MANHATTAN, Kan. — Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee spent the offseason vowing that quarterback Nick Marshall would get to show off what Malzahn deemed an "NFL arm." Last season, the JUCO transfer barely had time to digest the playbook upon his arrival, so the Tigers relied heavily on Heisman finalist Tre Mason and a powerful rushing attack to reach the BCS National Championship Game.
Earlier this week, Lashlee lamented that he still hadn’t had a chance to truly unleash his quarterback, who was suspended for the first half of the season opener against Arkansas and played less than three quarters of the following week’s blowout of San Jose State. "We’ve been able to run the ball effectively, but teams are going to load up," he said. "We know we’re going to have to throw the ball efficiently when it comes time to win games."
Fast forward to late Thursday night at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Holding a 20-14 lead with less than three minutes left, Auburn faced a third and 9 from its own 37. Fail to convert and the Tigers would punt the ball back to the Wildcats and their All-American returner Tyler Lockett, giving their foe one last chance to win.
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Instead, Marshall took the snap, made a subtle pump-fake and hit receiver Duke Williams in perfect stride on a slant-and-go that wound up gaining 39 yards. No. 5 Auburn gained its first close win of 2014, and in doing so showed that Marshall and the passing game will likely play a much bigger role in this year’s potential championship run.
"We knew they [the Wildcats] came here to stop the run," said Tigers receiver Ricardo Louis, "so throwing the ball was the No. 1 thing we had to execute."
Indeed, Snyder’s quintessentially sound defense held Auburn to its worst rushing performance of Malzahn’s 17-game tenure as head coach, a mere 2.8 yards per carry. It managed a lone field goal for most of the first half and caught several breaks in the form of three missed K-State field goals and three Wildcats turnovers, one of them on an interception off a dropped pass in the end zone by the normally steady Lockett.
But shortly before halftime, Marshall led the Tigers on a nine-play, 75-yard drive in which he never handed off, throwing a 40-yard touchdown to Louis to go up 10-7. He was 3-for-3 on third downs and hit Williams for a 10-yard score on the second half drive that put the Tigers up 17-7.
But Marshall, whose ostensibly modest stat line (17-of-31 for 231 yards, two touchdowns and an interception) suffered in part from several drops by his receivers on downfield throws, made his biggest play when it mattered most. Much like his lethal play-action pop pass against Alabama in last year’s Iron Bowl or the famous Miracle at Jordan-Hare tipped bomb against Georgia.
"He has that knack for when the game is on the line," said Malzahn. "He did all last year, and he did it tonight. He helped find a way to help our team to win the game."
It’s time to bury for good the misperception that Marshall, the former Georgia defensive back, is a runner who occasionally throws. While his decision-making isn’t perfect and his accuracy could be better, the senior has a laser for an arm when his coaches opt to deploy it. And on Thursday he showed just how many strides he’s made now having a full season in Malzahn’s system.
Case in point, the game-sealing play. By both he and his coordinator’s own admissions, Auburn likely couldn’t have called it, much less Marshall execute it, a year earlier.
"My confidence level is really high right now," Marshall said. "Last year I probably would have flinched in the pocket, but this year I trust my offensive line. I just stayed in the pocket and delivered the ball."
Marshall had his share of problems in the first half. He threw two passes so low they were easily deflected at the line of scrimmage. One of those turned into an interception.
But after converting just 2-of-7 third downs in the first 30 minutes, the Tigers went 8-of-11 the rest of the way.
"I told them after the game that this was a game that will help us in the future," Malzahn said of his team. "We faced some major adversity tonight and our guys responded well."
Minutes after Thursday’s game ended, Lashlee bemoaned all the dropped passes, even pointing to specific spots on the field where they happened. But in the big picture, he wasn’t complaining.
"We didn’t play great," he said. "But when we needed a drive, needed a play, we made it." Noting his team’s penchant for pulling out close victories dating back to last season, Lashlee said, "This is a new team. Our first game on the road, we learned a lot."
One thing he learned: He can count on his quarterback.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.