Bad Loss For Football Tigers

Phillip Marshall's column takes a look at what went wrong for the football Tigers in Fayetteville.

It was, by any measure, a performance unworthy of the No. 17 team in the nation. It was an embarrassment, pure and simple.

It was bad last season when Auburn gave up touchdowns to Florida on five consecutive possessions in a 38-7 loss. But that was Florida.

It was bad this season when a road trip to Syracuse came apart in a flurry of turnovers and Auburn lost 31-14. But Syracuse hasn't lost since.

Losing 42-17 at Arkansas defies explanation. Do not be misled. Arkansas is not an outstanding football team. On offense, Arkansas is a bad football team. Yet, Auburn made quarterback Zak Clark look like Joe Montana. Auburn played defense against freshman quarterback Matt Jones like it had never heard of the option. Arkansas, which had scored six touchdowns in five games against Division IA opponents, scored six in one game against Auburn.

Want to really put it in perspective? Auburn, which beat Louisiana Tech 48-41 in overtime in its previous game, gave up more than 40 points in back to back games for the first time in its football history.

It's only fair to point out that the defense was not alone in allowing that to happen. One touchdown came on an 88-yard interception return. Another came on a 16-yard pass one play after an interception. But Arkansas, which had just 297 yards total offense, also had touchdown drives of 64, 63, 72 and 65 yards.

Despite it all, Auburn could have won. The game turned on three woeful plays. p> No. 1: After Tim Carter scored on an eight-yard pass to finish off an 80-yard drive and cut Arkansas' lead to 14-10 with 1:25 left in the first half, the defense stopped Arkansas on three plays. Auburn got the ball at its own 31 with 20 seconds left. Good time to take a knee and go in to halftime with momentum. Instead, quarterback Daniel Cobb threw what was supposed to be a screen pass straight into the waiting arms of cornerback Tony Bua. After Bua stepped out of bounds at the 16, Clark lofted a touchdown pass to Richard Smith with five seconds left.

No. 2: After Auburn had thoroughly dominated the third quarter and cut the Arkansas lead to 21-17, Jones ran the option on first down from the Tiger 49. Linebacker Mayo Sowell and defensive end Reggie Torbor, both unblocked, both hit him. Both missed. He ran 37 yards to the 12. One play later, Fred Talley scored to make it 28-17.

No. 3: After Carnell Williams ran for 39 of his 177 yards to the Arkansas 26 on Auburn's next possession, he needed a breather. Casinious Moore got the call and promptly fumbled. Corey Harris picked it up and ran 46 yards to the Auburn 30. Game, set, match.

There were plenty of other bad plays--Carter dropping the ball while running for what seemed a sure touchdown, too many missed tackles to count, strangely inept pass coverage. The only shining light for Auburn was Williams. If there was ever any doubt about whether this guy was the real thing, there isn't now. Williams, the much ballyhooed freshman from Etowah, ran for 177 yards on 19 carries. He moved piles, carried would-be tacklers and ran off and left everyone on a 55-yard touchdown run.

Other than that, it was a thoroughly awful day for Auburn's football team.

Was it a season-turning day? That remains to be seen. Tuberville and his staff have brought teams off the deck before, including after losses at Mississippi State and Florida last season. Certainly, the weapons are there for it to happen again. Whether it will happen again is another question.

Head coach Tommy Tuberville vowed Sunday that he and his assistants will be tireless in their efforts to figure out what went wrong and to correct it. They have an open week to work on it before a Nov. 10 game at Georgia. The major areas of study could be quarterback and the defense. Tuberville declared the quarterback position open again between Cobb and redshirt freshman Jason Campbell, who started the first six games.

Campbell, young and sometimes tentative, was frequently not aggressive enough. Cobb, a fifth-year senior who has overcome a career-threatening arm condition, is sometimes too aggressive. The interception in the second quarter Saturday was a disturbing lapse, just as the interception he threw to set up Louisiana Tech's tying touchdown was. He narrowly avoided an even worse fate against Louisiana Tech when an easy interception that would almost certainly have been returned for the winning touchdown in the final seconds was dropped. That's the same Louisiana Tech team that had to go into overtime again last Saturday to beat Rice 41-38 at home.

The defensive problems are more complicated. Where's the pass rush? Why did cornerbacks in position to make plays not make them Saturday? Why was the option such a problem? What is the fourth quarter such a problem?

With games left at Georgia, against Alabama at home and at LSU, whether Auburn coaches and players can find the answers to those questions could determine if this season fulfills its early promises or dissolves in disappointment.

Elsewhere in the SEC: Ole Miss in the SEC Championship Game? Not only could it happen, the Rebels might be the favorites now to win the West. Though Auburn still is in control of its own destiny if it wins out, Ole Miss is 3-1 in the league with games remaining against Arkansas at home, Georgia at home, Mississippi State on the road and Vanderbilt at home.

The Rebels, very impressive in beating LSU 35-24 in Baton Rouge, aren't likely to lose more than one of those. They might not lose any. If they win out, Auburn would have to win out to go to Atlanta. If they lose one, Auburn could lose no more than one.

In the East, it's the same old story. South Carolina made its run and Georgia made its run, but the championship is pretty much certain to be decided when Tennessee plays at Florida on Dec. 1 in one of the games postponed from Sept. 15.

Mississippi State, at 1-5, is clearly the biggest disappointment in the SEC this season. But LSU, 4-3 and 2-3 after its loss at home to Ole Miss, isn't far behind. Those two teams got virtually every preseason vote to win the West. It's not going to happen. Barring something really weird happening, it's going to be Auburn or Ole Miss, two teams picked near the bottom in the preseason.

Until next time …

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