NCF Nation: 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl

Instant Analysis: Auburn 43, Virginia 24

December, 31, 2011

After falling behind early, Auburn emptied out its playbook on offense and dominated the kicking game to charge past Virginia 43-24 on Saturday night in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Here’s an instant analysis from the game:

How the game was won: Auburn was truly special in special teams, and Virginia was utterly awful. The Tigers blocked two punts -- one leading to a touchdown and another resulting in a safety. They perfectly executed an onside kick to lead to another touchdown, snuffed out a Virginia fake field goal and also returned a free kick 62 yards to set up a field goal. The Tigers, who led 28-17 at the half, also played much better defensively in the second half and held the Cavaliers to 140 total yards after the break.

Turning point: Cody Parkey’s onside kick came right after Auburn had tied the game at 14-14 early in the second quarter. On the second offensive play, Barrett Trotter hit Emory Blake on a 50-yard pass. Three plays later, Kiehl Frazier scored on a 1-yard touchdown plunge to give Auburn the lead for good.

Player of the game: Auburn’s Onterio McCalebb said prior to the game that he wanted to prove to everybody that he could be the go-to running back with Michael Dyer indefinitely suspended. McCalebb delivered for the Tigers with 109 rushing yards on 10 carries and two catches for 53 yards. He ran for a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass.

Unsung hero: After Auburn starting quarterback Clint Moseley went down with an injury in the second quarter, Trotter came off the bench to throw the ball as well as has all season. He finished 11-of-18 for 175 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. He also scrambled for 32 yards and kept several plays alive.

Stat of the game: Auburn’s 43 points were a season high.

Stat of the game II: Auburn coach Gene Chizik ran his bowl record to 9-0. He’s now 6-0 as an assistant coach in bowl games and 3-0 as a head coach.

Stat of the game III: Auburn (8-5) avoided the dubious distinction of becoming the first defending national champion since Ohio State in 1943 to lose six games.

Best call: Just about everything Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn dialed up. The Tigers ran statue-of-liberty plays, reverses, throwback screens, wrap-around handoffs and halfback passes. Malzahn, who will move on to be the head coach at Arkansas State, went out in style.

Second guessing: In one of several special teams blunders by the Cavaliers, coach Mike London called for a fake field goal in the second quarter with Auburn leading 21-14. The Tigers had all the momentum at the time, and the Cavaliers needed some points. But their fake from the 15-yard line was snuffed out by Auburn’s Chris Davis, and the Tigers answered with a touchdown drive of their own to take a 28-14 lead.

What it means: Auburn heads into the offseason with some momentum, not to mention its third straight season of at least eight wins under Chizik. The finish to the 2011 regular season for the Tigers was anything but memorable, as they were blown out by LSU, Georgia and Alabama. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for the same job at UCF. Malzahn took the head coaching job at Arkansas State, and Dyer was indefinitely suspended. But the Tigers overcame the distractions to play one of their most complete games of the season and win their fifth straight bowl game. The Cavaliers (8-5) are still looking for their first bowl win since the 2007 season and will go into the offseason with a sour taste in their mouths. Counting the 38-0 loss to Virginia Tech to end the regular season, they lost their last two by a combined 81-24 margin.

Smooth SEC coordinating transitions

December, 30, 2011
Gene Chizik couldn’t wait to leave Atlanta.

Shortly after speaking with the media at the Chick-fil-A Bowl news conference inside the fast food chain’s headquarters, Chizik went straight into overdrive getting back to Auburn for meetings and practice.

[+] EnlargeGene Chizik
Paul Abell/US PresswireAuburn head coach Gene Chizik answers questions about his plan to also run the Tigers' defense.
He wasn’t necessarily having a bad time being surrounded by the aroma of chicken sandwiches and milkshakes, but he was on a schedule that was shorter than usual with his new job as both head coach and defensive coordinator for the Tigers.

Days before, Ted Roof left to take a similar job at Central Florida, so Chizik, who has 11 years of defensive coordinating experience, took over the position through bowl season.

“I did that for so many years,” Chizik said of coaching Auburn’s defense. “You just kind of jump back on the horse and get back at it.”

Still, with time management and time constraints being just two things changing for Chizik, you could imagine there’s a little more stress in the Chizik household these days.

Bowl anxiety is truly setting in and his double duty act will really be put to the test Saturday night against Virginia.

While Chizik might be stressing more than usual, his players aren’t. Sophomore defensive end Nosa Eguae said things are relatively the same for players. To him, the defense hasn’t changed much when it comes to preparation, and Chizik’s defensive knowledge has made the short transition easy.

“He has a great football mind,” Eguae said. “Anytime we’re in a meeting, everybody gets it and understands it.

“I love it. There are people who can balance the two of being head coach and defensive coordinator and he’s great at what he does.”

