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Auburn 38, Arkansas State 9: Tigers ride defense, running game to comfortable win

Defense and running game? That combination's a sight for sore eyes, isn't it, Auburn fans?

Michael Chang

Auburn defeated Arkansas State, 38-9, Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium in a matchup of head coach Gus Malzahn and his team from a year ago. The victory came against a Sun Belt team, but considering the worry going into the game, the comfortable margin was a pleasant surprise. The Tigers' running backs flourished, and their defense dominated at times, giving fans the style of physical win they had been missing.

There's still work to do, but this team just might be ahead of schedule in the rebuilding project Malzahn and his staff have undertaken.

Scoring summery

1st 11:37 AU Marcus Davis 18 yd pass from Nick Marshall (Cody Parkey kick)
10 plays, 67 yards, TOP 3:23 0 - 7
06:54 ASU Brian Davis 34 yd field goal
14 plays, 58 yards, TOP 4:43 3 - 7
03:56 AU Corey Grant 17 yd run (Cody Parkey kick)
8 plays, 85 yards, TOP 2:49 3 - 14
2nd 02:20 AU Sammie Coates 68 yd pass from Nick Marshall (Cody Parkey kick)
3 plays, 80 yards, TOP 1:05 3 - 21
3rd 09:58 ASU Brian Davis 21 yd field goal
11 plays, 71 yards, TOP 4:56 6 - 21
07:53 ASU Brian Davis 42 yd field goal
4 plays, -8 yards, TOP 0:58 9 - 21
01:14 AU Tre Mason 11 yd run (Cody Parkey kick)
8 plays, 54 yards, TOP 2:54 9 - 28
4th 08:46 AU Cody Parkey 35 yd field goal
11 plays, 62 yards, TOP 5:12 9 - 31
01:43 AU Cameron Artis-Payne 12 yd run (Cody Parkey kick)
7 plays, 55 yards, TOP 2:34 9 - 38

What went right?

NIck Marshall was confident and made good decisions

His accuracy is an issue, which we'll address later, but no one can complain about Marshall's poise and knack for good decisions so far. Once again, he didn't force balls into coverage, and when running the read option, his choices to either hand off or keep and rush to the outside were almost always correct. He was only 10-of-17, but doesn't a line with 147 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions sound kind of like exactly what Auburn fans want from a QB in a run-first offense?

The running game was strong, real strong

Speaking of a run-first offense, Auburn showed it has the necessary tools to execute. In Week 1, it was Corey Grant who stole the show. Against ASU, Cameron Artis-Payne and Tre Mason did the heavy lifting. As a team, the Tigers rushed for three touchdowns and 301 yards on 50 carries, a 6.0 yards-per-rush average. The combination of running styles and overall talent in Auburn's backfield is going to be a tremendous asset going forward and should take a lot of pressure off its quarterback.

Now THAT looked like an Auburn defense

Arkansas State moved the ball between the 20s, with relative ease at times, early on, but when it was up against the wall, the Auburn D fought back. The Tigers kept the Red Wolves out of the end zone, which marks six straight quarters without giving up a TD, and compiled 13 tackles for loss and 22 quarterback hurries. Auburn's defensive players are much further along at this point than anyone could have hoped, and if their progression continues, it could lead to a surprise win or two in SEC play.

Auburn's defensive depth held up

In the fourth quarter, several guys who likely won't see a ton of meaningful playing time this year were given a shot and did well. Johnathan Ford, T.J. Davis, Mackenro Alexander and Trent Fisher saw time in the secondary; Anthony Swain and Javiere Mitchell got in at linebacker/star; and Gimel President earned a few snaps on the line. And with all those fresh faces in, the level of play didn't drop off and ASU was still held out of the end zone. That kind of production could be key going forward.

The Tigers finished drives

Auburn got into the red zone five times against the Red Wolves, and the Tigers came away with four touchdowns and a field goal. A fifth TD would have been nice, but you can't ask for much better production than that.

