Monday, September 21
Why don't we try not to break our hearts and make it so hard for ourselves?
"Give my regards to Broadway, bitch."
I basically said in my preview on Friday that I had no idea what to expect from the Georgia-Arkansas game. Well, turns out I should've known exactly what to expect, because we saw the exact same thing last week: Start off with an absolutely horrendous first quarter, dig ourselves into a relatively deep hole thanks to the kind of turnovers even high-schoolers get screamed at for making, find our mojo and storm back in the second quarter to take a halftime lead, then go to sleep on defense almost as soon as the second half starts and sweat out a shootout finish right down to the final minutes. It was said over and over again coming into this game that we still didn't know what kind of team we had; well, it looks like a pattern is being formed.
Look: In spite of the hysteria that a 52-41 final is bound to inspire amongst the denizens of Bulldog Nation -- and I'm not saying I completely blame you if you're one of them -- we now have two games' worth of concrete evidence that our team is good at quite a lot of things. Joe Cox is a fucking assassin; I wouldn't bet on him to have another five-TD game anytime soon, but I think we can reasonably write off his Oklahoma State game as an unfortunate (and most likely illness-addled) outlier. He is blessed with a terrific stable of young receivers, with some of the burden on the damn-near-uncoverable A.J. Green being increasingly relieved by the presence of Michael Moore in the slot, as well as Tavarres King and a couple of very dangerous tight ends. Led by Brandon Boykin, our kick-return team is inspiring consistent fear for the first time in a while. Our punter can boot long punts and our kicker can kick long field goals. And our defense is going a long way toward redeeming their awful performance against the run in the latter half of '08.
And now the bad news.
Here's what we're not good at: We're not good at running consistently with authority, though I've seen enough promise from Richard Samuel and Caleb King to have faith that they'll even out before too long. Here's what we're worse at, and what I don't have much faith is going to work itself out: ball security and pass defense. We're now -7 in turnover margin, on pace to finish the regular season at -28. I don't care how many near-400-yard days Joe Cox has or how many opposing running backs we manage to flatten, we're not going anywhere with an integer like that hanging over our heads. These turnovers are unforced, inexplicable, and dare I say just plain stupid -- stupid enough that it doesn't seem like it should take that herculean an effort to coach it out of them, yet we're not making a lick of progress in that regard. We've now dodged two bullets that could have been relatively easy wins if we hadn't presented the ball to the other team on a velvet pillow multiple times and gifted them with three first-quarter scores apiece; I don't think we can count on dodging too many more of them.
As for pass defense, egad. Look, I know I just gave a couple reasons after the South Carolina game why our defensive performance might not have been as bad as it looked, and yes, I know you have to take into account we just played as gunslinging a quarterback as we may face all season long, and running a Bobby Petrino offense, no less. But it's one thing to get hammered by an RPG-armed quarterback who's gonna get his yards one way or another; it is another thing entirely to hand over 408 yards because we rarely had a defender within 10 yards of the opposing receivers. Those guys were so wide-open that there wasn't a quarterback in the SEC who couldn't have hit them for first downs, Jonathan Crompton included. We screwed ourselves nearly the exact same way we screwed ourselves against South Carolina: consistently devoted personnel to a pass rush that rarely worked (until the very end, when they had no choice but to pass), leaving an underrated corps of receivers so alone in the defensive backfield that our zone coverage hardly ever had a chance. I've tried to refrain from lowering the verbal boom on Willie Martinez on this blog 'cause I don't want to be That Guy, but this time That Guy has a point: Our zone defense has now nearly gotten us blown up by not one but two teams over which we supposedly had marked advantages in talent and experience. Either our coverage scheme is easier to solve than the Junior Jumble or our guys aren't being properly instructed to run it effectively, but either way there seems to be a critical part of the plan missing.
"We've gone over 450 yards of total offense today!" "You too? Sweet! Up top!"
If we hadn't spotted South Carolina 10 points on ridiculous turnovers in the first 10 minutes of the game, we could've pulled solidly ahead by the middle of the second quarter and spent the rest of the evening keying in on Stephen Garcia. Likewise, if we hadn't gift-wrapped three easy touchdowns for Ryan Mallett -- two of them coming on one-play drives, for Christ's sake -- then we're cruising comfortably in the third rather than desperately wondering if we're going to have to score on every last drive. Not that I don't like unloading 52 points on people, least of all a spineless rat-bastard like Petrino, but I treat points like I treat alcoholic beverages: I want them because I can have them; I don't want to start needing them. That way lies madness, or at least rehab. (Which, if we're to fully draw out this metaphor, is probably the Independence Bowl. If we're lucky.)
I don't feel like I'm asking for a lot here. We know we're a talented and physically gifted team, perhaps even more so than anyone predicted before the season. Is it too much to expect that we'd find a way to keep those wonderful young men from digging multiple-score holes for themselves from whence they must apply especially heroic acts to escape, or are we doing this as a character-building exercise? Am I being lazy or entitled if I ask to be merely excited watching us beat unranked teams, as opposed to having my heart rate raised to the point where I can feel useful years being taken off my life?
OK, I'm sold on Joe Cox's awesomeness. Now let's see if we can't put ourselves ahead by enough to give his backups some meaningful time.
