Offensive Personality Missing In Opener

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about Auburn's season-opening loss to Southern Cal and looks at the Tigers' prospects for the rest of the season.

The next football game I coach will be my first, and I make no claims to expertise. If there is one thing of which I am certain it is that every call, every decision made by Auburn coaches in Saturday's 23-0 loss to Southern California was what they thought was best at the time. But there were troubling signs that there was more to Auburn's troubles on offense than just the strength and speed of USC's defense.

From where I sat, the Tigers looked like a team devoid of personality. Anyone who knows offensive coordinator Hugh Nall knows his personality is to play the game tough and physical. Quarterbacks coach Steve Ensminger, the play caller, has more of a passing background. Saturday, it seemed Auburn was uncomfortably between the two, neither a running team nor a passing team. That mixture might have helped spell disaster on opening night.

Auburn coaches said they planned to run the ball 40 times in the game and point out they ran it 36. That statistic is more than just a little misleading. Carnell Williams got 12 carries and Ronnie Brown eight, a total of 20 for the tailback duo widely considered the nation's best. Quarterback Jason Campbell had 16 carries. Six of those carries were sacks. Of the other 10, I only remember one that was a called quarterback draw and there were a couple of option runs. It would be difficult to convince me that there was even a passing thought given in pregame planning that Campbell would have more carries than either tailback and only four fewer than the two of them combined.

Late in the first half, after Campbell completed an 18-yard pass to Jeris McIntyre on third down, Auburn had a first down at the USC 33. The Auburn team of last season, the one I expected to see this season, would have turned it over to Williams or Brown. Instead, Campbell was sacked on first down, threw incompletions on second and third downs and that was that. Five of Auburn's first seven plays from scrimmage were passes, a puzzling turn of events. Just as puzzling was the use, or lack of it, of fullback Brandon Johnson.

Last season's offense seemed to go to another level when former offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino made Johnson an integral part of things. He was not an integral part of things on Saturday. Johnson entered the game for the first time on offense with 3:15 left in the first quarter. Auburn was at its own 29, quickly made two first downs and had a first down at the USC 45. Johnson left the game. Williams was stopped for no gain, Campbell was sacked and threw an incomplete pass. The drive died and the Tigers punted.

USC players expressed surprise that they didn't see more of Williams and that Auburn gave up on the running game so quickly. They were no more surprised than thousands who came expecting to see a memorable battle and instead saw a rout. It was a huge letdown for Auburn players and coaches and for supporters who had reveled in an offseason of glowing predictions of championships. It doesn't rise to the level of the 31-7 loss to Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2001, but this one won't quickly be forgotten or forgiven by those who created an atmosphere as good as you'll see in college football.

No one should question the effort of the players on the field. The defense was solid throughout. USC's two touchdowns came on drives of 20 and 14 yards, the first after a pass interference call that was questionable at best. The only thing the defense didn't do was force turnovers.

Campbell, as head coach Tommy Tuberville said, never had a chance. He was running for his life on almost every pass attempt and a running game was never established to help him out. We'll never know what would have happened if Williams, who looked as quick and strong as ever, had been given 20-25 chances with the ball. My guess? It wouldn't have been a shutout.

Tommy Tuberville talks with USC head coach Pete Carroll prior to USC's 23-0 victory over the Tigers.

USC clearly has an outstanding football team, one that is a contender to be playing for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl in January. Auburn was supposed to have that kind of team, too, but it wasn't there Saturday. Losing to the Trojans is no shame, but there is no good reason for a team with the weapons Auburn has on offense to be shut out at home. A veteran and battle-tested offensive line should not be dominated by anybody the way Auburn's was dominated by USC.

The future that once seemed so bright seems uncertain now. Looking at history, there is reason for hope and reason for concern. In 1983, Auburn lost 20-7 to Texas in a game eerily similar to Saturday's. The Tigers couldn't run, couldn't throw and were thoroughly dominated. Their only touchdown came in the final minutes when it no longer mattered. They did not lose again, winning 10 straight against the nation's toughest schedule.

In 1980, Auburn was shut out 42-0 at home by a Tennessee team that would eventually have a losing record. It started a downward slide that ended with a 5-6 record and Doug Barfield losing his job as head coach.

In 1998, in another season opener at home, Auburn was shut out 19-0 by Virginia. Terry Bowden was gone halfway through that season, replaced by Bill Oliver and finally by Tuberville.

Which way will this team go? There would seem to be too many good players and too many mature players for this season to fall apart. But there are no guarantees. The schedule is difficult. The Tigers will have to be better than they were Saturday to beat the likes of Tennessee, LSU, Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama. They'll have to be better even to win at Georgia Tech next Saturday. The Tigers certainly will get better. The opportunity for a memorable season remains, but it won't be easy to get rid the bitter taste of a disappointing Saturday at Jordan-Hare.

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