As coaches and players entered the press area after the defeat at the hands of the third-ranked Auburn Tigers, the theme was the same from each and every one.
To beat a team as talented as Auburn, the Rebs were going to have to play nearly flawless.
Even though the Rebs gained 433 yards in offense and controlled the ball 36:03 minutes of the game, 10 penalties, a 17-yard differential in net punting, an interception, a fumble and seven QB sacks were the Rebs' undoing.
And they all knew it. . .
"Going into the game, we knew we were going to have to stay out of long-yardage situations - third and 15, second and 20 - but it seemed most of the time that is what we faced due to a sack or a penalty," said Offensive Coordinator John Latina. "Auburn is the best in our league at rushing the quarterback - they just consume you with their speed when they know you are in a passing situation. And with seven sacks, we didn't do much to stop them."
It wasn't from a lack of trying.
"We tried chipping them with our backs, we tried slowing them down with screens, we tried double-teaming them, but we simply could not negate their edge speed and the linebacker speed in long-yardage situations," Lats continued. "They have two young defensive ends who run in the 4.5 range and we simply did not handle them, no matter what we did. I give them credit."
Latina said it was beside the point, but threw in an "if."
"When you gain 433 yards, you can't imagine as much going wrong as it did," he explained. "It was all about the negative yardage plays and penalties at inopportune, key times. If we had been able to eliminate those scenarios, we would have been in the game at the end, but those are part of the game and we didn't take care of that end of our business."
Latina also lamented poor field position during a large chunk of the game.
"Again, due to penalties and some poor special teams play, we had our backs to the wall a lot and couldn't seem to dig out of it at times," he noted. "Auburn's defense feasts on those situations. Our field position was poor most of the night. We had opportunities to get things done, but sot ourselves in the foot too many times and those situations resulted in field position disadvantages a good bit of the time."
Latina was also disappointed the Rebs were not able to get a yard on a fourth-and-one at the Auburn seven early in the second quarter after putting together an 82-yard march.
"We knew we had to be aggressive against the third-ranked team in the nation, so we went for it and never doubted not getting it with our power set," he stated. "That has been our bread-and-butter play for a long time and has not failed us very often, but we did not execute it. We'd do it again if we had the chance, but when we didn't make it and take a 7-0 lead when the opportunity was there, that was a huge turning point in the game, even as early as it happened. It didn't really hurt our momentum, it was just a lost golden opportunity."
The Rebs made a game of it for three quarters thanks, in part, to a couple of TD passes. First, Ethan Flatt found a streaking Bill Flowers for a 64-yard bomb to cut the deficit to 14-7 midway through the third quarter. Ironically, that play came on a third-and-15 situation. Then, Flatt hit Taye Biddle on the first play of the fourth quarter on a 25-yard TD pass to again cut a 14-point deficit to seven, 21-14.
"We've had wide receivers behind secondaries all year long, but have not been able to get them the ball," Latina noted. "Today, we hit a couple of big plays to keep the game close as the fourth quarter began, but we weren't able to do much after that. Bill and Taye have been big-play guys here most of their careers, but we haven't been effective getting them the ball much. It was good to see us come through in those areas today."
The packed house got their first glimpse of TB Jamal Pittman in 2004 after the talented sophomore "served" a six-week suspension for off-the-field discretions last summer. Pittman responded with 30 yards on four carries, including two runs where he simply ran over Auburn defenders.
"We'll see more of Jamal. He's now in shape and making fewer mistakes in practice. He's getting sharper and sharper, but the suspension really set him back in his recognition and conditioning," said Lats. "He brings a lot of power to that position and we will need to utilize it more in coming weeks."
While most of this dialogue is about what the Rebels did wrong, Latina was not upset at all with the approach the Rebel players took.
"Our kids played hard and fought for 60 minutes," he said. "They put it all on the line - again, but we didn't play as good as we had to play to win, obviously. It had nothing to do with effort, it was based on too many mistakes. Auburn had something to do with some of them, but we also had unforced errors and those are killers."
On the defensive side of the ball, DC Chuck Driesbach's crew had their backs against the wall for the final 20 minutes of the game, with the outcome on the line.
"We didn't handle the short field as well as I would like," said Driesbach.
Who would have? The number-one offense in the SEC was given the ball at the Rebel 44, 25, 13 and 39 four of their last six possessions, and on the other two they took over near midfield.
"It's tough playing a short field that many times, but that's our job," Chuck noted. "We played hard and were fairly effective for the first three quarters, but then everything caved in on us with the game on the line."
Driesbach was disappointed about the Tigers' 99-yard drive late in the first half, but he graciously tipped his hat to Auburn's offense.
"If you look around the league, as a general rule of thumb, you can tell the teams with veteran quarterbacks. Auburn certainly has one in Jason Campbell," Chuck explained. "He was in total control of his offense, he took care of the ball, he threw it away instead of taking sacks, and he used his support personnel very well.
"On the 99-yard drive, he hit his tight end for a 36-yard gain on a play we were in great position on - it was a perfect pass and catch. When you couple an experienced quarterback who does not make a lot of mistakes with those two running backs (Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown), you have the makings of an outstanding unit. They were by far the best offense we have faced."
Driesbach was particularly proud of an early goalline stand by the Rebs that ignited the Rebel faithful.
"We played defense right there the way I know we are capable of playing," he stated. "We had great pad level and we were in perfect position for whatever they threw at us. I am really proud of that stand against a powerful unit. It came down to grit and execution and we showed we have that. Now it's a matter of getting consistent with it. Overall, considering who we were facing and the short field situations, I am not disappointed in the defensive play overall. We played extremely hard and had a lot of times when we were effective, we just have to keep doing that and getting a little better and a little more consistent."
The 17-yard differential in net punting was a major factor in the field position battle. Coupled with two or three key special teams' penalties against the Rebs, it spells defeat in a game that was otherwise fairly even statistically.
"We stress the special teams so much in every practice, yet we faltered pretty badly in that area. To me, that and getting ourselves in too many long-yardage situations were where we lost the game," Latina said.
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