Auburn vs. Arkansas State preview: Gus Malzahn trying to deny Red Wolves' revenge

Michael Chang

The Tigers' head coach takes on his former team Saturday night.

Auburn meets Arkansas State Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium in the second game of the 2013 season. It will be a familiar foe for head coach Gus Malzahn, who held the same position in Jonesboro a year ago. Some Arkansas State fans, players and coaches are still sore over Malzahn's departure for the Plains, and revenge will be on their minds against the Tigers.

Like the season opener against Washington State, many Auburn fans probably think this contest should result in a fairly comfortable victory. But the Cougars were no pushovers, and the Red Wolves likely won't be, either. The outcome may be determined by the answers to five key questions.

1. Can Auburn stop the run?

Against the Cougs, Ellis Johnson's defense sold out to almost exclusively defend the pass. It worked out pretty well, as Auburn came up with three interceptions and held Washington State to three second-half points. But, the Cougars put up a surprising 120 yards on the ground after averaging 29 per game in 2012. Was that simply a result of the Tigers' scheme -- the defensive line was often split wide, leaving a huge hole up the gut -- or is stopping the run actually an issue?

Auburn better hope it's the former and not the latter. In their first game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff -- admittedly, not a powerhouse -- four Red Wolves rushed for more than 100 yards, and the team compiled 509. They'll have to be much more balanced against Auburn, but there's no doubt they know how to move the ball on the ground. Like last week against the pass, the Tigers will probably give up some yards against the run. But as long as they can avoid a complete meltdown, they should be OK.

2. Can Arkansas State stop the run?

Oh hey, the Red Wolves aren't the only ones who have a potent rushing attack. Against a much better opponent in the Cougs, the Tigers gained 295 yards and averaged 6.4 yards per carry. Arkansas State has a bunch of different guys who can carry the ball, but so does Auburn. Corey Grant was the star with 146 yards, but we know Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and quarterback Nick Marshall are quite capable.

This figures to be a fast-paced game with plenty of points, and Arkansas State will run a lot of 4-2-5 to combat Auburn's speed and defend the width of the field. But, if the Tigers can keep the offense clicking, which didn't always happen against Wazzu, they should be able to wear down the Red Wolves in the second half.

3. How much of a role will revenge play?

Did you know Malzahn was the head coach at Arkansas State last season? Have we -- or has anyone else -- mentioned that? Why yes, the current Auburn coach was in his home state a year ago, and based on their reaction to his departure, many Arkansas State fans thought he would turn down BCS-school offers to stay in Jonesboro. Instead, Gus left after leading the Red Wolves to a 9-3 regular season and a Sun Belt title, and even skipped out on the GoDaddy.com Bowl win over Kent State.

The problem for ASU fans is that Malzahn said he would be with the team for a while, and they really didn't like the fact that he didn't stick around for the bowl game, something Hugh Freeze did a year earlier after being hired by Ole MIss. But that's mostly with the fans. And while some former players and coaches will have extra motivation to beat Auburn, the desire for revenge won't be enough to push the Red Wolves over the top. Only legitimate solid play can do that.

4. Does Arkansas State have a passing attack?

Playing an inferior opponent and able to do whatever it wanted on the ground, ASU didn't really try to get a passing attack going against Pine Bluff. Quarterback Adam Kennedy only threw it 12 times, completing nine passes for 149 yards and a score. Julian Jones led the Red Wolves' receivers with two catches for 45 yards and one touchdown, and R.J. Fleming also caught two balls for 31 yards.

Arkansas State's passing game won't be nearly as potent as Washington State's, but will it be good enough to keep Auburn honest. That could be the biggest factor in this contest. If Auburn's defensive backs can play on an island and keep Kennedy from getting much going through the air, Johnson's defense will be able to do a lot more to defend the run and should be able to slow down the Red Wolves. But if ASU is balanced, Auburn could have a tough time getting off the field.

5. How will Nick Marshall perform?

The Red Wolves' passing game will be the key to their offense. Likewise, Marshall and the Auburn passing game will either allow the Tigers' offense to excel or keep it stuck in neutral. Marshall was great at protecting the ball last week, and he showed great poise and decision making. However, he wasn't accurate enough, especially early, to allow Auburn to kick into high gear. Bad incompletions often stopped drives before they could get started.

Marshall admitted in the postgame press conference that he was pretty nervous making his first FBS start as a QB. And judging a few of his first-quarter overthrows, that's a believable story. He settled down a bit as the game went on and got in more of a rhythm, especially on intermediate and shorter throws. Marshall was a pretty abysmal 2-of-8 in the first half against the Cougars, but he did manage to complete 8-of-11 passes in the second. So, that's progress. And his first-half struggles didn't fall all on the quarterback; his receivers had their share of bad drops. How both positions improve this week may determine how successful Auburn can be with the ball.

Prediction

Once again, it won't be easy. Any fans who are expecting a blow out should adjust, otherwise they'll probably be disappointed with the outcome. Auburn is currently listed as a 10½-point favorite, but a two-score victory might be asking for a bit much. Arkansas State is a dangerous team, and the Tigers are still finding their footing in the recovery from 2012. And yes, the desire to beat Malzahn will likely bring out a little extra oomph from the Red Wolves.

Auburn won't win in a cakewalk, but the Tigers will win nonetheless. Marshall -- and as a result, the offense -- will look better, and the defense will build on its solid play we saw a week ago. The Red Wolves will gain some yards and score some points -- they'll probably look scary-good early on -- but the Tigers will be able to use their superior talent to stay a step ahead. It'll be close, but in the end, it'll be another victory that will look a little better Monday morning once everything has been processed. Auburn 38, Arkansas State 30.

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