AUBURN, Ala. — On the surface, Auburn’s opening drive against Mississippi State looked like a nightmare start.
The first snap of the game was a swing pass that went for a loss of 3 yards. Two plays later, Sean White threw a pass over the middle that hit Tony Stevens in the hands and was intercepted by a Bulldog defensive back. Mississippi State took over at the Auburn 19-yard line as the stunned offense walked to the sidelines.
But according to Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, the play that came between the two passes — a simple 5-yard run by Johnson — gave him confidence for the rest of the game.
“We looked at that opening drive, and even though we went three-and-out with a turnover, the second play … we noticed that we got great push and great movement,” Lashlee said Tuesday night. “We didn’t know how the game would go. But we knew after that second play that we would be able to run the football on them.”
Auburn ran the ball 56 times against Mississippi State, which was its most carries against a Power 5 opponent since the 2014 Texas A&M game. The Tigers used five different rushers, including the 39-carry Kamryn Pettway, to combine for 228 yards and 3 touchdowns in the 38-14 road victory over the Bulldogs.
Lashlee said the plan heading into the Mississippi State game was for Auburn to be more balanced with its pass and run calls. But seeing the new-look offensive line win so decisively up front on the second snap of the game changed that strategy, especially in a second half that opened with the Tigers leading 35-0.
“If you’re running the ball at a high clip, you’re going to keep running the ball,” Lashlee said. “We wanted to stay balanced, but did I think we would be 33-16 run-to-pass in that first half? Probably not. Probably thought we’d have to pass it a little bit more. But, then again, 50 plays at halftime is pretty good, too.”
The Tigers will look to carry over that quick success on the ground against Mississippi State into the second half of the season, when they will face the likes of Arkansas, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama.
Being able to power the ball at those opponents will be key for Auburn’s offensive players, who could tell that they were taking the energy out of a highly touted Mississippi State run defense with their persistent ground game.
“They’re good players. Every play is a battle,” Auburn left guard Alex Kozan said. “Whenever we’re moving the ball, though, and getting those first downs, it’s definitely disheartening for the defense.”
Heading into last Saturday’s game, the biggest rushing performance Mississippi State had surrendered in a single 2016 contest was LSU’s 177 yards and 2 touchdowns in Week 3. At home, the Bulldogs allowed just a combined 128 yards on 60 carries against South Alabama and South Carolina.
“We talked about needing to run the ball downhill against these guys, and so far, it’s been really tough for the teams they’ve played,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said Saturday. “I thought that was going to be the key to the game, and our offensive line really did a great job getting push (up front).”
That push was apparent from the second snap of the game, Lashlee said, thanks to its eye in the sky — offensive line coach Herb Hand.
The first-year Auburn assistant, who coaches from the box on game days, pointed out how much his offensive line controlled the point of attack on the Tigers’ first carry of the day.
“A lot of times, it takes you a minute to feel things out, especially when you play a team that had been really good against the run,” Lashlee said. “Early on, the run sometimes is tough. Then it opens up and gets better as the game goes on and things wear out and your guys up front get a feel for things.
“I thought Herb and the guys in the box did a good job. We turned the ball over and they came on and said, ‘Hey, just so you guys know, on that second play we got good push.’ You’re thinking a 4-yard run, a 5-yard run. It doesn’t tell you a whole lot. But that gave me confidence that, hey, we can run the ball on these guys. So we were able to.”