With the game on the line, Nick Marshall delivers!
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for the Acid Reign report, on Auburn’s 24-20 win over Mississippi State. It wasn’t a pretty game in many aspects for the Tigers, but transfer quarterback Nick Marshall took the team on his shoulders, and led the Tigers down the field one last time. Starting at the Auburn 12 yard line with just 1:56 left in the game, Marshall threw and ran the Tigers down the field. With just 10 seconds left, he hit C. J. Uzomah on an out and up route in the end zone for the win!
This was a must-win game for both teams, and the Bulldogs came in ready to fight. MSU had kept Auburn guessing which quarterback would start, Tyler Russell or Dak Prescott. It turned out that Russell was not medically cleared to play, due to a head injury suffered in week one. Prescott is the more mobile of the two, and he really caused trouble for the Auburn defense, eluding pressure in the pocket, and taking off up the middle on the quarterback draw. It was a play that worked well over and over again, till finally in the 4th quarter Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson took the dangerous step of having the defensive ends crash the middle of the line on downs where that draw was likely. With our linebackers, that’s a recipe for getting torched on the edge, but the gambit worked, and the MSU offense sputtered from that point on.
One player I thought grew better and better as the game went on was senior corner Ryan White. Pressed into starting duty due to an injury to Chris Davis, he was under attack from the MSU offense early and often. White gave up several big plays early, but settled in and played pretty solidly as the game went on. I was worried that with White and Jonathan Mincy playing every snap, we really didn’t have a “speed corner” out there, and would be subject to the deep ball. Both did admirably, under the circumstances.
Auburn’s powerful rushing offense was largely shut down, as the Bulldogs put 8 or 9 guys in the box and dared the Tigers to throw. I’ve heard some noise about the Auburn offensive line being pushed around, but I really didn’t see that, and we’ll look at some stats that bear that out, later. I’ve said this before, but 5 guys can’t block 8 or 9. What Auburn needed to do was attack the outside with quick screens and intermediate out routes. That was a big part of the Auburn strategy, but suspect hands and missed blocks tended to stop drives before getting in scoring position.
I also heard rumbles during the game of fans wanting to yank starting quarterback Nick Marshall and put freshman Jeremy Johnson in. Folks, when the starting QB in an SEC game hits 2/3rds of his 34 passes for over 300 yards, that’s a pretty good SEC quarterback. I’d also submit that a lot of Auburn’s offensive troubles over the past two years have resulted from playing musical chairs with the quarterbacks. We need to stick with Nick Marshall, and let him grow. He’s improved every game, and he has made a lot of plays. He doesn’t look like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees yet, but I say give him some time.
While the late touchdown pass from Marshall to Uzomah put the deciding points on the scoreboard, the Auburn special teams were the difference in this game. Mississippi State had zero punt or kick return yards. Both Steven Clark and Cody Parkey kicked the ball a long way each time, and kept it out of the hands of speedy Bulldog return men. Parkey hit all of his field goals, while MSU’s kicker missed a chip shot. Auburn’s special teams outscored MSU’s by 9 points, and in a 4-point win, that’s a difference-maker.
Unit Grades after the jump!
Defensive Line: C+. This unit again played a lot of bodies, against a pretty stout veteran Mississippi State offensive line. At times, they were pushed backwards, but for the most part, these guys filled their gaps against MSU runners, other than the QB. Yes, the MSU quarterback got loose up the middle time and time again. News flash: The middle linebacker has the A-gap in most of our defensive schemes. The MSU runners, other than the quarterback rushed for just 69 yards on 17 carries. Auburn produced 8 quarterback hurries, from 7 different defensive linemen. Dee Ford led all line tackles with 6, including several key ones on Prescott taking the ball up the middle in the 4th quarter.
Linebackers: C-. I suspect that if Kris Frost hadn’t returned from his suspension in the second half, this grade would have been lower. Frost was a big help in the middle against Prescott. While Frost only tallied one tackle, he was able to force Prescott into other tacklers. As a support man on traditional run plays Jake Holland did ok, and led the team with 8 tackles. In space, it’s a different story. Auburn needs to improve quickly, because LSU is going to run right at Auburn’s linebackers with big, powerful backs.
Secondary: B-. The Tigers did not tackle quite as well here as last week, but it was still an ok performance over all. The Tigers were not beaten deep, but the missed tackles produced some long gainers on short passes. By necessity, Auburn had to respect the speed of the Bulldog receivers, and play some softer zone than we’ve seen much of this year. Auburn’s man-to-man looks resulted in a lot of big Prescott runs. The encouraging thing about the secondary is that after the first drive of the second half, guys were pretty much in position and making plays. Ryan White and Jonathan Mincy each provided a couple of key pass breakups, and Jermaine Whitehead added another. Auburn secondary starters White, Mincy, Whitehead, Holsey and Therezie combined for 31 tackles in this game.
