Oh, and the scheduled guest. Whatever else we can say about our decade-plus string of futility in the series, home games with LSU are usually good for something memorable. Even if we'd rather forget. Thrilling (re: 2009) or chilling (2007), it is rarely boring having the Tigahs in town.
Certainly not for Dan Mullen, given the dual-track task he has in store starting today, surely beginning last night. A number of coaches were flown directly back from Auburn on school planes, ahead of the team charter and rest of staff, so as to get directly into LSU preparations. No time to waste, y'know. You also know that this was the very best thing for these coaches under the preceding circumstances as they could put the Auburn results into neat little categories and think ahead. Not stew over lost opportunity and game. Wish I'd had that luxury too on my own drive back.
I'm not saying this loss hit me more or less hard than others. There's so much emotional scar-tissue built up on my MSU psyche that it takes something pretty devastating to, well, devastate this Dog. Daresay anyone else who survived a soul-savaging 1981 season can understand why. Mercy, was that thirty falls ago already?
No, yesterday stings more from a program standpoint. Given their gilded opportunity to take a serious stride forward and make another SEC, even national-size statement, to just play like a really-ranked team, the Dogs came out…no, flat is not the word. The energy seemed satisfactory all day. Not-sharp is it. From a penalty on the opening kickoff, into stretches of tentative offensive execution, through consecutive series of on-the-heels defense, and all along deflated by really, really poor kick-offing and covering; something intangible was just missing.
OK, to be honest, so was something tangible, which does not bode well for a few other upcoming matchups. Specifically, speed. The Tigers were on the whole a tenth-of-a-tick faster in most areas. Guess we ought not be surprised. I mean, that's what makes programs top-level contenders, and Auburn was more than a two-man team en route to the 2010 championship. They and the rest of the SEC's current top-half clubs have had years, decades even, of signing a little (even a lot) more speed than State and our comparable clubs. And for all the good work Matt Balis can do in the weightroom, true speed comes straight from Heaven.
Look, I love Vick Ballard. He ain't the best ‘quote' on the club of course but he'll accommodate us media with patience and good humor. And lordy can the lad run the ball hard. Instead of going into a funk after a one-yard first quarter, Ballard bulled his way to 134 more and scored a 24th touchdown in just 14 career games. He was so darned close to a 25th too, as I was maybe five yards away when he tried to vault the pylon. Need to see the replay to be sure but from that vantage point up the sideline he looked out of bounds first.
All that said…Michael Dyer is faster straight-line. Quicker, too, though we'll get to this in a moment from another perspective. I'm neither surprised nor disappointed by this, we all knew it already. What is a letdown are reminders that State is still a tenth-slow or so at the receiver positions compared to elite SEC peers. A scan of the boards this morning, after just one cup—and boy did I need the second afterwards—found inevitable critiques of Chris Relf the passer. I don't claim he was razor-sharp on the slinging; in fact he seemed to be ‘aiming' the ball early. That helmet-deflection-interception-touchdown was just plain bad luck all around, not great defense or a bad decision either way.
Thing is, Relf's targets weren't getting sufficient separation most of the time. We also knew this already but it still wasn't fun remembering just the vast separation of ability between the first two Tiger teams we've played. I don't think Chris is getting enough regard for that TD toss to Brandon Heavens in the end zone, that couldn't have been placed better.
I also think many have laid the blame on the thrower, not the intended catcher, on what could well have been the biggest game-changer of all. Third quarter, down 34-27, at the Auburn 41; Michael Carr goes down the right hashes, makes the break-inward…and inexplicably slows a step. By the time he resumes pace Relf has thrown the ball to what I must think was the designed spot, but Carr is a step away. He had that oh-so-rare separation and clear sailing for the tying touchdown. Seriously, that missed chance ought to be more frustrating than anything which occurred on the goal line later. Unless of course Relf threw wrong, which I need to ask about.
I'm not saying State is slow by any means. I am saying Auburn was faster where it mattered yesterday. See, if I'm consistent, I also acknowledge that in 2010 both Florida and Georgia had more overall speed than State up and down the 85-man roster. Yet the Bulldogs won. How? Well, we caught both those clubs missing one critical piece (a kicker, and a receiver) each and seized advantage. But what else stood out was how much more, ohh, call it ‘decisive' the Dogs were in those games than two foes suddenly uncertain about themselves and their schemes.
Well, this time it was State looking not entirely confident. Nothing glaring, mind; but little things like a hesitant first step with the ball by Relf or Ballard behind the line. By the way, about that now-infamous last play, Mullen affirmed today after reviewing that it was the right call for Auburn's defense, and the right decision by Relf to keep as things developed that direction. The only hint of a second-guess from the coach was maybe, maybe Relf could have leaned a little more forward, but even that didn't come across as a criticism. Safe to say Mullen maintains faith in his #1 quarterback.
