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GAME DAY, Auburn vs. USF

Hey everyone. It's game day. I plan to hit the press box around 6 o'clock, so I'll start updating then. Much like last week, I'll be blogging a lot during pre-game and the first half.

Deadline pressures will preclude second-half blogging. My deadline is 11:30. The game probably will end around 11:30. You get the idea. Beat writers for both teams have been loathing this day for a long time. I keep going back to tht 3-OT game against Syracuse a while back. Worst night of my career. Oh man. I still wake up with night sweat occasionally thinking about that night. I had 3 minutes to file a story.

Enjoy your daily dose of literary grace and enlightenment, which you customarily find here at the HOTTEST Auburn blog on the 'net.


Halftime: I'm getting bogged down with work for the newspaper. I'll return for updates when I can. Hot topics: Brandon Cox having a terrible game. What is wrong with him? He's not playing the way he had throughout most of 05 and 06.

Update: WLB Merrill Johnson is out with a shoulder injury. Tray Blackmon didn't start. This defense is a mess. They're running Chris Evans (Blackmon's backup) as the lone linebacker. They're running a nickel scheme, alternating between a fifth defensive back or Groves as a linebacker.

It just looks weird. It's Antonio Coleman, Quentin Groves, Sen'Derrick Marks, Pat Sims, Josh Thompson (all linemen), 2 linebackers, 4 DBs.

USF, 14-10: Auburn scored a touchdown. How about that? I think they have a tailback now. Fannin scored on a 4-yard run. His extra effort created the touchdown. He looks really good. Let's see if the redshirt freshman can keep it going.

First quarter ends: This is a one-sided game. Mario Fannin is having a nice game so far. He looks a lot like Brad Lester out there; fast through the hole and gets beyond the line quickly. Brandon Cox doesn't look sharp ... again. The USF offense looks pretty good, too. They run in a non-traditional way. Lots of draws and weird-looking runs. Auburn looks overmatched right now.

USF, 14-3: More big plays. Add two more shrimp on the barbie. That's FIVE big plays for USF now (19, 20, 20, 25, 27). Auburn has zero. Also, USF has 90+ rushing yards already. This is getting ugly. Another USF touchdown might put this beyond Auburn's reach.

USF, 7-3: Hey, Auburn hit a field goal. Isn't that surprising? Drive covered 49 yards. A 1st-and-10 at the USF 29 turned into a 1st-and-15 because of an offsides call on Lee Ziemba. That messed up the flow. Byrum hit a 49-yarder to get the three points. He's good. Punter Ryan Shoemaker is out with a dislocated elbow.

Auburn's third possession (in progress): Mario Fannin is in. Two carries already for 12 yards.

This stat tells it all: Big plays, defined by me as 15+ yards. USF has three (20, 20, 19). Auburn has zero. Longest play is 7 yards.

Auburn's second possession: Nothing happening AT ALL. Decent run by Ben Tate on first down. Four yards. Then a dump pass. Then a totally overthrown ball allegedly intended for Prechae Rodriguez. Just awful. Six snaps. Five yards.

USF, 7-0: The drive was stuck after three plays when Grothe was pressured immediately. He heaved the ball downfield toward a receiver with the hope of drawing an interference penalty. Jae Wilhite was game for that. He plowed into the receiver without even looking toward the ball. Obvious call. Drive resumes. Ball crosses the goal-line three plays later.

0-0 @ 10:51, 1st: Not much goin gon. Auburn's run defense looks stout. Auburn's offense began its first possession at the 1. First play went for 7 yards. Next two went for -2 and -4. Not a good showing for the Tigers.

8:08 Auburn wins toss; defers to second half. AU defends north end zone. Auburn in dark blue jerseys. USF in white tops, emerald green pants.

7:55: The eagle flew tonight. If you recall, rain canceled last week's performance. Flight lasted a little longer than usual when Spirit went for a round-about trip over fans in the south end zone. Very cool tradition.

7:20 p.m: I have mitigated the masses and made my way to the press box. Night games are fun most of the time. This one is starting too late. I prefer a 2:30 game that leaks into dusk. Looks like the videoboard has been tweaked. I think the brightness has been boosted. It was a little dark at times last week. Not this time.

On a personal note: I wasn't able to get out for TV shopping yesterday as planned. To the anonymous poster who suggested a Pioneer plasma: Genius. If only I could slide another $2,500 past my wife.

News of the day, 9/7

Hey everyone. It's the day of rest. Auburn will head for the Friday-night bunker in LaGrange, Ga., before long. I think this game is going to be tougher for the Tigers. I'll discuss that in more detail below.

