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Auburn 24, Mississippi State 20: Nick Marshall, Tigers grow up before our eyes

In the second half, it didn't feel like Auburn was going to beat the Bulldogs, but the Tigers' defense and quarterback found a way.

Anthony Hall/Auburn University photo

When Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall threw his second interception, a pass that caromed high off the hands of linebacker Matthew Wells and into the waiting arms of safety Nickoe Whitley, it just didn't appear to be Auburn's night. The offense couldn't get in gear and had turned it over three times, and while the defense had kept the Tigers in the game, Mississippi State was starting a drive at the Auburn 47 with a three-point lead and 12:38 left in the game.

But the Tigers' D held State once again -- and continued to do so for the rest of the game -- and when Auburn's offense had once final chance with 1:56 remaining, Marshall was up to the challenge, leading his team to the end zone for a 24-20 lead with 10 seconds showing on the clock. That was pretty much it for State, and Auburn left Jordan-Hare Stadium with a 3-0 record and an opening win in SEC play. And fans in orange and blue left with a feeling they hadn't experienced in a while, having just watched their team somehow, some way pull a victory out of the fire.

Scoring summary

1st 10:53 AU Cody Parkey 40 yd field goal
11 plays, 52 yards, TOP 4:07 0 - 3
04:54 AU Quan Bray 76 yd pass from Nick Marshall (Brandon Fulse pass from Ryan White)
3 plays, 80 yards, TOP 0:50 0 - 11
04:09 MS Jameon Lewis 14 yd run (Nick Griffin rush failed)
2 plays, 75 yards, TOP 0:45 6 - 11
2nd 13:36 AU Cody Parkey 19 yd field goal
13 plays, 73 yards, TOP 5:33 6 - 14
05:02 MS Dak Prescott 5 yd run (Devon Bell kick)
11 plays, 84 yards, TOP 4:36 13 - 14
3rd 12:38 MS Dak Prescott 2 yd run (Devon Bell kick)
6 plays, 75 yards, TOP 2:22 20 - 14
09:53 AU Cody Parkey 47 yd field goal
7 plays, 59 yards, TOP 2:40 20 - 17
4th 00:10 AU C.J. Uzomah 11 yd pass from Nick Marshall (Cody Parkey kick)
12 plays, 88 yards, TOP 1:46 20 - 24

What went right?

Cojones, guts, gumption, steely resolve; Marshall had it all

There isn't really a way we can overstate Marshall's performance in his first SEC contest. The running game wasn't working, and if Auburn was going to win, it was going to be on the quarterback's arm. After struggling with some significant accuracy issues in his first two starts, he was much better throwing the ball. Marshall threw his first career interceptions -- the first one on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half, the second as a result of not putting enough air on the ball to get it over a linebacker -- but he never lost his confidence. That was crucial when Auburn was staring at 88 yards and a possible loss with under two minutes to go.

On that final drive, it wasn't just Marshall's arm that saved the day. After overthrowing Sammie Coates and a drop from Marcus Davis left Auburn with 3rd-and-10 from the MSU 35 and 29 seconds left, the QB scrambled for 11 yards to pick up the first down and keep the touchdown in play. Basically, he was never rattled, and he made every correct decision.

Receivers came through in the clutch

Auburn's pass-catchers weren't doing Marshall a ton of favors through most of the game -- a couple of bad first-half drops on good throws killed drives -- but like their quarterback, the receivers made plays when it was necessary. Davis had the one drop on the final drive, but he also came up with four big catches. Jaylon Denson came down with the ball when Marshall looked his way. And C.J. Uzomah, making his biggest impact of the year so far against State, fought off press coverage to get open and haul in the winning score.

All in all, eight players -- in addition to Marshall, who caught one pass to himself -- had receptions during the game. There might not be a sure-fire go-to receiver yet, and there are still things to work on, but the unit as a whole seems to be improving.

The defense adjusted and bowed up

For the third game in a row, the Tigers' D allowed an opponent to rack up more than 400 yards. Mississippi State averaged more than five yards per rush and quarterback Dak Prescott compiled 346 yards of total offense. However, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson made some good adjustments in the second half, and State was unable to put points on the board after scoring on its opening drive. Auburn's offense was struggling badly, and the defense had to rise up to keep the Tigers in the game. Johnson's unit answered the call.

Auburn has given up just 16 second-half points this season, and zero in the fourth quarter. That's how you win football games.

