COLLIER: Stumbling at the wrong time

Will Collier, Columnist
Auburn Sports
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Robin Conn/AuburnSports.com

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To be honest, I don’t think I knew that Mercer had a football team until I saw Da Bears on this year’s schedule.

In the last 16 years of living in Georgia, the only encounter I’d ever had with the school was a former co-worker with a Mercer degree — and he was a UGA sidewalk alum who wore red and black every day.

Like most Atlantans, I had a vague impression of a little school (actually 8,600 students) somewhere around Macon or Columbus (it’s Macon) that had played football sometime in the Dark Ages (1892-1941) but long ago dropped the sport. Their return to the field just four years back completely evaded my notice.

In the offseason, Da Bears — do Mercer fans actually call their team Da Bears? I have no idea, but it’s fun to write and say, and as fun is in short supply right now, I’m going to keep doing it — looked like the cupcake-iest team on anybody’s schedule.

Time may yet prove that impression to be correct, but Auburn did its damnedest to make Da Bears look like giant killers for three and a half hours on Saturday.

I can understand the Tigers having a hangover of sorts, although not like the one Sean White had early Sunday morning. It would have been nice to see a crisp dispatching of an outmanned, rent-a-win team, but it also would have been well within the realm of the understandable if Auburn had been, say, 10 or 20 percent off its game for this one.

But that wasn’t what we got on the last Saturday before the official start of Fall. What we got was way, way worse.

Auburn’s outstanding linebacker coach, Travis Williams, observed after the game that the only thing a football player can truly control is his own effort. Given the stunning lack of effort, concentration and focus demonstrated by most of the team against Mercer, I can only assume Williams had his hands full doling out punishment laps the next day.

Poor tackling. Bad penalties. Missed assignments. General lackadaisical play. And of course, turnovers. Lots and lots and lots of turnovers. Enough turnovers to get killed against a mediocre opponent. Enough turnovers to keep a toddler program in the game until very late.

Making the on-field buffoonery worse, the team received very little if any help from the coaching staff, particularly the offensive (insert your own joke here) coaching staff.

Here are the positive things I saw out of the Auburn offense against a tiny and desperately outmanned Mercer defense: The much-needed addition of some quick intermediate routes, Jarrett Stidham’s efficiency, Nate Craig-Myers finally getting meaningful targets and Kamryn Pettway looking a little more healthy than he did a week ago.

That was about it.

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Jay G. Tate/AuburnSports.com

I can’t for the life of me understand what the heck Gus Malzahn is doing with his offense — and I do mean Malzahn’s offense. I don’t think Chip Lindsey is anything more than a shiny distracting object thus far.

It’s almost like Malzahn is determined to not do the things that he’s succeeded with in the past. The “eye candy” motion that disguised plays has been all but discarded. Auburn hasn’t seriously tried to run hurry-up tempo in years.

The plays remain utterly predictable even to the untrained eye. Personnel and formations are telegraphing plays, a deadly combination even under benign circumstances.

To modern football teams armed with computerized analytics, Auburn’s films must look like simple directions for where to put your defenders for best effect. Even Mercer can stop you if they know where you’re going.

Da Bears clearly did know that.

Every team on the schedule has those analytics reports and every successive game without significant changes makes them more damaging. Auburn might consider running such a report on itself, then using it to take advantage of what opponents are very reasonably expecting. Just a thought.

And then there’s the fact that Malzahn seems intent on running Pettway into the ground early in the season. I take a back seat to nobody in my respect and esteem for “Bubba,” but when you give him the ball for every single running play against frickin’ Mercer, you are doing football wrong.

Auburn has three more healthy scholarship running backs — and they are all good. Why none of them touched a football Saturday is inexplicable. There was, is, and never will be again a need for Pettway to get every single carry, especially not when he still isn’t 100 percent healthy. He'll never get back to that level if he’s pulling 34 carries a game.

Like I said, I don’t get it. Making things even more frustrating, with the rest of the conference in the state it’s in right now and an outstanding defense already on the field, Auburn has a golden opportunity to succeed this year. That opportunity is fading with every unimaginative, stubborn and foolish game plan that stumbles onto the field.

Malzahn’s reputation was built on being the guy who could take whatever hand he was dealt and do damage with it. So far in 2017 (and all of 2015, and about half of 2016), that coach is missing in action.

If you’re looking for a silver lining today, all I’ve got is this: Mercer was probably the “best” game on the schedule for Auburn to have a complete shambolic breakdown. For all the grit and gusto Da Bears showed, they were still far too outmanned to overcome an SEC team — even one seemingly wired to self-destruct.

That’s not going to happen again, give or take Louisiana Monroe in the penultimate game. If Auburn didn’t get its homage to Murphy’s Law flushed out of its collective system on Saturday, things are liable to get very ugly, very soon.

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