Also, I've enjoyed the emails I have received from Arkansas fans. Keep em comin'. I'll say this -- they bring a more rational approach to the table. I haven't been called a name yet. Well, one guy said I was an Auburn homer. I'm pretty sure Auburn fans would disagree with that.

This is my 10th season on the beat. Half the angry emails I receive anoint me as an anti-Auburn writer. The other half say I'm an Auburn homer. I figure that's the perfect mix for me. I'm neutral.

Thanks for ingesting another portion of the HOTTEST Auburn blog on the 'net.

I'm pretty sure Auburn will have a difficult time with South Florida. I'm picking the Tigers to win (in the poll, which I'll link later) but I don't think it'll be easy. The defense will get a bigger test this week. USF has a very good quarterback, a very good tailback and some fast wideouts. The line looks at least satisfactory. Auburn's offense -- its biggest problem right now is mental toughness. I think the pieces are in place, even with Brandon Cox's unreamarkable arm strength. Still, I don't expect a big jump in offensive production this week. These kinds of issues take time to resolve.

I'm a little late on this, but there was a lot going on earlier in the week. Freshman WR Chris Slaughter didn't play against Kansas State. Assistant coach Greg Knox made reference this week to Slaughter's work habits needing improvement. I'll have to downgrade my Slaughter forecast now. With Montez (Gone-tez) Billings back now, Slaughter's chances for playing time now look bleak.

As a personal aside: If you had $1,500 to spend on an LCD/plasma tv, which would you buy? I need some ideas.

Also: Big shout-out to faithful reader Kyle W., who has become the first emailer in my career to insist that Brandon Cox has a strong arm. I love my readers. They are unafraid.

News of the day, 9/6

Hey everyone. Early morning for me. I spoke to a class at Catholic High today about sports writing. I didn't lie. I said the job yields some pretty incredible rewards. Some of the best and most creative emails ever written come through my mailbox. For that, I am eternally thankful.

Auburn held a short workout this morning. They don't do much hitting after Wednesday. Thursdays are about special teams, correct alignments and maintaining mental sharpness. The team will need all three against USF this weekend.

Open your mouth and enjoy another dose of the HOTTEST Auburn blog on the 'net.

For whatever reason, I've been getting some comments lately about the officiating during last week's game. This surely is coming from biased observes, who claim that KSU's 150+ yards of penalties shows that the officiating crew was on the take. Or at least giving Auburn every benefit of the doubt. I gotta say -- I disagree with that. The way SEC officials are scrutinized these days, they can't get away with blatantly incorrect calls very often. Surely not a dozen in one game. Some people need to get a grip. Seriously.

I received an email this afternoon from AP college football ace Ralph Russo with some interesting news: The AP Poll no longer is exclusive to I-A. That means, beginning this week, Appalachian State is eligible for top-25 votes. Ralph was polling the voters (interesting reversal) about their affinity for ASU from a top-25 perspective. While the Mountaineers' achievement was memorable, I would not have voted them in the top 25 for that one game alone.

Here is my ballot from earlier this week. The AP publishes my ballot and those of all poll voters each week.

1. Southern Cal
2. LSU
3. West Virginia
4. Virginia Tech
5. Oklahoma
6. Texas
7. Louisville
8. Hawaii
9. Georgia
10. UCLA
11. Cal
12. Wisconsin
13. TCU
14. Missouri
15. Auburn
16. Texas A&M
17. Florida
18. South Florida
19. Ohio State
20. Penn State
21. Rutgers
22. Michigan
23. Oregon
24. South Carolina
25. Clemson

I know some people will moan about me voting for Michigan. It was a loss. A bad loss. An epically bad loss. I still believe Michigan is a pretty good team. Dropping them from the poll, in my opinion, is an overreaction.

One small note for my own enjoyment ... The poll now includes two Kentucky graduates: Author of The Hottest Auburn Blog on The 'Net and Chip Cosby from the Lexington Herald-Leader. Hey, that's institutional progress in my eyes.

Note to Arkansas fans: To those who said I'm "the only one dumb enough to leave out Arkansas," I counted eight voters who aren't voting for Arkansas right now. Several others have the Hogs at 24 or 25. I think that represents how enigmatic Arkansas is right now. It's a difficult team to read. If the Hogs start 3-0, I'll certainly add them. I'm sure everyone will.

