However, the offense contributed late, including what might be the play of the game when on third down at the Auburn 37 with 2:06 to play the Tigers gambled with a pass play and sealed the victory when Duke Williams caught a perfectly thrown ball from Nick Marshall.
“I told Coach (Gus Malzahn) that if he called the play we would make,” Williams said.
The junior noted he figured the cornerback would bite on the route he faked, a slant pattern over the middle. The receiver made the inside move, changed direction and went deep. Marshall put the pass into the receiver's hands and that enabled Auburn to escape Bill Snyder Family Stadium with a 3-0 record while Kansas State dropped to 2-1.
Commenting on the final pass to Williams for 39 yards, Malzahn said, “You are just trying to predict the defense that they are going to play. It is kind of one of those deals if you run the football you take away 20 seconds and give them a chance to win the game or you can take a chance and try to win the game. We just felt strong about trying to give our guys a chance to win. We caught them in a defense that we liked and it worked out.”
Marshall said he was excited when he got the opportunity to make the final pass of the night. “I knew that was something we had been practicing, I knew I was going to make the throw and I knew he was going to make the catch for me,” the senior said.
Marshall said he wasn’t surprised the Tigers had to battle four quarters to knock off the 20th-ranked Wildcats. “We knew it was going to be a dogfight,” he said. “We knew they were going to be tough.”
Another senior, cornerback Trovon Reed, contributed to the victory with an interception. He said it was an exciting night for the defense that held the home team to 285 yards as Auburn gained just 359.
“The offense has carried us so many times going back to last year it was great to do the same thing for them tonight,” he said. “It was a tough game, one we really had to fight hard to win. Coach Malzahn said it will be good for us down the road and I agree.”
Auburn couldn’t get the offense cranked up in the first quarter, but led 3-0 at the end of the period thanks to a pair of turnovers by the home team.
Robenson Therezie’s fumble recovery set up a 34-yard field goal for the Tigers early in the period.
Kansas State couldn’t capitalize on two scoring chances in the quarter. Jonathan Jones ended the first threat with an interception in the end zone on a pass from the one after he had been called for pass interference in the end zone. The Wildcats also missed a 41-yard field goal try late in the period.
The Tigers managed just 49 yards of total offense on 13 first quarter snaps while the Wildcats netted 73 yards on 20 plays with 53 yards on passing plays.
Auburn turned the ball over with 12:10 left in the second quarter when Nick Marshall’s pass over the middle was deflected into the arms of linebacker Dakorey Johnson. The Tigers forced a three-and-out, but a 37-yard punt was downed at the Tiger one-yard line.
The offense managed to get off the goal line, but had to punt after Duke Williams dropped a potential TD pass on a perfectly thrown ball by Marshall.
That missed opportunity set up a Kansas State touchdown as the Wildcats moved 57 yards on six plays to take a 7-3 lead on a three-yard run at left guard by running back Demarcus Robinson with 4:56 left in the half.
The Tigers answered with a touchdown of their own, moving 75 yards on nine plays to score with 1:34 left before intermission. Ricardo Louis scored on a 40-yard pass play down the right sideline from Marshall.
Kansas State had a chance to tie the game at the break, but missed a 42-yard field goal as time ran out in the half.
Halftime Numbers: Kansas State held a 17:32 to 12:28 time of possession advantage while Auburn out-gained the Wildcats 173-168 with AU running 35 plays to 40 for K-State.
The Tigers hit 9-18 passes with one interception for 118 yards and netted 55 yards on 17 carries. KSU hit 13-20 passes with one interception for 151 yards and gained 17 rushing yards on 20 carries.
Auburn’s running backs were held in check in the half with Cameron Artis-Payne gaining 21 yards on seven carries and Corey Grant Rushing for 13 yards on four runs.
The Tigers caught another break with K-State’s field goal kicker missing from 22 yards out with 4:44 left in the period.
After the close call the Tigers put together a 15-play drive that covered 80 yards and five minutes and 32 seconds off the clock. The touchdown came on a nine-yard pass to Williams on a perfectly thrown pass by Marshall with 14:10 left in the final quarter. The QB and Williams had hooked up two plays earlier on a third down pass over the middle to set up the score.
The Tigers needed one more score to wrap up the road win early, but didn’t get one. However, the Wildcats drove 65 yards and scored with 3:49 left to cut Auburn’s lead to six.
Choosing to kick off deep, a touchback forced Auburn to start at its 25, but two runs up the middle by Cameron Artis-Payne for a first down forced the home team to burn its timeouts and set the stage for the third down pass from Marshall to Williams to ice the game.
“We are very happy to get a hard fought victory," Malzahn said. "We knew it would be tough here. Going on the road in non-conference against a Top 20 opponent. They were everything that we thought they would be. I am very proud of our defense. I think we held them to 40 yards. I think that was a big thing.
"Forcing some turnovers in the red zone, I thought that was huge," Malzahn added. "Second half for our offense, I think we were 8-11 on third downs, and we were able to have the ball more and take some clock down. Our guys found a way to win. I told them after the game that this was a game that will help us in the future. We faced some major adversity tonight and our guys responded well.”
Worth Noting, Part 1: Amazingly, the home team did not get penalized a single yard by the Big 12 crew, something that had Malzahn on edge much of the night. The officials certainly had opportunities to call holding on the KSU offensive line and several clips in the kicking game.
Worth Noting, Part 2: The Wildcats were only 2-5 in red zone opportunities.
Worth Noting, Part 3: Josh Holsey, who spent two days at practice as a safety after Jermaine Whitehead was suspended indefinitely, led the Tigers in tackles with 10 solos and one assist. Jonathan Ford had seven solos and one assist.