough when your D gives up more than 500 yards per game.

Seriously, where the hell is Lutzie? For the third consecutive week, Philip Lutzenkirchen has not been factored into the gameplan. Against Clemson, Lutzie didn’t have a single catch. When Auburn needs to move the ball, Lutzenkirchen should be considered a top target in the five-to-10-yard range. That hasn’t been happening this year.

Travon Reed buried the Tigers when they had all the momentum. After Auburn had scored touchdowns on two straight drives to go up 14-0, the Tigers’ defense stopped Clemson, giving the offense a chance to extend the lead to 21-0. Reed killed Auburn’s momentum by fielding Dawson Zimmerman’s punt in the end zone and returning it to the 4. Who knows what would have happened if Auburn had started at the 20. It’s very possible that the Tigers would have eventually punted the ball anyway. But Reed’s mistake fired up the crowd, which gave the wobbling Clemson defense a boost of energy. After Auburn did punt from its 24, Clemson took over in great position at its own 40 and went on to score, completely changing the game. When Auburn had a chance to knock Clemson out, Reed allowed the bad Tigers to get off the ropes.

Auburn’s defensive players seem to lack basic fundamentals. It’s really been the same story for two plus years under Roof, but Auburn is having a hard time grasping the basics of tackling and pass defending. Whether it was failing to wrap up or taking terrible angles, Auburn’s defenders could not make a tackle in the second half if their lives depended on it. And every time Boyd threw downfield, Auburn’s defensive backs gave chase, never turning to find the ball. T’Sharvan Bell and Ryan White were able to break up a couple of poorly thrown passes, but everything else was either a long completion or pass interference. Someone needs to teach the Auburn defense the basics of defending.

Good God, the third-down defense is atrocious. It really is hard to come up with any sort of comment or analysis of Auburn’s third-down defending. It has been so bad this year that it has boggled the mind. Auburn allowed Clemson to convert 14-of-18 third-down attempts, including 10 in a row at one point. That is unbelievably bad. The Tigers have allowed opponents to convert 39-of-59 third- and fourth-down attempts — 66 percent — this year. That ranks as the worst in the country. Unfortunately, a number of things are contributing: poor tackling, poor coverage, Roof’s soft zone, not enough pressure by the defensive line. Chizik and Roof have to get this fixed, or Auburn will be lucky to win one SEC game for the rest of the season.

The zone coverage isn’t working. Roof doesn’t trust his defensive backs to play a lot of man-to-man for good reason. As it was mentioned earlier, the Auburn DBs have a hard time finding the ball to make a play. Roof is just going to have to get his guys to play better man coverage, because the zone defending is allowing opposing offenses to do whatever they want. There is consistently a large hole in the middle of the defense, between the linebackers and secondary that is continually exploited. Just about every third-and-long an opposing offense has been able to convert — and there have been plenty — has been thanks to this void of defenders. Roof needs to either make an adjustment or teach his players to defend in man coverage properly.

The defensive line got very little pressure on Boyd. Boyd threw 42 passes on Saturday. On all of those pass attempts, Auburn couldn’t manage a single quarterback hurry or sack, and the good Tigers only had two tackles for loss. The lack of pressure from the D-line allowed Boyd to sit back, make easy passes and gain confidence as the game went on. If that sort of play continues, the same thing will happen for every quarterback Auburn faces.


We knew the defense was in bad shape after the Utah State and Mississippi State games, but Saturday took things to a whole new level. Clemson had 624 offensive yards — 386 through the air and 246 on the ground — and was able to pretty much do whatever it wanted from the middle of the second quarter on. It was pointed out in the preview of the Clemson game that if Auburn’s defense couldn’t get third down stops, the offense wouldn’t have a chance to make an impact. That’s exactly what happened in the second half. The good Tigers had the ball for 5:06 in the third quarter and 2:31 in the fourth quarter. After Trotter’s interception with 9:34 left in the fourth quarter, Clemson ran 18 plays for 73 yards to run out the clock. There is no way Auburn will win games when the defense allows drives like that to happen.

Chizik is going to have to really take a hard look at every aspect of the defense and completely take over if that’s what is necessary. Auburn ranks 120th in the country in third-down defense, 117th in total D, 107th in scoring D, 116th in rushing D and 100th in passing D. The Tigers are allowing opponents 534 yards, 36 points and 30 first downs per game. That is so unbelievably bad, there isn’t any excuse outrageous enough to cover the damage. In Roof’s first two seasons at Auburn, his defenses couldn’t crack the top 50 in scoring defense. Now, it appears his defense is going to have trouble cracking the top 100. That’s just not getting the job done. Roof isn’t terrible at scheming, but it appears that he is an awful teacher, and that’s a big part of being the defensive coordinator. If his players don’t know how to tackle or to turn around and find the ball on a deep pass, he should be held accountable. Chizik is a defensive-minded coach, and the defense under Roof should embarrass him. Roof should be given the chance to right the ship this season, but if things continue to go as poorly as they have been, Chizik must strongly consider making a change at the end of the year.

On the offensive side of the ball, Auburn really has all the pieces in place to be great. For the most part, Trotter and his receivers have been very good, and Dyer and McCalebb make the best running back combo in the SEC. Even Mason is emerging as a threat at running back. The only problem is that Malzahn has an idea in his head that McCalebb should be the every-down back and has refused to deviate from that plan. Even though he rushed for more than 300 yards and four TDs in his last two games, Dyer only carried the ball 16 times against Clemson. As much of a threat as he is, Malzahn should be giving Dyer at least 25-30 carries per game. He’s a workhorse. Malzahn should let the offense ride Dyer and build a gameplan around him. Onterio McCalebb is a great talent, but his best role is as a change-of-pace back running to the outside. Let Dyer handle the bulk of the inside work.

With the winning streak over and the top-25 ranking gone, Auburn will be able to work on its problems while flying under the radar and out of the spotlight. The Tigers have an opportunity to tune up for the rest of the season against Howard Schnellenberger’s Florida Atlantic team. The Owls rank 120th in scoring offense, having scored just three points all year, so Roof should be able to use this game to work on his scheme and teach his players proper technique. Malzahn will be able to work out an attack that he likes and that features Dyer receiving more carries. After that, it’s off to a brutal October stretch that will make or break Auburn’s season.

This Auburn team is experiencing the pain of a loss for the first time in a very long time. How it responds to that pain will go a long way toward determining the fate of the 2011 season. The Tigers have problems on both sides of the ball, but they are obvious and should be relatively easy to fix. If the coaches do their jobs and the players shake off their first loss since November 2009, Auburn will be successful for the remainder of the season. Here’s hoping that happens.