A reminder that the best gas deal between Montgomery and Auburn is at Jet-Pep on Wire Rd. It's $2.49/gal. The best price in Montgomery is the Raceway at East Blvd. and Carmichael, which is $2.56/gal. right now. Definitely avoid Shorter (exit 22) because they're charging $2.86/gal. there. I guess the peeps who roll out of Victoryland will pay almost anything.

News of the day, 9/5

Hey everyone. Auburn practices late this afternoon. I'll be updating a few times during the day, so check back for the freshest information available.

Thanks, as always, for taking another scrumptious dose of the HOTTEST Auburn blog on the 'net.

LB Tray Blackmon (ankle), S Aairon Savage (ankle) and CB Jae Wilhite (hamstring) returned to practice on Wednesday and are expected to play against South Florida. K Wes Byrum remains hobbled by a troublesome ankle. Tommy Tuberville said junior Zach Kutch will kick if Byrum isn't able to play.

Several fans have asked me recently (ie this morning at the gym) about the real story behind Mario Fannin's zero carries against Kansas State. I really don't think conspiracy theories are necessary here. We talked with Mario on Monday and he seemed at peace with it all. He acknolwedged that blocking isn't his best skill. Ben Tate and Carl Stewart, the team's best blocking backs, still couldn't dilute the pressure being placed on Brandon Cox the other night. It could have been worse with Fannin in there. I've told you all for weeks that Fannin is a good player. He is. He'll get his chance soon. Auburn knows it can't run Ben Tate every down. He's not that kind of back.

I didn't have room to use this quote in today's story about Brandon Cox, but you need to see it. I found it so odd. I asked Tuberville for his thoughts about Cox's mental errors from the KSU game. What does he do? Cites Cox's 4-INT game against Georgia Tech in 2005. That was 24 starts ago.
He's made mental errors before. We all go back to his first start against Georgia Tech. He made a few there. Brandon is not going to be perfect. No quarterback is. You have to have a few people step up around you sometimes. This time, he had the defense and kicking game step up and get us out of the hole which we dug for ourselves on offense. We aren't going to be able to live like that all of the time. Last year, it caught up with us in two games, and if we don't improve, then it will catch up with us again.

Steven Ensminger's decision to leave Auburn is a good one. He's a good player. I mean that. He looked just as good as Neil Caudle during the spring, and there's no doubt in my mind that Ensminger can be a good college quarterback somewhere. Not at Auburn. Kodi Burns and (perhaps to a lesser degree) Neil Caudle are the next guys in line.

From the "Why does anyone care?" file comes a list of former South Florida students.
*Terry Bolea a.k.a. Hulk Hogan
*Lauren Hutton, actress and old-school hottie. This cannot be argued. Also a Chi-O, which adds luster to her resume.
*Tony LaRussa, St. Louis Cardinals manager (graduate)
*Gallagher, comic with the annoying watermelon act (graduate)
*Mark Consuelos, who played Mateo Santos on "All My Children." Don't ask me how I know. Now he's Mr. Kelly Ripa. He's also a fan of Chelsea F.C., which makes me regret even putting him on this list. (graduate)

American Idol star Taylor Hicks, a former Auburn student, will perform at halftime of the Mississippi State game on Sept. 15. He won the show's fifth season in 2006. I can't say I've ever heard a single song of his -- or seen a complete episode of the show -- but I'm sure a lot of Auburn fans appreciate Hicks' genius.

News of the day, 9/4

BREAKING NEWS: QB Steven Ensminger transferring to Louisiana Tech. He leaves today. Ensminger is the son of Auburn assistant coach Steve Ensminger. The younger Ensminger was fourth on the depth chart, but will drop into fifth with the return of Neil Caudle. More below from Tommy Tuberville in "Tuesdays With Tommy".

Hey everyone. Auburn practiced this morning for a couple hours. I imagine the offensive linemen had a tough day. I saw both Lee Ziemba and Andrew McCain walking to lunch. They were not peppy. They looked unusually tired. McCain's gait mimicked that of a 50-year old man. And Ziemba -- he's one of the sunniest kids on the team.

Tuberville held his weekly press conference early this afternoon. My new plan for handling this event is to pass along some of his best quotes in short form. I'm calling this "Tuesdays with Tommy" because it portrays the event properly. It's staged and Tommy really doesn't say much. His mouth gets sanitized in front of a crowd. Tuberville speaks much more candidly in front of smaller groups.

I'm not criticizing him. He's generally quite open with his opinions. These Tuesday things are notoriously laborious. Still, some of the things he says on Tuesday hold some value.

