STARKVILLE, Miss. — It wasn’t the close game that many were expecting. It also wasn’t the complete blowout almost everyone expected at the halftime break.
But Auburn (4-2, 2-1 SEC) continued its tradition of the unexpected under Gus Malzahn on Saturday with a 38-14 win over Mississippi State (2-3, 1-2 SEC) in its first road game of the season. The Tigers raced out to a 35-0 halftime lead with an ultra-efficient, Sean White-led offense and a defense that somehow took it to another level after a fantastic start to the season.
Auburn’s second half against the Bulldogs was less appealing to Malzahn and his staff, as fumbles and missed tackles reared their ugly head for a pair of Mississippi State touchdowns.
However, the Tigers still had a big enough cushion to grab the road win and put a field goal on the board through Daniel Carlson. Now Auburn will head back to the Plains for a much-needed off week with a 4-2 record and tons of momentum for the second half of the season.
Auburn forces a turnover in its own territory and quickly turns it into a 21-0 lead.
Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said earlier in the week he felt like his defense was due for more turnovers. That came true in the first half as Auburn forced a pair of fumbles on Nick Fitzgerald, including one that was returned by Montravius Adams for a touchdown.
But the big one for Auburn came in the first quarter, when freshman defensive end Marlon Davidson knocked the ball out of Fitzgerald’s hand on a play that started at the Auburn 37. Adams fell on it to stop the scoring opportunity.
Mississippi State is… Not ready to play today… pic.twitter.com/tNUUwfSoFt
— Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff) October 8, 2016
The Tigers responded with a Kamryn Pettway-heavy drive — he had 9 of his eye-opening 39 carries in the game on that possession alone — and punched it into the end zone for a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter. Mississippi State would go 3-and-out on its next two possession as Auburn stretched its advantage out to 35-0.
Auburn’s defense had a much sloppier second half, but it was firing on all cylinders early on against Mississippi State. The Tigers rattled Fitzgerald early and made sure some of the Bulldogs’ dynamic playmakers didn’t get their hands on the ball too much. The offense turned that into a big win.
Can Auburn score red-zone touchdowns against a Power 5 opponent?
A nightmare start for Auburn’s offense — Tony Stevens bobbled a third-down pass from White that turned into an interception — the Tigers marched right down the field on three straight drives for touchdowns. They finished the day with 4 touchdowns on 5 red-zone trips, which was a long way from the 21.43 touchdown percentage Auburn carried into the game against Power 5 foes.
White spread the ball all around the field and hit the tight windows in the red zone. Auburn’s rushing attack, led by an ironman-like performance by Pettway, powered its way in from close range. Even without a key player such as Kerryon Johnson, who left the game early with a right leg injury, Auburn’s offense kept up the momentum from last week’s rout of Louisiana-Monroe.
A lot of that had to do with another fantastic half of play-calling by offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. Auburn tried some different things in the red zone, including passes to H-back Chandler Cox and different types of rollouts for White. Lashlee’s offense had Mississippi State on its heels for most of the day.
Rhett Lashlee's play calls are ???
— Brandon Marcello (@bmarcello) October 8, 2016
While this looks like the worst Mississippi State team Dan Mullen has had since his first year in Starkville, the execution Auburn had on offense would’ve been impressive against any opponent. With Sean White running the show, Auburn’s offense looks plenty dangerous against quality foes.
Should Auburn stick with this offensive line?
Auburn went with the same first-team offensive line it had last week against Louisiana-Monroe, with Darius James starting at left tackle and Austin Golson starting at center. That was a product of an injury regular center Xavier Dampeer suffered in the second half of Auburn’s win over LSU.
On Saturday, Auburn kept that lineup intact despite the fact Dampeer practiced all week and dressed out for the game. Malzahn called Dampeer a “game-time decision,” and he still practiced taking snaps in pregame warmups.
Will Auburn go back to Dampeer at center and Golson at left tackle after the senior fully recovers from his injury? The stats speak for themselves — Auburn has had its two best offensive games in terms of efficiency with Golson at center and James at left tackle. James has performed well in both pass protection and run blocking since his insertion into the starting lineup.
I like Auburn's OL with Austin Golson at Center. Dominating State DL. #AUBvsMSST
— Jim Dunaway (@jimdunaway) October 8, 2016
Auburn’s interior blocking, especially on running plays, has looked stronger with Golson at center. The edges are more secure with James at left tackle. Malzahn, Lashlee and Herb Hand have a big decision to make after the bye week.
335. Auburn churned out 335 yards of offense in the first half against Mississippi State, which was the most the team has put up before halftime since the 2014 Iron Bowl shootout in Tuscaloosa. Auburn has played some weak defenses over that time period — San Jose State, Idaho, Arkansas State and ULM, to name a few — but none of them gave up that much yardage to Auburn in a first half. The new benchmark for first-half dominance came against an SEC West opponent, which is a good sign for Malzahn and Lashlee.