Regardless, there were enough other examples of hesitancy. Both sides, too. The linebackers and safeties we spoke with Saturday all agreed that they got caught out of ‘fit' too often and were out-leveraged on the edge. It wasn't so much AU scheming, though this longtime SEC observer gives Gus Malzahn all his richly-deserved credit for calculating and calling the best miss-matchups possible. It just appeared State support was so worried about Dyer & Co. breaking one long that, well, they overreacted and allowed just that to happen.
So the ‘speed' I'm obsessed with today was as much of the mind as the body. Auburn didn't do everything right but they sure did it quick and fast. State did a lot of things very right as a 531 (531!) yard afternoon proves, but the Dogs also were a teeny tiny bit slower on the trigger. That, got to think, is why Mullen was frustrated with scoring ‘only' 27 offensive points. Oncest upon a time we'd have lit celebratory flares here for such production. Now it isn't enough. My, how the MSU mindset has changed.
For the better, mostly. Though Mullen said something just a bit odd today in discussing how the Dogs can come back so quickly, with a challenge in store. "Since I've been here we've always rebounded pretty strong. We handle adversity around here pretty well, which is what our program is based on. I think they'll bounce back and be ready to come back to work today."
I italicized that part. Not from argument, goodness knows any Dog of even a few years much less my tenure understands the us-vs.-world approach. It's just interesting that a program which is coming off a presumably breakout 2010 season still sees the need to emphasize adversity. Or maybe not so interesting as obvious. I'm now recalling the ‘good to great' theme of spring meant to keep Gator Bowl Bulldogs humbled. And hungry.
Well, if Mullen wants adversity to test his troops, he's got it. And knows it. "We can't dwell too much on last week when you've got a short week and one of the best teams if not the best team in the country coming in," he said today. By the way, I meant to ask Scott Stricklin yesterday to update outlooks for future SEC September scheduling, as at least once in the next five years there is the chance to NOT play both Auburn and LSU in the opening month. But probably just once, barring serious shuffling of everyone else's slates to accommodate incoming new membership. I'll work on that one this week, too.
Mullen can't magically make his team any physically faster this week…though Jameon Lewis maturing could help some. He can work on eliminating the sliver of hesitation on each side though. Also-interestingly, the coach talked lots today about the scout team giving better and tougher looks, especially to the Dog defense, to prep them for proper reactions. Hopefully quicker, too. Not that a short week offers much time to much change of course. Still it is fair to suggest this week's fixes will pay off as the rest of the season progresses.
The other worry-point for now isn't the speed folk, it's with the sizable guys. Good thing I wasn't hungry at halftime because looking at how James Carmon's left leg was angled would have spoiled any appetite. He was on crutches for the last quarter and will probably keep ‘em a while. Mullen did have the good news that no surgery seems necessary after a MRI check. "We'll see how he progresses. If he can make it back for Thursday, I'm not sure because of such a short week." Translation: save Carmon for hopeful October activation.
Meanwhile Quentin Saulsberry sprained a knee that also doesn't need the knife. "He's got a good chance to play this week," Mullen said. No translation needed, though darn I'd be tempted to ditto. But maybe the most positive point coming out of Auburn wasn't the yardage or points or close calls. It was how Blaine Clausell recovered after a rough couple of debut quarters (too bad that catch on his very first college play won't count as a reception!) and played well the final two series. Even more so the work of Dillon Day at center on both drives. These kids are why I'm so encouraged about future offensive lines here only getting bigger and better.
Assuming they survive Thursday night intact, that is. But what the hey, they've nothing at all to lose against a defensive line that would have given pause to General Patton. I found it even-further interesting how Mullen said today the rest of the first-team line will get more rest than usual. "We just have to get our young guys ready to play. They've been taking reps as twos and now some of those have to step up and take reps as ones."
Speaking of stepping up, and back to the beginning. As much a letdown as Saturday was, it would hurt more if DWS isn't stuffed to overflowing Thursday evening. Besides, we fans have endured our own varieties of adversity and keep coming back. No excuses now. Never know, we might even see a decade's drought ended at last.
Anyway for today, time to reload the brewer with more Hiroshima-grade roast so I can watch replay of the Monza Grand Prix. Those Italians, now they know how to burn a mean bean. Maybe I'll fix a few extra pots and take them over to Bryan Building in fact. Because I knew a few folk there who are going to burn lots of midnight oil between today and dawn Thursday.