For now, take a moment to savor your daily dose of the HOTTEST Auburn blog on the 'net.

Here is your "Tuesdays with Tommy" segment.

On Steven Ensminger transferring to La. Tech: "I tried to talk him out of it, but this is his decision. It's his life. We hate to see him go."

On the KSU game: "There wasn't a lot of glitter."

On what Auburn learned from the KSU game: "We found a lot of guys who are going to play for four quarters. We found out a lot about who is going to lay it on the line."

On the status of injured players:
"I can't say who's going to play and who's not. It'll take another day."

On the success of USF coach Jim Leavitt:
"It's going to be hard to get him out of there. There's a lot of potential with the players they can recruit down there."

On USF's offense and its use of quarterback Matt Grothe:
"It turns the quarterback into another tailback. It's an explosive offense. It's a lot of one-on-one tackling."

On Brad Lester's situation: It's been in the works for the last few weeks. "I'm out of it. It's out of my hands."

On USF tailback Mike Ford: "We recruited him. He's a guy we all noticed quickly as a 10th and 11th grader."

On what Auburn's offense needs to be better: "That's the million-dollar question. We're so concerned with execution that nobody's ad-libbing."

I didn't think about this until today, but former Auburn quarterback/cornerback Courtney Denson plays at South Florida. He was part of the Tigers' 2003 signing class. He's a wideout now. Auburn was upset when he left during 2004 two-a-days because Denson looked like an outstanding prospect. He just didn't want to play defense. Some of the Auburn kids still keep in touch with him: Pat Lee, Eric Brock and Carl Stewart.

News of the day, 9/3

Hey everyone. Auburn begins practice today around 4 o'clock. I expect it to be a pretty long session. I'll have fresh information available at 9 p.m. or so.

Auburn picked up a pair of commitments this morning. Check below for details.

In case you were wondering, that picture over there is of the one and only Brad Lester celebrating with TE Gabe McKenzie. He can roam the sidelines. Can't play. I'd hate to be in that position as a junior -- practice all week, spend Saturday watching everyone else have fun.

Thanks, as always, for ingesting another invigorating dose of the HOTTEST Auburn blog on the 'net.

Auburn nabbed two more 2008 commitments during the weekend, and both are from Miami. WR Harry Adams, from Dillard High in Ft. Lauderdale, picked the Tigers over Florida, Florida Stae and LSU among others. Adams (6-0, 175) was a track-only athlete until his junior season, when he began applying his speed to football. He ran a 4.3 40-yard dash at Auburn this summer.

George Baker of Miami's Archbishop High also committed after the Kansas State game. Recruiting services list him as an "athlete," but he's expected to play defensive back at Auburn. He has competing offers from LSU, Kansas State, Ole Miss and Rutgers.

Auburn now has 11 commitments. Three other JUCO/prep-school players -- defensive end Raven Gray, defensive tackle Tim Pugh and tailback Enrique Davis -- are expected to sign with the Tigers as well.

Each week, Auburn defensive coaches closely track some statistical markers they consider critical to success. Here is a look at the defensive goals:

Win: YES, 23-13
Allow 13 pts or less: YES, 13
Allow 3.3 yards per carry or less: YES, 2.6
Allow 5.0 yards per pass or less: YES, 4.45
Create at least 3 turnovers: YES, 3
Allow no big plays (defined as 15+ rush or 20+ pass): NO on run (1); NO on pass (1)
Allow no TDs inside "red area": YES
Force opponent to convert less than 30% on 3rd down: YES, 28%

Also, KSU's YAC (yards after catch) number was 124

Auburn's defensive coaches track their players' individual levels of productivity closely. Points are awarded for good things, taken away for mistakes or loafing. Here are the Tigers' top 10 performers from the KSU game:

DE Antonio Coleman, 34 points
DT Pat Sims, 29
DE Quentin Groves, 24
CB Pat Lee, 24
DT Josh Thompson, 19
CB Zach Gilbert, 18
S Zac Etheridge, 14
LB Tray Blackmon, 12 (only played 1/2 the game)
LB Chris Evans, 12
CB Eric Brock, 10
DE Sen'Derrick Marks, 10

Auburn fans who showed outrage over QB Brandon Cox's omission from the Davey O'Brien Award Watch List now can affect that. The award now includes fan voting. If you think Brandon is worthy of being named America's Best College Quarterback, you can vote once per day.

News of the day, 9/2

Hey everyone. I'm a little late starting today's blog because I didn't get home from the Kansas State game until 1:20 a.m. Part of the job. I find myself struggling to stay awake past midnight these days. I'm 35. It was easy 10 years ago.