Dee Ford, Justin Garrett and Kris Frost made an impact

All three defensive players were making a return against Mississippi State: Ford and Garrett from injuries that kept them out of the first two games, Frost in the second half from a targeting suspension. Garrett didn't play a ton of snaps, but he did help the front seven when he was in, picking up a couple of tackles and one tackle for loss. Frost only had one tackle in his half of play, but the linebackers were clearly much better when he replaced Jake Holland in the middle.

It was especially great to see Ford back in action. Auburn's best pass rusher admitted that he was a little rusty in the early going, but he finished the game with six tackles and two big quarterback hurries. Auburn wasn't getting a ton of pressure on Prescott, but Ford made his presence known.

Cody Parkey was automatic

It's what we've come to expect from Parkey, and he didn't let us down. The kicker made good on all three field goal attempts -- two from 40 yards or more, including a career-best-tying 47-yarder in the third quarter -- and he was crushing the ball on kickoffs. In a tight game, Parkey's nine points were obviously a big factor.

Steven Clark had a big night punting the ball, too. He was called upon four times, and he averaged 48 yards with a long of 53. That helped the Tigers' defense quite a bit.

Auburn won an SEC game

No, the Tigers were never going to go winless in conference play for a second straight year, but it's awfully nice to go ahead and end that losing streak on the first opportunity. 3-0 (1-0 SEC) looks a lot better than 2-1 (0-1 SEC).

What went wrong?

Both lines were pushed around

In this conference, wins and losses come in the trenches -- well, usually. Mississippi State rushed for 5.1 yards per carry, and Auburn could only manage 3.3 yards per. The Tigers didn't have many answers for Prescott's carries up the gut, and they had to mostly abandon the running game because it just wasn't working. They deserve a ton of credit for winning despite those deficiencies, but they shouldn't attempt to make a habit of it. Victories like that won't come around too often.

Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers

Really, the first interception can be discounted, but Tre Mason's fumble and Marshall's second pick could have sunk the Tigers. Mason was giving an extra effort to try to get a first down, but in those situations, he must remember to secure the football first. Marshall's fourth-quarter interception wasn't the result of a bad decision, which is good, but the deflection did come from a bad throw. Denson was wide open on the corner route, and Marshall elected for the low bullet instead of putting a little touch on the ball. That lack of touch, while getting better, is still Marshall's biggest weakness.

The secondary missed Chris Davis

Davis sat out with an undisclosed leg injury, and his absence was really felt. The corner was all over the field against Arkansas State, and the rest of the secondary looked a little lost against State's passing game for much of the night.

Three stars

Nick Marshall, QB

23-of-34, 339 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, 22 rushing yards

We can't say enough about Marshall. After completing 55.6 percent of his passes through the first two weeks, he was good on 67.6 percent against Mississippi State. His 339 passing yards were the most by an Auburn QB since Brandon Cox threw for 342 in the 2005 season opener against Georgia Tech.

Marcus Davis, WR

6 catches, 43 yards

Davis' name wasn't called much for the first 58 minutes against State, but he came up big in the final two. Four of his six catches came on the final drive, and he was clearly Marshall's favorite target.

C.J. Uzomah, TE

3 catches, 48 yards, 1 TD

You make a game-winning touchdown catch with 10 second left, you deserve some accolades.

Bottom line

If you knew Auburn would turn the ball over three times, force zero turnovers, average 3.3 yards per carry, allow State a 5.1-yard rushing average and Marshall would throw 34 passes, would you give the Tigers much of a chance? We surely wouldn't. But it doesn't matter, because Marshall played the game of his life and Malzahn's team never gave up. Before embarking on the winning drive, the quarterback told his teammates, "We're going to win." He believed it, his teammates believed it and they made it happen.

This was a huge win for Auburn, not only for the obvious affect it will have on the final record and the Tigers' final bowl chances, but also because it shows where the program is and where it could go. In his postgame interview with ESPN's Maria Taylor, Malzahn said, "We're going in the right direction." He's right. There's no way in hell the 2012 Auburn Tigers would have won this game, and they likely would have folded in the second half and lost in a blowout. But as corny as the slogan for the season may be, it's a new day on the Plains, and Malzahn has this team not only playing better, but playing with confidence. That's big.

Auburn will have some struggles this year, but all indications point toward being competitive against the SEC's best and rising to the upper echelon of the conference in the not-too-distant future. Considering the smoldering crater out of which Malzahn is building, that's pretty amazing.

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