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Auburn 45, Texas A&M 41: Tigers go on the road, prove they're contenders

The Tigers looked A&M square in the eyes, and the Aggies blinked.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn's 45-41 win over Texas A&M at Kyle Field Saturday was one of the wildest we've seen in some time. The Tigers gave up 602 yards, 41 points and 7.3 yards per play, and they still managed to escape with a win over a top-10 team. That might not make a lot of sense, but in reality, Auburn did exactly what it needed to do in order to take down A&M: force turnovers and execute on offense.

Auburn never seemed to be in control of the game until the final moments, but that was all that mattered.

What went right?

Look at those offensive numbers -- 615 yards (238 through the air, 379 on the ground) 45 points, 27 first downs, 7.2 yards per play, 7-of-14 third-down conversions. The attack was humming pretty much all afternoon. Yes, there was the typical third-quarter lull when Malzahn sort of blacked out and got away with the game plan -- seriously, stop that, Gus -- but for the most part, the Tigers almost flawlessly executed a great game plan. They ran right at A&M, and the Aggies couldn't stop them.

Ignore A&M's numbers; the secondary played pretty well -- We knew A&M's passing game, particularly Johnny Manziel-to-Mike Evans, would put up a ton of yards, and that did happen. But Auburn's DBs provided some nice coverage, allowing the defensive line time to get into the backfield and rattle Manziel a bit. We also knew Johnny Football would throw into coverage a few times, and that Auburn needed to make some plays to stop Aggie drives with turnovers. Ryan White and Ryan Smith each picked off a pass, and the two interceptions led to 10 Auburn points. They were absolutely necessary.

The front seven contained Manziel on the ground -- It wasn't clear that this would be possible, but Manziel only rushed for 48 yards on 18 carries. Even when taking out the three sacks for 43 yards, holding him to 90 yards and was about as good as we could have asked for. Auburn's ends did a nice job of keeping Manziel from getting outside, and the linebackers performed as well as spies. Sure, he gained more than 500 yards of offense, but Auburn did enough to keep him from putting the Aggies over the top.

Ellis Johnson is brilliant, and the D-line was fresh at the end -- The offense put Auburn in position to win, but with A&M getting one last shot, the defense had to go out and drive the final nail into the Aggies' coffin. For the second SEC game in a row, that's exactly what the Tigers' defensive linemen did. A&M was driving and appeared to be on its way to a winning touchdown, but any chances the Ags had were killed by two sacks in the final four downs. Auburn leads the SEC with 56 tackles for loss and is third with 19 sacks. The Tigers appear to have the most talented and deepest D-line in the conference.

What went wrong?

Look at those defensive numbers -- The defense deserves a ton of credit for making plays when it had to, but that doesn't hide what A&M was able to do: 602 yards, 41 points, 29 first downs, 7.3 yards per play. Mike Evans was unstoppable, catching 11 passes for 287 yards and four touchdowns. Winning in spite of numbers like those is pretty unbelievable, and it'll be a long time before it happens again.

The third-quarter lull -- It really seems to happen every game. Gus moves away from the run, and the passing game always seems to falter with missed throws and drops. It's possible that Malzahn believes he needs to show a good stretch of passing to keep opponents honest down the stretch, but it's frustrating to watch.

The end-of-first-half sequence -- Had Auburn lost, this would have resulted in nightmares for weeks. Auburn took over at its own 1 with 1:04 left in the half. Malzahn called for two deep passes from the end zone, and Sammie Coates was open down the sideline on both. On first down, Marshall's throw was well off the mark. On third down, it was a great throw, but Coates flat out dropped it. Both plays should have been touchdowns, which would have given the Tigers a 24-17 lead. Instead A&M took over at the Auburn 41 with 36 seconds left, and one play later, the Aggies were in the end zone, taking their own 24-17 halftime lead. After playing a near perfect first half, that turn of events was nearly vomit inducing.

Three stars

Tre Mason, RB

27 rushes, 178 yards 1 touchdown

It's impossible to overstate what Mason did on Saturday. He was the workhorse back Auburn needed, and late in the game with the result in the balance, he absolutely took over, rushing for 108 yards and stretching out for the game-winning score with 1:19 showing on the clock. Mason had a number of key runs -- the mind-boggling crawl on fourth down in the red zone comes to mind -- and he carried the offense all day.

Nick Marshall, QB

11-of-23, 236 yards, 2 touchdowns; 20 rushes, 100 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 lost fumble

Marshall didn't have his best day passing, and Mason was the the bigger standout, but Auburn doesn't beat Texas A&M without the quarterback's poise and ability to make plays. He was a major asset in the running game, and while he had some ugly incompletions, he also made some clutch throws, like the third-down pass to Marcus Davis on the winning drive. Marshall brings confidence to the offense that is clearly contagious to his teammates, and that, plus his talent, makes him one of the most valuable components on this team.

Dee Ford, DE

2 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 sacks

Ford didn't make a huge impact during the game, but he's the one who ended it. On A&M's final fourth down, he bull-rushed offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, forced Manziel to scramble and didn't let him get away, bringing down the quarterback 22 yards behind the line of scrimmage. It was Ford's second sack in three plays, which snuffed out the Aggies' potential game-winning drive.

Bottom line

Last year, Auburn went 3-9, finished winless in SEC play and appeared to be at least a few seasons away from getting back into SEC contention. Now, Auburn is coming off a road win over a top-10 team, 6-1 (3-1 in conference play) and realistically in the hunt for an SEC title in 2013. The Tigers control their own destiny in the Western Division, and anyone who thought that would be the case after seven games was either lying to themselves or under the influence of some strong hallucinogens.

But we woke up Sunday morning, and as it turns out, Saturday -- and the last seven games -- wasn't a dream. Gus Malzahn has the Tigers back in the SEC's upper echelon, and at this point, fewer than nine wins this year will be a disappointment. After closing out October with Florida Atlantic, Auburn will go into November at 7-1, and if business is handled in road games at Arkansas and Tennessee -- no guarantees there --  the Tigers will be 9-1 entering Amen Corner. That's when Auburn players and teams become, and there is a real opportunity to become legendary this year.

We may be getting ahead of ourselves, but after Saturday, it really can't be helped. Auburn has given itself the chance to be great; it's time to go out and make good on that opportunity.

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