Auburn normally practices on Sunday but won't today. The team will rest today and resume practice on Monday. Check below for fresh information gleaned from Tommy Tuberville's Sunday teleconference.

I also have analyzed some of the most interesting statistical trends from Saturday's game. I'm not big on third-down statistics in general because I see that as a pretty random statistic, but what Auburn's defense did to KSU on third down during the final three quarters was remarkable.

Thanks for accepting your daily dose of the HOTTEST Auburn blog on the 'net.

Tuberville today was somewhat critical of QB Brandon Cox's role in Auburn's 23-13 win against Kansas State. The offense was a mess for most of the night, undone by a variety of issues. Cox wasn't spared. ``Brandon struggled. He didn't play his best game. He made some mistakes in terms of throwing the ball and getting us into the right play. It was, by far, not close to how he can play," Tuberville said.

Cox's worst moment came immediately after halftime. His first pass of the second half was intercepted. ``That was a poor decision on his part and a poor throw," Tuberville said. ``That was disappointing. He knows that. He knew it when we came off the field."

Depsite talk all week about how freshmen Mike Berry and Lee Ziemba were going to struggle on the right side of the line, it was LG King Dunlap who had the worst night. He earned the lowest performance grade of the game, which is astounding considering Dunlap is a senior. ``He did not have the best night," Tuberville said. ``He lost his fundamentals and techniques in some situations. He's going to have to work on that."

Three major defenders -- LB Tray Blackmon (ankle), FS Aairon Savage (ankle) and CB Jae Wilhite (hamstring) -- missed the second half Saturday because of injury. Tuberville said he believes all three players will be ready for the South Florida game on Saturday. He said the most serious injury is K Wes Byrum's sore ankle, which he injured while trying to make a tackle on kickoff coverage. Byrum moonlighted at defensive end in high school. Auburn instructs its kickers to play only a peripheral role in coverage tackling, though it appears that Byrum needs a primer.

Here are the coaches' Players of the Game:
Offense: TE Gabe McKenzie
Defense: DE Antonio Coleman and DT Pat Sims
Special Teams: Wes Byrum
Scout Offense: Brian Anyadike
Scout Defense: Darrell Roseman

Let's look at some of the statistical trends from the Auburn-Kansas State game:

Auburn finished with 62.
That shows you how badly the Tigers struggled up front. You have two issues there. The offensive line didn't play well against a K-State line that's pretty good. The second issue, in my opinion, is TB Ben Tate. He's just not quick through the hole. He's really an "F" back who is playing because he's experienced and knows how to block. Auburn really missed Brad Lester on Saturday night. His quickness between the tackles is a critical component of the Tigers' rushing attack. Mario Fannin can run like that as well, but Tuberville said he's not very high on Fannin's blocking work right now.

AVG. YARDS PER PUNT: Auburn (Ryan Shoemaker) finished with a 42.7 average.
A really outstanding effort from Shoemaker, who is a redshirt freshman. An argument could be made that he was among the most important players on Saturday night. Field position was critical. I think field position will remain a major part of the Tigers' overall strategy this season. That offense isn't going to produce many touchdowns in this state.

THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS: Auburn was 3 of 15. KSU was 5 of 18.
From an Auburn offensive standpoint: Just awful. I'm not one of these people who put a ton of credence into third-down statistics. Still, 20% is really bad. That's a mixture of the players' focus and play calls, neither of which were remarkable on Saturday night. I found it intriguing, though, that Auburn marched down the field and scored when the situation seemed terminal. That tells me that a lot of the team's offensive problems are mental.

From an Auburn defensive standpoint: Auburn adjusted nicely after taking in on the chin during KSU's first drive. The Wilcats earned three third-down conversions on that one possession. Then next 14 possessions yielded only two additional conversions. Isn't that something? Kansas State completed 33 passes, yet only gained 289 passing yards. Those short passes, by and large, led only to short gains.

SACKS BY: Kansas State had 5.
Again illustrates the need for better protection. Sacks weren't K-State's top priority, either. Their top initiative was to plug the running lanes, which severely affected Auburn's ground game. The sacks were gravy in a sense. I credit Cox with two of those sacks. There's a point when balls need to be thrown away. Cox, much as he did in 2005, seemed determined to make something happen when being flushed from the pocket. He seemed desperate to make plays. He can't be the guy to do that. Cox isn't that kind of quarterback.

That's the largest crowd ever to witness a Kansas State athletic event.

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