The only real difference, outside of not seeing Roof overlooking the defense, is Chizik’s demeanor. Eguae said Chizik’s defensive passion is glowing, and it can get a little intimidating.

“When he’s focusing more on the defense you can see that intensity in his eyes and hear it in his voice,” Eguae said. “I love it.”

Auburn isn’t the only team dealing with change. Arkansas has welcomed in a new offensive and defensive coordinator in Paul Petrino and Paul Haynes. Florida lost offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who is now the head coach at Kansas, and temporarily promoted running backs coach Brian White.

No one was probably more caught off guard by change than Florida’s players. Weis said weeks before taking the Kansas job that he expected to be in Gainesville for the long haul. But his abrupt exit left players shocked.

While Florida struggled tremendously on offense this season, White said he wants to keep some order by maintaining the same offensive philosophy. There will be some tweaks, but plays and formations should be relatively the same.

“It’s pretty much status quo. This is what our players know,” White said. “This is what we’ve coached all year. We can’t all of the sudden go and do something out of the box in a couple weeks. That would be foolish.”

Unlike Auburn and Florida, Arkansas’ coordinators are locked into next season.

Petrino is very familiar with the Hogs. Not only is his big brother the head coach, but he was also on staff in 2008 and 2009. Even with Garrick McGee now UAB’s head coach, Arkansas’ offense shouldn’t change much under Petrino, but he does have some big shoes to fill.

Haynes, who takes over for Willy Robinson, left Ohio State to work in a conference where defense truly is king. Arkansas’ defense took an unexpected step back in 2011, ranking no higher than eighth in the SEC in major defensive categories.

In order to keep things easier for defenders, Robinson isn’t changing much, either, and plans to show a multiple defense attack.

While it isn’t always easy to say goodbye to a coach, these replacements appear to be making life better. Limiting the thought process seems to be the recipe for smooth transitions.

“There’s not going to be a lot of thinking come Saturday,” Eguae said.

Chick-fil-A Bowl keys

December, 30, 2011
Here are three keys for Virginia heading into Saturday night’s game against Auburn:

1. Get back to basics. Virginia is a better team than what ACC fans saw in the regular-season 38-0 loss to Virginia Tech. The Cavaliers didn’t help themselves in that game, as quarterback Michael Rocco was sacked four times and intercepted twice. The Hoos entered that game averaging 177 rushing yards and finished with just 30 on 26 carries. The offensive line will need to protect better, Rocco will need to make better decisions and the Cavaliers have to get their ground game going again.

2. Look out for DE Corey Lemonier. He has forced four fumbles and is tied for 12th nationally in sacks with 9.5. Virginia’s offensive line has been one of the best in the ACC this year, allowing just 15 sacks all season (including four of which came against Virginia Tech). The Cavaliers’ offensive line has had the same five starters for all 12 games this season, and Austin Pasztor was a first-team All-ACC selection.

3. Continue the first-down success. UVa has averaged 20.6 first downs per game, which ranks No. 3 in the ACC behind Clemson (22.4) and Virginia Tech (21.1) and is No. 53 in the nation. UVa’s opponents are averaging only 16.9 first downs a game, which ranks as the third-fewest in the ACC and No. 17 nationally.

Chick-fil-A Bowl keys

December, 30, 2011
Here are three keys for Auburn heading into Saturday's Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia:

Toughen up on defense: There is a lot of youth on the defensive side of the ball for Auburn, so some bend was expected, but the Tigers found themselves near the bottom of the SEC in just about every defensive category this year. Age and inexperience contributed to that, but Auburn failed to improve throughout the year. Virginia doesn't have a very explosive offense, but the Cavaliers scored 28 or more in three of their final four wins. When it comes to athleticism, Auburn has the advantage, but Virginia won't be intimidated by the Tigers' defense.

Find some offensive rhythm: Since the midpoint of the season, Auburn has struggled to find offensive consistency. In the Tigers' final four SEC games, Auburn averaged 18 points and scored just two combined touchdowns against LSU, Georgia and Alabama. The Tigers found the end zone often to start the season, but haven't had the same luck in recent weeks. Auburn ended the regular season ranked ninth in the SEC in scoring (24.2) and 10th in total offense (328.2). It doesn't help that star running back Michael Dyer is suspended for the game.

Work the ground game: Speaking of Dyer, Auburn will now turn to Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason to run the Tigers' backfield. McCalebb is a proven threat with the ball in his hand, but his game works the best in space or off the edge. Mason is very inexperienced, but has the talent to complement McCalebb back there. Quarterback Clint Moseley hasn't been great as a starter, so getting the run game going should help to take the pressure off of him.

