Ouch. That one hurt. Really bad. This is going to be really long, because there is a lot to talk about.
To start with, I think there were a lot of positives that came out of last night. As Ron Prince said all along, an ESPN national telecast was a great way to get the K-State name on people's minds. It also should have proved to the team that there is nothing to fear on the road. The players went into a hostile environment and acted like it was no big deal. That's part of the callousness Prince has been talking about developing all summer and fall.
Also, I should note that my buddy (an Auburn alum) called me after the game and told me K-State had won nothing but respect among everybody he heard talking after the game. He said most of the Auburn fans in attendance felt like they had been extremely fortunate to win that game. I don't know that I agree fortunate is the word, but we'll get into that later.
First, let's talk about the offense. Josh Freeman showed that having a year and a summer under his belt has fueled immense improvement. I was so fired up at the beginning of the game I couldn't sit still in front of my TV...and I was in Houston. Freeman walked out on the field of a top 20 SEC team and acted like he was back on the practice field in Manhattan that first drive (and through the game, really). He calmly marched the team down the field and nearly to a game-opening touchdown. Over the course of the night, he did a great job of protecting the football, as his only interceptions were on a first-half Hail Mary and a desperation drive at the end of the game. Other than that, he showed tremendous poise in an often-crumbling pocket, waiting without shuffling his feet before finally flipping a pass off to his safety valve receiver.
Speaking of a crumbling pocket, it would be unfair to totally throw the offensive line under the bus. Freeman was sacked only twice and generally had enough time to make the throws he was asked to make. It is entirely too easy to throw Alesana Alesana under the bus for his performance late in the game, and unfortunately entirely too many message board fans have done exactly that. First of all, Alesana actually did a pretty good job most of the game, as I didn't see Freeman take a blindside hit until that last drive where he was hit and fumbled. And let's try to remember that AU moved Quentin Groves over to Alesana's side late in the game. Groves only had 9.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss last year, and was a first-team SEC defensive end. Second of all, try to remember the person you're criticizing is just that: a person, and an awfully young one at that. And in this case, a young man who recently dealt with terrible personal tragedy. It was his first game, and he was facing one of the best defensive ends in the country. The coaches didn't help Alesana out much, but more on that later.
Once again, the running game was non-existent. Only 16 carries for 27 yards. That will not get it done right there. We have seen that James Johnson and Leon Patton have the moves to make nice runs, now it's up to the offensive line to pave the way. Again, fortunately we won't play a defense as good as Auburn's the rest of the way.
The wide receiver play was encouraging. Jordy Nelson looked like the Nelson of 2005, who caught eight touchdown passes. A receiver with his size and speed is going to create a lot of mismatches during the year, and will be a great possession receiver. I like the looks of Deon Murphy, he has good hands and speed. Daniel Gonzalez had a decent game, as did Jeron Mastrud from the tight end spot. The passing game looks good to me.
And man, what can you say about the defense? That was an amazing effort. I won't lie and tell you I know a lot about schemes, but it seemed to me that 3-4 is doing exactly what it's supposed to, and that is allow the players to fly to the ball. The Mob held Auburn to less than 300 total yards, and a paltry 62 yards rushing. Not only that, but they got pressure on Brandon Cox (five sacks) and picked him off twice. Remember, Cox is a fifth-year senior quarterback who is supposed to be pretty good at protecting the ball. Obviously the late touchdown drive hurt, but the defense held Auburn to 16 points. We will win a lot of games this year if we can hold teams to 16 offensive points.
Marcus Watts is the man. The interception on the first play of the second half was a thing of beauty, and you could tell he was in Cox's head all night.
Antwon Moore was a nice surprise at linebacker. He did a great job of getting into the backfield, bottling up the running game, and pressuring Cox (one TFL and one sack).
Ian Campbell was, well, Ian Campbell. What's more, I didn't notice any problems with him working in space at the linebacker position. I think we'll take 2.5 TFL and half a sack each game from him, although I suspect he'll get more than half a sack against most teams. Oh, and I almost forgot he had two QB hurries.
Rob Jackson is going to be a beast for offensive linemen to deal with this year. Two TFL, two sacks.
