AUBURN, Ala. — He made plays with his feet.
He made plays with his arm.
Above all else, he won.
Nick Marshall, who signed with Auburn in February amid sky-high expectations, proved why that was the case Saturday night. The junior signal-caller led the Tigers on an 88-yard drive with less than two minutes to play to beat Mississippi State 24-20, connecting with a leaping C.J Uzomah in the end zone on an 11-yard go-ahead score with just 10 seconds remaining.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn couldn't say enough about his signal-caller's poise after the game.
"He looked fairly natural out there and made some really good reads," he said. "I don't know if he threw a bad ball on that (final) drive."
Just prior to taking the field for the final time, Marshall said he told the offense they were "going to score a touchdown." Then he walked down the sideline and requested a stop from his defensive teammates.
Marshall took care of the rest himself, running for 19 yards on the last drive and completing six of his eight attempts through the air for 66 yards, with four of the receptions courtesy of freshman receiver Marcus Davis.
"He believes in me," Marshall said of Davis."I told him that I also believed in him. So I just took what the defense gave me. They were playing off of him, so we made the best of it."
But it was his final pass — the go-ahead score to Uzomah — that pleased Marshall the most, given the stakes and the difficulty.
"It was a tough throw, because every day at practice I usually throw that pass out of bounds," he said, noting he attempts that exact pass 10 times every practice. "But I've worked on it more and more, and that gave me the confidence to make that throw.
Marshall's game-winning drive overshadowed the spectacular play of his counterpart, Dak Prescott, who gave the Tigers' defense fits all night. The sophomore, who was making only his second career start, tallied 346 yards of total offense (213 passing, 133 rushing), with both of his scores coming on the ground.
No play encapsulated the Tigers' inability to stop Prescott better than on a fourth-and-one with less than five minutes to play. With no timeouts remaining and inside of his own 30-yard line, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen elected to roll the dice and go for it. It paid off, as Prescott ran up the middle for three yards and a fresh set of downs.
Three plays later, however, Auburn was able to force the punt it needed to set the stage for Marshall's heroics.
The win did more than keep Auburn's unblemished record (3-0, 1-0) alive. It avenged the Tigers' loss to the Bulldogs last season, and snapped what had been a 10-game losing streak to Southeastern Conference foes.
It was a game that started out as well as the Tigers could have hoped. After receiving the opening kickoff, the Tigers marched down the field quickly, with five plays of nine or more yards. However, Auburn got bogged down once it got close to the end zone, settling for a 40-yard field goal from Cody Parkey.
The Tigers made up for it on their next drive — in style.
Marshall connected with Quan Bray on a 76-yard touchdown to put Auburn ahead 10-0. The play was a career-long for Marshall, eclipsing the 68-yard score to Sammie Coates versus Arkansas State. And it was Bray's first touchdown as a Tiger, to boot.
Auburn didn't stop there, as it once again converted for two points, with Ryan White lofting a pass to a Brandon Fulse in the back of the end zone to push the lead to 11-0 at the 4:54 mark of the first quarter.
On the next possession, however, Prescott began to assert himself. He led the Bulldogs (1-2, 0-1) on a 13-play, 73-yard drive, which ended on a 14-yard run by Jameon Lewis. Parkey knocked in another field goal while Prescott scored his first rushing touchdown of the game before the end of the half, which saw the Tigers take a 14-13 advantage into the locker room.
The third quarter looked like it might provide a continuation of the up-tempo opening half. Mississippi State took the initial possession of the half and wasted no time putting it in the end zone, embarking on a six-play, 75-yard drive. And it was another opportunity for Prescott to show off his skill set, as he accounted for every yard on the drive, between his running (58 yards) and passing. He ended the drive with the ball in his hands, punching it in from the 2-yard line. After the ensuing point-after, the Bulldogs had their first lead, 20-14, with 12:38 to go in the third period.
Auburn fired back on the next possession, with Parkey knocking in his third field goal, this one from 47 yards out to cut Mississippi State's lead in half.
The rest of the quarter devolved into a punting contest — two by the Bulldogs, one by the Tigers — aside from a fumble by Tre Mason, which Mississippi State couldn't turn into points.
Malzahn wasn't surprised the game came down to the final possession, since he addressed the topic with his team prior to kickoff.
"We said this game could come down to the end," he said. "A lot of these games against Mississippi State do."