Memories of 2014’s awful start in Starkville came bubbling to the surface when Sean White threw an interception on Auburn’s third play of the game at Wade Davis Stadium.
Two years ago Auburn turned it over on its opening play from scrimmage, but that’s where the similarities between the two games ended with Saturday’s interception a footnote in Auburn’s 38-14 blowout win.
The Tigers dominated their SEC West rival scoring more points than it had against a power five opponent all season by halftime.
“We are getting better, our team knows it and our coaches know it...” Malzahn said. “Very few teams get better throughout the year and we have a chance to be one of those teams.”
Auburn’s defense got the ball rolling by squashing MSU’s early momentum from the turnover by forcing the Bulldogs to settle for a field goal attempt, which Westin Graves missed from 28-yards out.
White’s interception wasn’t the result of a bad throw or poor decision, but a drop by wide receiver Tony Stevens. Stevens bobbled the ball right into the hands of MSU defensive back Kivon Coman.
Coman came up with the interception at Auburn’s 35-yard line and returned it 16 yards to give Mississippi State possession of the ball inside the 20. The drive stalled even with Carl Lawson spotting MSU five yards on third down thanks to an offsides penalty.
“I thought that was a huge play in the game especially early then we were able to go down and score,” Malzahn said. “It kind of took the crowd out of it a little bit cause those cowbells with the BB’s inside them or whatever is a different kind of noise.”
After Westin missed the field goal wide left, Auburn’s offense went to work.
White sliced and diced his way through MSU’s secondary with offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee mixing in a heavy diet of Kamryn Pettway. Pettway surpassed his previous career-high in carries (20) early in the second quarter.
White drew first blood with his first touchdown pass inside the red zone this season, a 3-yard soft toss to Ryan Davis in the flat. The key play of the 9-play, 80-yard drive was White’s 36-yard throw down the sideline to Stevens.
On Auburn’s next drive, White went 4 of 4 for 48 yards extending the drive in MSU territory with a 12-yard strike to Stevens in the middle of the field.
Pettway scored the first of his career-high three touchdowns on a 1-yard run to make it 14-0 with 3:44 to go in the first quarter.
The sophomore, who missed last week’s game against ULM with a bruised quad, also scored from 2- and 3-yards out before halftime.
Pettway received the bulk of the work in Auburn’s backfield after Kerryon Johnson injured his right leg on the second drive. The Prattville alum finished with the game with 39 carries — fourth all-time for Auburn — for 169 yards.
“He’s a beast that’s all there is to it,” Auburn offensive lineman Austin Golson said. “He breaks tackles, hits the right holes and does everything he’s asked. He’s a tough guy.”
Auburn’s defense kept feeding the ball back to the offense to help run up the score in the first half. Four of Mississippi State’s eight first half possessions were three-and-outs and two ended in turnovers.
The Bulldogs didn’t convert a third down until there was less than 4:30 left in the second quarter.
Auburn’s pass rushers forced both MSU’s first half turnovers. Freshman Marlon Davidson stripped the ball from quarterback Nick Fitzgerald on a first quarter sack
Lawson did the same at the end of the half with Montravius Adams picking the ball up both times. Adams went 13-yards for a touchdown on the second fumble recovery to make it 35-0.
“That all but really put the game away,” Malzahn said
Auburn wasn’t able to go to its bench in the third quarter as it did against ULM. Mississippi State scored an early touchdown in the second half when Stephen Roberts fell down in coverage allowing Keith Mixon to score on 37-yard touchdown.
The Tigers’ ineffective second half offense — Pettway fumbled, two first downs through first three possessions — allowed MSU to hang around until the fourth quarter.
Backup quarterback John Franklin III warmed up on the sidelines in the third quarter, but didn’t get into the game there was less than seven minutes remaining. It was a homecoming of sorts for Franklin who spent last fall at East Mississippi Community College.
Malzahn was asked about the second half struggles, but politely declined to respond.
“We were up 35-0,” Malzahn said. “Ain’t going to be no negative today from me.”