It wasn’t a thing of beauty, but coming out of Manhattan with a victory was the ultimate goal for the Auburn Tigers on Thursday night. Winning with a strong defense and clutch plays in the passing game, Coach Gus Malzahn’s team moved to 3-0 on the year and passed the first early hurdle in 2014.
The win was an important one for a team that has usually won games on offense each of the last two seasons. Showing it can pick up the slack when needed, the Auburn defense has taken serious strides forward in the first three games of the year. While it wasn’t pretty, Thursday’s win could be one to look back on late in the year as a turning point for the Tigers.
With a week until the Tigers have another chance to get better with a game against Louisiana Tech, we take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from the 20-14 victory over the No. 20 Wildcats.
That is definitely Auburn’s defensive performance, and in particular the play against the running game for Kansas State. Allowing just 40 total yards on 30 carries, the Tigers shut down quarterback Jake Waters and essentially made the Wildcats a one-dimensional offense. The longest run of the game for the home team was just 13 yards as Auburn held the Wildcats to just 1.3 yards per carry for the game.
You also have to mention the job that secondary players Josh Holsey and Trovon Reed did in having to step up with the suspension of senior safety Jermaine Whitehead just days before the Tigers traveled to Kansas. All Holsey did was have 10 solo tackles and play a very solid game back at safety. Thrust into the third cornerback position with the move of Holsey, Reed broke up two passes and made a spectacular interception. The two were the stars of the secondary for the Tigers along with sophomore safety Johnathan Ford.
Following the game, Malzahn admitted he was probably stubborn against Kansas State with his play-calling and the numbers bear that out. With the Wildcats putting safeties and even cornerbacks into the box on first down runs, the Tigers continued to try to put themselves into a hole by running time and time again. Auburn attempted just five passes on first down during the game with Nick Marshall completing two for 55 yards and a touchdown. Two of the throws were batted down at the line of scrimmage with one intercepted. Both would have likely been completions to open receivers on the slant.
To contrast those numbers all you have to do is look at third down passing for Marshall and the Tigers. A total of 13 of Auburn’s 31 passing attempts on third down, most on third and more than five yards. Marshall completed seven for 86 yards, including the huge completion to Duke Williams to seal the victory for the Tigers. With defenses putting more and more emphasis on stopping Auburn’s running game early, Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee are going to have to turn Marshall loose early to put the defense on alert.
No question another ugly part belongs to Auburn’s punting game. The best punt of the night came from freshman walk-on Matthew Shiel, but even that was after he dropped the snap and nearly created an early disaster for the Tigers. Solid in the first two games, Daniel Carlson had a pair of booming punts against Arkansas and San Jose State, but that wasn’t the case on Thursday night. Needing to put plenty of air under the ball to keep speedy Tyler Lockett from having enough room to make plays in the return game, Carlson instead struggled to get the ball in the air. The result was a net punting average of just 24.2 yards for the game. Because of the low punts Lockett was able to change the field position on several occasions.
It’s something that Tommy Tuberville wanted in 2007, and in 2014 Malzahn and the Tigers had the live with the consequences. Playing Kansas State at home, Tuberville wanted SEC refs at Jordan-Hare Stadium and would take the Big 12 refs on the return trip. On Thursday night that was a price that Auburn paid dearly for with one of the worst displays of officiating I have seen in my 15 years on the job. Time and time again the Kansas State offensive line got away with holding Auburn’s defensive line and linebackers, so much so that Montravius Adams’ jersey was ripped under the arm when he walked off the field. These are not your father’s tearaway jerseys and aren’t made to tear easily. Also on one occasion Cassanova McKinzy was closing in on KSU quarterback Jake Waters, but was grabbed by the arm from behind by an offensive lineman. That gave Waters times to look down the field and find his receiver for a first down.
Therezie gets blocked in the back.
Officials aren’t going to catch every holding call, but rarely will you find a more flagrant miss than the one that came on a Carlson punt to Lockett in the third quarter. Fielding the ball at his own 36, Lockett ran towards his sideline, but Robenson Therezie had a bead on the speedy receiver and was closing in on the tackle under blocked from behind by a Kansas State player. It was in the open field at the point of attack, but like the rest of the night was mostly ignored.