The only player I'm complaining about? Justin McKinney. Somebody really needs to teach that kid to tackle without grabbing the facemask, although that second PF on him looked like a phantom call. I really hope that Joshua Moore gets his academic issues figured out so he can get back in the lineup and get McKinney back on the bench. Funny how ESPN managed to never notice our starting CB wasn't playing...
I can't say enough about this defense. That was a great performance.
Now, on to everybody's favorite topic...coaching. We came out doing exactly what I was hoping we would do, mixing the run with the pass, keeping Auburn off balance, keeping Freeman's drops short to neutralize the AU rush, and protecting the ball. The game plan to start was excellent. It was obvious AU adjusted and took away the underneath stuff and realized we were no threat running the ball, which caused the struggles in the second quarter. But the adjustments to throw some WR screens and mix in the gadget plays opened things up again in the third quarter and were almost enough. On the defensive side, there is really nothing to complain about, the game plan was about as good as it can be.
I only really have a couple gripes with coaching decisions. The first was not putting a TE or RB on Groves' side when he moved over and it became clear Alesana could not block him. Nobody in the nation can block Groves one-on-one, and asking a guy in his first Division I-A (or whatever the hell it's called now) was madness. On that last drive, we did put Johnson on that side once and it led to a completion. The next play was the worst call of the game, when we ran a play-action fake that fooled nobody, took Johnson out of the blocking scheme, and Groves busted Freeman in the back, forcing the fumble that decided the game.
Some have complained about the decision to call for a punt block on the play where Antwon Moore was called for roughing the kicker. That is a perfect illustration of the limit of what coaches can do. We had called for punt blocks earlier in the game, but nobody ever got close enough to have a serious chance to block the punt, and wisely nobody made a stupid try. Unfortunately, Moore decided to make a very ill-advised dive at a block he had almost no chance of making. I'm pretty sure Ron Prince didn't say "Hey Antwon, no matter what I want you to lay out on this one, even if you're six yards away as the punter is dropping the ball." At some point you have to let your players perform, and that was a mistake that was on the player. Further, it didn't hurt us, except for some field position, as Auburn went three more downs and punted again.
Now, a couple other issues I want to deal with. I'm going to laugh in the face of the next person who compares Josh Freeman to Jared Lorenzen. Other than wearing enough body armor to go into combat, he looked about like he did last year to me, weight-wise. Also, I am not going to bother getting into the argument regarding Ron Prince's relations with his assistant coaches. That performance did not look like the effort of a demoralized team and coaching staff. Quite the contrary, actually.
Finally, I want to clear one thing up. Auburn did not get lucky in winning that game. I have made a promise to myself not to complain about officiating (too much) this year. Officials are humans, and they make mistakes. There were clearly some bad calls last night, but K-State was not the only team victimized by bad calls. Also, I've been saying this all along, and AU made my point for me. Auburn is an incredibly patient, disciplined, well-coached team. There's a reason Tommy Tuberville has won all the games he has. Neither he nor his team ever panicked. They waited, and waited, and waited for a K-State mistake, and when they got it (we can argue whether it was forced or unforced, but usually it's a little bit of both) they capitalized. That's the sign of a good team as much as offensive firepower and defensive strength.
So where do we go from here? There were so many positives from this game, and yet a loss is still a loss. There really are no moral victories, but some losses are definitely better than others. Our Cats walked into an SEC stadium and punched a top 20 team in the mouth. After that, AU covered up, let us throw a flurry of punches, and waited for us to trip, and at that point delivered a haymaker for the KO. I saw tonight a team that can beat every remaining team on its schedule if it plays like it did tonight. I saw a team that won't be awed by any road environment the rest of the year, including Austin and Lincoln.
The trick will be getting this team up for next week's game against San Jose State. If the team comes out with the same intensity it had yesterday, SJSU doesn't have a chance. For those who don't know, SJSU got run by Arizona State last night, 45-3. The Spartans amassed (I use the term loosely) 106 total yards, and gave up 508. And oh by the way, Arizona State was a 7-6 team last year. We need to see some fire in the home opener, and a good beatdown of the Spartans.
I'll try to get a review of other Big 12 action up later today, and I'll be returning the "K-State Week in Review" either tonight or tomorrow.