What went wrong?

Marshall was badly inaccurate at times

It's not just that he misses some throws; he's not even close on some throws. As noted earlier, Marshall deserves plenty of praise for his overall performance, and he'll help Auburn win some more games this year. But, if he can't get a better handle on his passing, he'll probably cost the Tigers some games, too. At times, he looked brilliant -- the touchdown passes to Marcus Davis and Sammie Coates were fantastic -- but too often, he looks like a defensive back playing quarterback.

Way too many penalties

Penalties will be an issue for a team growing up before our eyes, and that was certainly the case Saturday night. The Tigers committed nine and lost 91 yards, and a couple of touchdowns were called back due to holds. Those can kill drives, but Auburn was resilient enough to overcome them and get into the end zone anyway. That won't always be the case in conference games.

Third-down defense wasn't good

To be fair, it got better as the game went on, but in the first half Arkansas State was able to move from 20 to 20 due to Auburn's inability to get third-down stops. The Red Wolves finished the game 8-of-18, with the majority of the conversions coming early. To Auburn's credit, ASU went for it on fourth down three times, and the Tigers held on each play.

That damn targeting rule

Auburn saw its first casualty of the new ejection rule when Kris Frost was given the boot late in the game. Because it came in the second half, Frost will miss the first half of next week's Mississippi State game, barring an appeal to the SEC. The intent behind the rule is good, and Frost did go high on ASU quarterback Adam Kennedy. But, he didn't make contact with Kennedy's helmet, and the hit was from Frost's forearms to Kennedy's upper chest. A 15-yard penalty to deter that sort of move would be fine, but there's no way Frost should have been ejected for that. And you can't really blame the refs: They're having to make a split-second judgement call and have to abide by the letter of the rule. Don't be surprised if Frost isn't the last ejection Auburn sees this year.

Three stars

Cameron Artis-Payne, RB

19 rush, 102 yards, 1 TD, 5.4 yds/rush

CAP had success as the bruising, between-the-tackles back we were expecting him to be, compiling his first 100-yard game and first rushing TD in an Auburn uniform. He carried the load, especially in the second half, and helped to show what kind of weapon the Tigers have in their stable of runners: Auburn can ride the hot hand to offensive success, and that was Artis-Payne against the Red Wolves.

Tre Mason, RB

14 rush, 99 yards, 1 TD, 7.1 yds/rush

Don't forget about the lightning to Artis-Payne's thunder. Mason used his speed and cutting ability to gash huge holes in ASU's defense, which was even more valuable late in the game when the Red Wolves were gassed. Mason had a four-yard loss in the fourth quarter, and if not for that, Auburn would have had two 100-yard rushers on the night.

Chris Davis, CB

10 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble, 2 pass breakups

Any number of defensive players could have been listed here, but Davis had the best individual game. He was great in pass coverage, and like Robenson Therezie last week, he seemed to be all over the field on every snap. Davis left late in the game after limping off following an ASU punt, but it sounds like Malzahn kept him out the rest of the was as a precaution.

An honorable mention has to go to the defensive line as an entire unit. After looking quite suspect against Washington State, Auburn's linemen stepped up their play against the Red Wolves. Together, they were responsible for 27 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and 16 quarterback hurries. That's doin' work.

Bottom line

Everything went better than expected! Yes, Arkansas State is a Sun Belt team, and Auburn fans are probably a little too excited about this win. But after last season, dominating against any team with a pulse is reason for excitement. Both sides of the ball look competent, and everyone is playing with fire and passion that we haven't seen in a while. The No. 1 complaint over the last two years was that the Tigers had plenty of raw talent, but the coaches weren't developing it. That doesn't appear to be an issue anymore.

We're still going to see growing pains this year, but Auburn isn't going to roll over and play dead against the likes of LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. Maybe we're seeing Auburn get back to the kind of football fans have come to expect over the years. Whatever the final record may be, this season is going to be fun.

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