AUBURN, Ala. — It took all of three games for Nick Marshall to lead his first game-winning drive at Auburn.
In the process, he erased any recollection of an otherwise uneven performance up to that point. He had his first two interceptions as a Tiger earlier in the game, but he redeemed himself by taking the team 88 yards in 1:46 to help them knock off Mississippi State 24-20. He finished 23-for-34 for 339 yards, and went 6-for-8 for 66 yards on the game-winning possession, which ended with an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end C.J. Uzomah in the right corner of the end zone. Marshall may also have discovered his favorite target for the rest of his Auburn career, as he hooked up with freshman Marcus Davis on six occasions, including four times on the final drive.
Marshall also made plays with his feet, though his total of 22 yards (on 10 carries) appears to say otherwise. And with three games in the books for 2013, he's still looking for his first rushing touchdown. None of the Tigers' other runners had one Saturday, either, as they had only 120 yards rushing, well under their average of 298 per game. Auburn's top rusher was Corey Grant, who had 44 yards on eight carries.
One player who had no problem finding success carrying the ball played for the other team: Dak Prescott. The sophomore quarterback was sensational in defeat, racking up 133 rushing yards and two touchdowns in addition to his 213 passing yards. And this came in only his second start. That Prescott even played at all came as a bit of surprise to most considering senior quarterback Tyler Russell practiced earlier in the week, and it seemed a given he would return to the starting lineup after sitting out Mississippi State's previous game, a blowout victory over Alcorn State.
If one takes Prescott out of the equation, Auburn's defense played well against the run. With seven other players running the ball aside from their signal-caller, the Bulldogs were only able to gain 69 yards on the ground, led by LaDarius Perkins, who carried eight times for 36 yards. The Tigers' defense gave up its share of big plays as well, which included a 61-yard pass from Prescott to receiver Robert Johnson, a 47-yard run by Prescott and a 34-yard hook up between Prescott and Jameon Lewis.
For the third straight contest, Auburn found it difficult to get its opponent off the field, which led to a lopsided advantage for Mississippi State in time of possession, holding the ball nearly nine minutes longer (34:23 to 25:37) than the hosts. That dominant edge in time of possession was despite Auburn playing relatively well on third down, as the Bulldogs only converted 33 percent (5 of 15) of the time.
Of course, few will remember the final stats from this game as time goes on. It's all thanks to Marshall, whose a game-winning drive that will be etched in the memory of many for years to come.
Now let's get to some grades.
As already noted, the rushing game was underwhelming — especially in light of the Tigers' first two contests — and Marshall needed his game-winning throw to finish even the ledger in regards to the touchdown-to-interception ratio. with two apiece.
But if Davis ends up becoming the "go-to" receiver Auburn has been looking for all season, this grade may end up being too low in retrospect.
What really went right for the Tigers? No interceptions. No sacks. They gave up 400-plus yards (415, to be exact) for the third time in as many games, and they can't even use the, "Well, we gave up a lot of yards, but at least they didn't score touchdowns" line that popped up last week versus Arkansas State. When the Bulldogs got in the red zone, they scored. The only time they didn't came on a 35-yard wayward field goal from Devon Bell in the first quarter.
I suppose one could say the Tigers came up with the stop needed to give Marshall the opportunity to win the game ... but that's being mighty kind to a unit that otherwise drastically underachieved Saturday.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
Cody Parkey continues to chug along. Field goals? He makes all three he attempted. Kickoffs? He had six of them, and all resulted in touchbacks. Fellow senior Steven Clark held down the fort as well, with two of his four punts landing inside the 20-yard line, and another narrowly missing being downed at the 1 before it bounced into the end zone. With Chris Davis sitting out due to a foot injury, Quan Bray reprised his old role as punt returner. He had three returns, with a long of 28. Perhaps the only disappointing aspect of the Tigers' special teams was on kick return, where they were expected to hold a dominant edge; much like Parkey, though, Bell gave Tre Mason little chance to run it out, as three of the four kickoffs from the Bulldogs' sophomore were touchbacks.
Sometimes one drive can change the entire perception of a game. If the Tigers had lost, everyone would have talked about the holes in the defense and Marshall's pair of interceptions. But that's a moot point. Auburn is 3-0 (1-0 in SEC play) as it prepares to go on the road for the first time this season. LSU will await in Baton Rouge, La., next week.