The blueprint was simple for both teams. When rushing for less than 200 yards over the past three years, No. 5 Auburn was 1-9. And when holding its opponent to less than 200 yards over that same period, No. 20 Kansas State was 21-2.
The Tigers rushed for 128 yards tonight, and won 20-14.
Quarterback Nick Marshall made the plays when he had to, throwing for 231 yards and two touchdowns – one to put his Tigers up 10-7 at the half, and another to push the lead to 17-7 – and a critical 39-yard clincher to Duke Williams (eight catches, 110 yards and a touchdown) to put the game away with under two minutes to play.
But this game was won for Auburn thanks to critical mistakes by the Kansas State offense and special teams.
It started on the first play of the game, when Jake Waters fumbled the ball inside his own red zone on a botched exchange, allowing Auburn to take a 3-0 lead. On the ensuing drive, the Wildcats moved 74 yards to the Auburn 2 before a Waters pass bounced off the face mask of all-everything wide receiver Tyler Lockett and into the waiting arms of Auburn cornerback Jonathan Jones. And then came the missed field goals. Three of them, all by the usually trustworthy Jack Cantele. He was 11-of-13 last season and 4-of-5 in 2014 until tonight, but missed from 41, 42 and 22 yards. He was replaced by Matthew McCrane for the Wildcats’ final extra point.
Waters, simply put, wasn’t nearly as good as a senior quarterback needs to be to win tonight. He threw for 245 yards, but recorded a terrible interception to Trovon Reed while Kansas State trailed 17-7 in the fourth quarter, and missed an opportunity to put Kansas State up 14-10 just before the half with Lockett wide open in the end zone. Instead, he held on to the ball, fumbled, and made Cantele’s 42-yard try much more difficult than it had to be. That’s just the kind of night it was for the Wildcats.
After falling behind 20-7, Kansas State pulled within 20-14 with 3:49 to play, but never possessed the ball again. The game was decided when Marshall hit Williams on a double move while facing a 3rd-and-9 in its own territory.
Defensively, Kansas State did everything one could have expected them to do. The ground game didn’t even register three yards per carry in its 45 attempts. In fact, Auburn didn’t even hit 100 yards of total offense until its first touchdown drive to end the first half, and nearly went the entire first half without converting a third down. However, it didn’t stay that way. It never does against Auburn. After missing its first five third down tries, Auburn converted 10 of its final 13, and outgained K-State on the night 359-285.
For Auburn, this is the type of night Gus Malzahn and staff can build on. Marshall-to-Williams is a certifiably reliable go-to option, and a six-point win on the road brings the type of value no 50-point shellacking of a mid-major can duplicate. “I’m glad it was tough,” Malzahn told ESPN after the game, “that’ll help us in the long run.” The Tigers host Louisiana Tech on Sept. 27 before reopening SEC play against No. 8 LSU on Oct. 4.
For Kansas State, what can you say? You did everything you needed to do to win the game, and you lost. In reality, there’s not much else you can do but rectify the result within yourself (with the help of a few adult beverages) and move on to the next game. That comes next Saturday when UTEP comes to town.