Maybe this is just going to be that kind of season -- we're playing a lot of young guys out there, after all -- and after a string of seasons in which double-digit wins became almost de rigueur, we should expect to be treated to at least one season in which we're reminded what sweating the supposedly small stuff feels like. But dangit, Mark, it just feels like y'all could be making this so much easier on yourselves and on me. And I think we may have reached the point where our guys have as much adversity-honed character as they need.
I mean, could we even just end the first quarter tied with Arizona State this weekend? I really think I'd be OK with that. Seriously. I'm not setting the bar outlandishly high here. Think it over and get back to me.
· I'm going to do something I try to do very rarely on this blog and give Tennessee some credit: Particularly for a team that appeared to be teetering on the brink of another 2008-style mental implosion, that was about as gutty a performance in the Swamp as they could've possibly delivered. As long as they have that defense, with Monte Kiffin directing it, there's going to be a pretty respectable floor for minimum achievement for the Vols this year.
Thing is, as long as they've got Crompton at QB, there's also a definite ceiling -- Crompton didn't look horrible on Saturday, but that was primarily because you could tell Lane Kiffin was taking great pains to ensure Crompton was never called upon to do anything heroic, or even particularly risky. For that reason, it was kind of a boring game, outside of the surprising smallness of the margin of victory: The Vols were never getting blown out by the massive margin that many people (myself included) had predicted, but they never looked like a real threat to pull the upset, either, and their coaches knew it. The Gators, meanwhile, looked like a team that, once they realized they weren't going to be blowing anyone out by 60, wanted to do nothing more than simply run out the clock and go the fuck home (an impression that seems all but confirmed by some of Urban Meyer's comments after the game). Was that the first indication of a Florida squad believing its own preseason hype and trying to just sleepwalk through the season until they get to the BCS title game? Maybe, maybe not, but they certainly didn't look like a team I'd bet on to go 12-0, either.
UW-Tang Clan ain't nuthin' ta fuck wit.
· Then again, they still have the ability to do that, which is more than some people can say this morning. I know, USC was giving a young QB his very first start, but if Aaron Corp was good enough to have outplayed Matt Barkley in the summer -- and supposedly he did -- shouldn't he have been good enough to at least not implode against the Huskies? And shouldn't USC as a whole have been able to overcome nearly any obstacle to defeat a team that was winless in conference just a year ago? (Of course, there is some precedent to suggest that that won't necessarily keep the Trojans completely out of the national-title hunt after all.)
At any rate, it does inspire an interesting philosophical question. Would you rather be a fan of a team that wins all the big games in stirring fashion but is in constant mortal danger of getting embarrassed by the cupcakes, or a fan of a team that handily beats all the teams they're supposed to beat but rarely gets over the hump with statement wins in big games? (Georgia fans who were treated to the experience of actually being the latter fan last year are excused from this question if they wish to be.)
· I don't know how people in Pullman, Washington, aren't dropping toasters into bathtubs en masse today. The one Pac-10 scalp they were able to take last year -- their big in-state rival, no less -- has already rocketed down the path back to respectability with a win over the reigning conference juggernaut; meanwhile, WSU is at a point where they're having to mount desperate comebacks just to beat SMU, at home, in overtime. It's entirely possible that we just saw the Cougars notch their last win of 2009.
· The one score over the weekend that might've been more inexplicable than Florida-Tennessee? Try Florida State 54, BYU 28 on for size. Going from only being able to score 19 on Jax State to dropping half-a-hundred on the team that strangled Sam Bradford and the Sooners, the Seminoles are turning into the football-team version of possibly-not-all-there Bobby Bowden, the increasingly addled grandpa who can't remember the names of his own kids but can tell you every last detail of the B-17 Flying Fortress crew he flew with in the Big One.
"Timmy, let me tell you about my good buddy Ernie "Melonhead" Kramer, the finest tailgunner in the USAAF. We called him "Melonhead" because he was a baseball player in Skokie, Illinois, and would always wear this hat that they had to special-order for -- wait, you're Suzie?"
· Auburn was starting to terrify me even before we got conclusive proof that our pass defense would be hard-pressed to hold an NAIA team under 30 points. Now the Tigers are 3-0 and still averaging more than 500 yards a game, and I'm prepared to mount an active campaign to suspend the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry until Gus Malzahn leaves the Plains for a head-coaching job. Do not adjust your television sets: That was Chris Todd slangin' it for nearly 300 yards and 4 TDs against WVU the other night.
· UAB Blazers Watch: Another loss for the Blazers, 27-14 to Troy, and the first truly subpar day for Black Tebow -- 14-of-27 passing for only 114 yards, plus 19 rushes for 76. Fortunately, Black Tebow gets a chance to get well this week against Texas A&M's defense, and no, I'm not saying that sarcastically.
· Wofford Terriers Watch: Not much to get excited about in a blowout loss to the Wisconsin Badgers. Fortunately they get to resume SoCon play this week against an awful UT-Chattanooga squad, so I expect to see at least 50 points on the board, Terriers.
· And finally: Some respect for X'Zavier Bloodsaw. Though "Bullet Pussycrusher" would be pretty awesome too, and I'll take that, if you don't mind, for my own firstborn son, assuming nobody else has dibs on it already.