AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn's first two games couldn't have played out more differently.
In Week 1, the Tigers were pushed until late in the final period by the Washington State Cougars. On Saturday, Auburn tossed Arkansas State aside. The only thing similar about the two games?
The Tigers ended on the right side of the win-loss ledger.
As easily as Auburn won, it obscured the quality of its opponent. Arkansas State entered Saturday on a nine-game winning streak, the second-longest in the country after Ohio State, which won Saturday to push its total to 14 consecutive victories.
The Red Wolves surprised many with their offensive game plan. Noted for its ability to run the ball — last week against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, it tallied 509 yards and became the seventh team in Division I FBS history to have four players run for 100 or more yards in the same game — Arkansas State actually finished with more passing attempts (41) than rushing attempts (39) on Saturday. Yes, part of that can be attributed to the Red Wolves trailing from the beginning of the game and wanting to pick up large chunks of yardage through the air. Even early in the game, however, Arkansas State elected to take to the air, leaving its stable of backs grounded.
Auburn's defense employed the "bend-but-don't-break" approach, as it allowed the yards (422), but was stingy where it counted: Keeping the visitors out of the end zone, with Arkansas State amassing just three field goals. The Tigers held an opponent without a touchdown for the time since Oct. 15, 2011, when they beat the Florida Gators 17-6. It had been far longer since the Red Wolves hadn't reached the end zone in a game. The last time that occurred was in 2008 against another SEC school: Alabama pitched a shutout, blanking Arkansas State 35-0.
As for the Tigers' offense, its ground game continued to cruise along. After picking up 297 yards versus Washington State, Auburn broke the 300-yard barrier Saturday, finishing with 301. After a hot start — completing four of his first five passes, which included an 18-yard touchdown to Marcus Davis — quarterback Nick Marshall cooled off. It was still an improvement over last week, as he went 10-for-17 for 147 yards and two touchdowns. He also made more hay in the running game, ending with 53 yards on eight carries. About the only thing Auburn didn't do Saturday was find that elusive "go-to" receiver the coaching staff has been searching for since the spring.
Maybe one will finally emerge next week, when Auburn hosts Mississippi State in the SEC opener for both teams.
Now let's get to some grades.
There could be few complaints about the way the way Marshall passed the ball Saturday. He completed 59 percent of his attempts, threw for two touchdowns, and once again, didn't throw an interception. (Remember how much talk there was of the 20 interceptions he had at Garden City Community College? Haven't heard as much about that lately.) There could be even fewer complaints about the Tigers' run game. After two games, Auburn is averaging 299 yards per contest on the ground.
So why not an A — or least an A-minus — here?
Much the way Auburn did versus Washington State, the offense came out sluggish in the second half.
Check out the numbers.
First halves versus Washington State/Arkansas State: 36 points (includes five touchdowns) Second halves versus Washington State/Arkansas State: 23 points (includes three field goals)
Neither team the Tigers have faced so far have made them pay for some of their long second half droughts without a touchdown. But with SEC play arriving this week, that may change.
It was mentioned earlier, but Auburn's defense only stiffened once Arkansas State approached the red zone. Forget the 422 yards it allowed. The biggest issue was its inability to get the Red Wolves off the field in the first half. Arkansas State converted four of its first six third downs. The Tigers' defense gradually improved as the game went on, as the Red Wolves finished with a 44.4 percent (8 of 18) conversion rate on third down. Where the Tigers excelled
The grade would have been higher if they hadn't given up so many yards or if the Tigers had forced more turnovers. And again, holding the Red Wolves' offense without a touchdown for the first time in nearly five years is an accomplishment the Tigers can hang their hat on.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
No kickoff returns for touchdowns this week. The most electric play — a shifty punt return from Chris Davis in the second quarter — was called back due to a holding penalty. Cody Parkey continued to be rock-solid on kickoffs, with three of his seven kicks going down as touchbacks. He extended his SEC-best streak on point-after attempts, as the senior has now made 58 in a row. And he didn't let his only field goal attempt Saturday go to waste, as he knocked it through the uprights from 35 yards out with 8:46 remaining in the contest. Steven Clark was steady as well, averaging 41.5 yards per punt on four attempts.
It was a solid, not spectacular effort from the special teams.
The Tigers turned what was thought to be a close game on paper into a one-sided affair. And now they're 2-0 for the first time since 2011. Auburn couldn't have asked for a better start to the season as its SEC slate begins Saturday.