With turnovers, missed field goals and missed opportunities, including a big one form an All-American wide receiver, No. 5 Auburn had help from No. 20 Kansas State in winning 20-14 Thursday night.
But this escape from Manhattan wasn’t a continuation of a Tigers team with mojo on its side. This was about an offense and a quarterback flipping the script and giving the rest of the SEC something to think about.
Here are four things we learned from Auburn’s win at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
Kansas State kept Auburn from doing Gus Malzahn-type things, as the Tigers had its fewest rushing yards in a half under their coach with 55 yards on 17 carries (3.2) and 128 in all, 202 off their season average.
Kansas State’s defense, which came in 20th against the run (87.0), was able to limit Auburn without loading up against the run and the unit forced Nick Marshall to beat them with his arm.
It took some time, but Marshall proved he was up to the task.
He missed three of his first four attempts, and Duke Williams dropped what could have been a touchdown on third-and-six with the Tigers up 3-0 in the second quarter. But Marshall ended up hitting on four of his last five attempts in the half, capped with a 40-yard scoring strike to Ricardo Louis to up 10-7.
He followed with another TD, 9-yarder to Williams and facing third-and-nine with 1:48 and the Tigers up 20-14, hit Williams for a 39-yard gain to seal the win. He finished 17 of 31 for 231 yards, the two TDs and an interception.
That was more attempts than he had in the first two games combined, and Marshall had just two days with more attempts in his Tigers career.
With Marshall’s inability to find a groove in the passing game early on, Malzahn could have easily gone with Jeremy Johnson, the more superior passer — he has a 75 percent completion rate to Marshall’s 56. But Marshall’s ability to produce, especially on third down, as the Tigers went from converting on 2 of 7 in the first half to 5 of 6 in the second, will go a long way with Marshall being asked to go outside his normal game plan and do so much with his arm.
While the Auburn offense was being forced outside its comfort zone early, credit the Tigers defense for not allowing Jake Waters, Tyler Lockett and Co. to put more pressure on Marshall and Co.
But this was as much about what the Wildcats didn’t do offensively, and that was on them.
The Wildcats came in averaging 43.5 points per game (20th) and totaled 168 first-half yards and yes, that was a byproduct of an Auburn defensive front took away the running game, giving up 40 yards on the ground. But Kansas State’s Jack Cantele missed on field goals of 22, 41 and 42 yards and Waters turned the ball over three times, throwing two interceptions (including one in the Auburn end zone) and he fumbled deep in Tigers territory.
Kansas State had Auburn right where it wanted it and couldn’t capitalize, allowing Mazlahn to change the Tigers’ approach, as they put together a 15-play, 80-yard scoring drive lasting 5:34, then a 12-play, 5:48-yarder.
To put those into context, the Tigers have had just one longer drive (16 vs. Georgia last season) under Malzahn and a team that averages 28:57 of possession (81st) and had nearly 40 percent of that on two drives.
The Wildcats cut it to 20-14 with 3:49 off Charles Jones’ 1-yard TD, but the Tigers succeeded in keeping their D off the field, and simply didn’t allow a Wildcats offense that was unable to finish enough chance to make up for their miscues.
Wildcats All-American wide receiver Tyler Lockett had his moment. It was right there in front of him — then it become someone else’s.
On second-and-goal at the Tigers’ 1-yard line, Lockett turned inside on cornerback Jonathan and cut into the end zone. Water fed him with a pass that hit off Lockett’s hands and Jones had the interception.
While Curry Sexton — who had a combined six receptions in the first two games of the season and 56 in his four-year career — starred with 10 catches for 121 yards, the Tigers at least locked down on Lockett.
He had six receptions, with just one for six yards after halftime, and was thrown to just four times following the break.
The final numbers, as a Tigers secondary that had trouble stopping anyone last year — ranking 100th — and looked shaky in its only previous game against an Power 5 team (Arkansas), weren’t spectacular.
Waters was 24 for 40 for 285 yards, but Auburn did succeed in keeping the Wildcats’ best player from beating them.
Auburn gets relative break the next time out as it hosts Louisiana Tech (2-1 and a 48-16 loser to No. 4 Oklahoma) on Sept. 27, and it looks like Malzahn’s crew is going to need it.
A win on the road ,and one in which Marshall proved to his coach and anyone watching that Malzahn need not bring in Johnson just to be productive in the passing game, could be key.
LSU is third in total defense and Mississippi State ranks 12th vs. the rush. Those two teams no doubt learned something about dealing with Malzahn’s offense based on how the Wildcats were able to slow them down without overcommitting to the run.
Expect more games to be in Marshall’s hands during this grueling stretch.