Chick-fil-A Bowl: Auburn vs. Virginia

December, 30, 2011
No. 25 Auburn (7-5) makes it back to Atlanta to take on Virginia (8-4) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl Saturday night. Here's a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: Auburn sophomore defensive end Corey Lemonier showed how to avoid the sophomore slump this season. Despite the Tigers' defensive troubles, Lemonier was an absolute stud, finishing second in the SEC in sacks with 9.5, getting 8.5 of those in SEC play. He also tied for fifth with 13.5 tackles for loss. Against Virginia, Lemonier will have to be able to generate some pressure in the Cavaliers' backfield to take pressure off the rest of the defense. Virginia isn't great throwing the ball, but the Cavaliers are averaging 232 passing yards per game and are rushing for 165 yards a contest. Getting stops up front will go a long way for Auburn's defense Saturday.

WHAT TO WATCH: With Michael Dyer suspended for the bowl game, Auburn will turn to junior Onterio McCalebb and freshman Tre Mason to carry the rushing load. Dyer was Auburn's top offensive player and was a much more complete back than the others in the Tigers' stable. However, McCalebb and Mason have the talent to be a formidable one-two punch, but Mason is still very inexperienced. Freshman Quan Bray, who has a ton of athleticism, could get some work as well out of the backfield. Awaiting this running game is a Virginia defense that ranks 33rd nationally in rushing defense and is allowing just 3.7 yards per carry.

WHY TO WATCH: Until a winner is crowned between LSU and Alabama, these Tigers are still the defending national champs. On the other side, Virginia was a pleasant surprise in the ACC this season. A year removed from a 4-8 start to his coaching career at Virginia, Mike London guided the Cavaliers to an 8-4 regular season and they were in the mix for the ACC championship game until the final week. These two teams are similar in some ways. They are both young, rotated quarterbacks and had a knack for pulling out close games in 2011. Auburn's Gene Chizik is also pulling double duty as head coach and defensive coordinator, so it'll be interesting to see how the defense plays now after a season where it was near the bottom of the SEC in every statistical category.

PREDICTION: Virginia 31, Auburn 17. Thirty-one points for the Cavaliers is probably a little high, but I'll stay with my original prediction. Both teams are dealing with a youth movement, but Auburn's youngsters hit the wall at the midpoint of the season, while Virginia almost made the ACC title game. I'm not sure Chizik can turn this defense around that quickly and Dyer won't be around. Advantage: Cavaliers.

Chick-fil-A Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Virginia Cavaliers (8-4) vs. Auburn Tigers (7-5)

Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Virginia take from ACC blogger Heather Dinich: Just getting to a bowl game was an accomplishment for Virginia, which hasn’t been to one since 2007, but to be chosen as high as the top pick behind the Discover Orange Bowl exceeded expectations once again in Mike London’s second season.

The Hoos got some help from rival Virginia Tech, whose bid in the Sugar Bowl bumped everyone up a notch in the selection process. It’s a legitimate place for Virginia, though, which beat Florida State on the road during the regular season, and was in contention for the Coastal Division title through the final game, when it lost to Virginia Tech.

The Cavaliers had won four straight heading into the regular-season finale, before losing 38-0 to the Hokies. Despite the loss, London was named the ACC Coach of the Year, as his team had been picked by the media to finish fifth in the division this year.

The Cavaliers’ strengths are their front seven on defense, which is a veteran group, and an offensive line that has had the same lineup all season. The Hoos have been able to run the ball well for most of the season. It will be Virginia’s fourth appearance in the bowl, but the program hasn’t been there since 1998 -- also the last time UVa faced Auburn, a 19-0 win for the Hoos at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Auburn take from SEC blogger Edward Aschoff: Along with replacing the nation’s best player in Cam Newton, the Tigers had to find players to fill in for just about everyone who was a part of the 2010 championship team.

Coach Gene Chizik and his team never let youth be an excuse for a team that had freshmen making up almost half of the entire roster. Auburn began 4-1, and while the Tigers were sloppy at times, when the game was on the line late, Auburn found ways to win. That included beating preseason East favorite South Carolina 16-13 on the road.

However, as the season continued, the team's youth began to show. The physicality that Auburn showed in close games started to die down and as the struggles continued, the Tigers found themselves dealing with a quarterback shuffle.

Junior Barrett Trotter began as the starter, but saw highly touted true freshman Kiehl Frazier take more and more snaps. But everything changed in Auburn’s 17-6 win over Florida, when sophomore Clint Moseley took the starting job after a solid second-half performance against the Gators.

Moseley remained the starter, but Auburn never really looked like the same team that opened the year. Outside of solid play from running back Michael Dyer, the Tigers’ offense struggled along, ranking 10th in the SEC (328.2 yards per game), while the defense stayed near the bottom of the league, giving up 405.8 yards and 29.3 points per game.