Punting: A+. Steven Clark out-punted his All-SEC competitor Baker Swedenburg on the other side in this game. Clark had the biggest leg, finishing averaging 48 yards per punt, with 2 of 4 killed inside the 20 yard line. MSU had no returns. That’s a big-time game from Steven Clark!
Punt Returns: B+. Quan Bray replaced injured starter Chris Davis, and did admirably. When he had room, he had 3 returns for 44 yards. When the ball was kicked inside the ten, Bray got away, and let ‘em roll for touchbacks. The only nit I can pick on the return unit’s performance was on MSU’s last punt, Swedenburg out-kicked his coverage, and Bray did a little too much hesitating and juking. The return picked up only 2 yards, when there was room for 10 or more with a little more decisiveness. Still, this was a pretty good job by Bray against an All-SEC punter.
Kick Returns: D. Mississippi State was determined not to give Auburn a chance to break one, here. Devon Bell drove all of his kickoffs well into the end zone. Tre Mason fielded one a yard deep, hesitated, then came out of the end zone and was dumped at the 11 yard line. This unit gained nothing, and Mason cost the team 14 yards of field position when he did not take a knee.
Place-kicking: A+. Cody Parkey was perfect on all 3 field goal attempts, generated touchbacks on all 6 of his kickoffs, and nailed the late extra point. Some of those kickoffs were amazing. He knocked one through the uprights on a kickoff, once. That’s the equivalent of a 75 yard field goal!
Offensive Line: B+. Some folks were not happy that Auburn ran the ball for only 120 yards in this game. I say that MSU sold out against the run. Digging into the replay and the stats, this was a pretty good job by the Tigers up front. The holding penalties and false starts evident in previous games were eliminated. Auburn was penalized only once during the game, 5 yards for illegal formation. MSU’s starting defensive linemen contributed only 7 total tackles, none for a loss, and no quarterback hurries. That would indicate that the line pretty much handled their guys, wouldn’t it? MSU tallied 3 sacks and 1 quarterback hurry, and they had to blitz like crazy to get those. By and large, Nick Marshall had a pretty good pocket, and room to run away if a guy came free.
Running Backs: C+. There was no single stand-out back in this game, and I had to count off a letter grade for another Tre Mason lost fumble, his second of the season. Corey Grant led all Auburn rushers with just 44 net yards. MSU, after the first quarter, did a really nice job defensively of sealing the edge, and stuffing Auburn’s power game. Again, there were just too many white shirts in the box to run effectively.
Receivers: B+. There were a few dropped balls, and route-running errors, that left the quarterback hanging. One particularly poor one had Jaylon Denson running an out route, while Marshall was throwing a slant pass. That resulted in the second interception of the game, and I’m pretty sure that was a blown route. I think we can get better blocking quick-screens to the sideline. Mistakes aside, I like how these guys run. Louis, Bray, Coates, Reed and Uzomah all made the first guy miss. Reed had a particularly good stiff-arm on one reception. When the game was on the line, these guys did a good job of catching the ball, and getting out of bounds.
Quarterback: B+. I can’t count off much for either of Nick Marshall’s interceptions. One was a route-error, and the other was a last ditch Hail Mary to end the half. He did stuff one particularly bad pass right into an MSU defender, but it was thrown so hard that it caromed back to Marshall, and he ended up with a 37 yard pass to himself! There were at least 5 dropped balls in this game, and Marshall still hit 23 of 34 passes, for 339 yards and 2 scores, including the game winner. Marshall also evaded trouble repeatedly with his legs. Marshall completed passes to 9 different receivers in the game, so the “stares ‘em down” argument doesn’t hold water, either. For those who think he shows no touch on the ball, re-watch the game winner again. Floated that thing in beautifully, where only Uzomah could get it. I think Nick Marshall will only get better and better.
I continue to be amazed at some of the hand-wringing, particularly regarding the Auburn offense. The Tigers racked up 459 yards against a pretty stout Bulldog defense. Remember, the Bulldogs held the potent Oklahoma State offense to just 21 points in the season opener, with little help from their offense. Color me crazy, but I think we’ll see some offensive success against LSU, as long as some youngsters don’t get starry eyed from the hostile noise in Baton Rouge.
The defense had better buckle up. LSU is going to pound it, and they are going to fire that ball deep at times. The Tigers should get ready to play their most physical game this Saturday. This will be a hard-hitting game, on ESPN prime time, with a raucous 6:45 PM Louisiana crowd on hand.
It sure was great to see an Auburn SEC win again, and we’ll take them any way we can get them! Auburn is now 3-0, and has matched their win total for all of last year. With Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina still on the schedule, Auburn needs just one more win to be bowl-eligible. And I’d say both Arkansas and Tennessee look vulnerable to the running spread attack. War Eagle folks, and let’s get ready for LSU!
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