AUBURN, Ala. — It didn't take long to figure out this would be Auburn's night.
In fact, it took all of one play. Arkansas State, the school Tigers coach Gus Malzahn led last season, was called for "failure to wear contrasting colors" on the game's opening kickoff. It was a foreboding sign for the Red Wolves, who were attempting to become the first Sun Belt Conference team to win in Jordan-Hare Stadium, snapping an 0-for-17 skid.
The Tigers (2-0) never gave the visitors a chance, scoring on the contest's first possession and leading for the duration, picking up a 38-9 victory to help Malzahn defeat his former team.
The coach didn't downplay the significance of the victory, admitting it felt different than previous successes.
"It was pretty emotional," he said. "It was a pretty interesting deal when you coach against a team that you’re close to (the) players. They have some great kids over there, great competitors. It was interesting, but it was good to see those guys. I wished them nothing but the best going forward."
When asked about the "equipment malfunction" called on Arkansas State to begin the game, Malzahn could only shake his head.
"Yeah," he said. "You don't see that one (called) very much."
Arkansas State head coach Bryan Harsin cleared up some of the confusion over his team's uniforms afterward. The coach acknowledged he knew a flag would fly the moment the ball was kicked.
However, he refused to provide further detail.
"I think it was something for our team and that was the decision I made," Harsin said, "and I would not change it.”
The way the Tigers played, the color of the uniforms was the least of the Red Wolves' concerns Saturday.
And it was Malzahn's new quarterback who spearheaded the win over his old program. After an uneven performance against Washington State last week — passing for just 99 yards and no touchdowns and running for 27 yards with no scores — Nick Marshall showed why he had set Tigers' supporters abuzz when it was announced he would join the team this fall. The Georgia native threw for 147 yards and two touchdowns, and added an additional 53 yards on the ground.
No one was more perceptive of Marshall's gains versus the Red Wolves than his head coach.
"He was a little more comfortable this game than last week and I feel like that will improve," Malzahn said. "The guy didn’t go through spring. He is still learning as he goes. He is very hard on himself, and he has a chance to improve each game.”
Marshall proved last week's game, which was littered with near-misses and overthrown passes, was far behind him. He opened the game completing four of his first five passes, with the final one an 18-yard touchdown to freshman receiver Marcus Davis to punctuate the game's first drive. Cody Parkey's point after was good, giving Auburn a 7-0 lead with less than four minutes off the clock.
The score made up for an earlier miscue, as running back Tre Mason reached the end zone from 12 yards out, only to have it nullified on a holding penalty from right guard Chad Slade.
Arkansas State (1-1) responded immediately, capping the next drive with a 42-yard field goal from senior kicker Brian Davis.
It would end up being a recurring theme: The Tigers scoring touchdowns while the Red Wolves settled for field goals.
Following Davis' first successful kick, Auburn hit pay dirt once more on its ensuing possession. Corey Grant, who had the best game of his career last week — and started in the Tigers' backfield Saturday — scooted in from the Red Wolves' 17-yard line at the 3:56 mark of the opening period.
But the most electric play of the game came on Auburn's third score. After narrowly missing Sammie Coates on multiple passes this season, Marshall finally found himself on the same wavelength as his sophomore receiver in the second quarter. Separating himself from his defender, Coates hauled in Marshall's perfect pass, and didn't stop until he found the end zone. After another PAT by Parkey, the Tigers' lead stood at 21-3.
Marshall described how the explosive scoring play developed from his point of view.
"We faked power (run), and then the safety came down like we thought he would," the junior signal-caller said. "Then Sammie was just able to outrun the defensive back with his speed. I made a good throw and he made a good catch."
After that, the offensive fireworks ended. Only two more touchdowns were put on the board, as Mason made up for his earlier negated score in the fourth quarter, taking it in from Arkansas State's 11-yard line with 1:14 to play in the third quarter, pushing Auburn's advantage to 28-9. Fellow running back Cameron Artis-Payne also scored with just 1:43 remaining in the final period.
The junior running back led all players with 102 rushing yards. Taking no credit away from Artis-Payne, Malzahn noted none of it would have been possible without the Tigers' offensive line.
"I thought it was good blocking up front," he said of Artis-Payne's performance. "He held on to the football. He is a north-south back. I feel like he will get more comfortable each game behind our schemes."
Given the talent the Red Wolves possessed on offense, Malzahn never allowed himself to think his team could hold the visitors to just three field goals. But that's exactly how it played out, as Auburn didn't give up a touchdown for the first time since beating Florida 17-6 on Oct. 15, 2011.
"They have phenomenal skill guys that will have the chance to play at the next level," he said. "And like I said they had the second-longest winning streak in college football, so they are used to winning. I am very impressed (with our defense).”