COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Nick Marshall isn't Cam Newton.
But every week, Marshall seems to be getting closer to resembling the former Heisman Trophy winner in terms of consistent excellence. And in No. 24 Auburn's 45-41 victory against No. 7 Texas A&M, the Tigers' junior quarterback out-dueled another Heisman Trophy recipient to lift the visitors to its first road victory in more than two years. Yes, while Johnny Manziel gained the lion's share of his yardage through the air — going 28-for-38 for 454 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for only 48 — Marshall put together a balanced performance between running and passing that Newton mastered during his time on the Plains.
In fact, Marshall's 236 passing yards and 100 rushing yards gave him the first 200/100 game by an Auburn quarterback since Newton pulled off the feat against Kentucky in 2010 (210 passing, 198 rushing).
Meanwhile, crazy as it may sound, Manziel had a below-average game by his standards, at least when it comes to running the ball.
And for that, give Auburn's defense credit.
The Tigers sacked the whirling dervish that is Manziel three times — twice on the Aggies' final drive — and pressured him numerous other times that aren't reflected in the stat sheet. As for Manziel's passing numbers? They are impressive at first glance: a 74 percent completion rate, 400-plus yards and four touchdowns. What isn't reflected in those numbers is the two interceptions Auburn grabbd. Or the fact that of Manziel's 454 passing yards, 287 of them went to Mike Evans, as did the four touchdowns passes. (For the record, Texas A&M's second-leading receiver was Travis Labhart, who had 79 yards on seven receptions.)
To focus all the energy on the quarterbacks would be unfair. Once more, junior running back Tre Mason came up big when called upon — and he was called upon often, finishing with game-highs in carries (27) and rushing yards (178). Of course, no play was bigger than his 5-yard touchdown run with 1:19 remaining, the play which turned out to be the game-winning score. With Marshall getting 20 carries himself, the Tigers' other running backs, Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne, were relegated to the background, combining for just 11 carries and 73 yards.
Marshall's passing yardage was mentioned earlier; what wasn't brought up was that he tossed a pair of touchdowns (to Sammie Coates and Quan Bray, respectively) without throwing an interception. He did have a fumble that was recovered by the Aggies. It didn't come back to haunt the Tigers, as their defense came up with a turnover of their own, with Ryan White picking off Manziel at Auburn's 3-yard line.
I could talk about the defense giving up 602 yards to Texas A&M. But I won't. The Tigers have given up yardage all season, and how much has it hurt them thus far? Not much, judging by their 6-1 overall record.
Chew on that 6-1 record for a moment.
Auburn is already guaranteed a bowl berth. It has doubled its win total since last season. And it still has five games to play. With the way the Tigers are playing right now, the only game it will likely be an underdog is in the season finale against Alabama.
But who knows?
One thing the Tigers have proven this season is that it is a dangerous proposition to underestimate them in any circumstance.
The Crimson Tide best take heed.
But now, let's hand out some grades from Saturday's game.
Auburn followed up a school-record showing last week (712 yards of total offense versus Western Carolina) with another gaudy output Saturday (615 yards of total offense). Once more, the Tigers leaned heavily on their running game, tallying 379 yards. Not that it came as any surprise; Auburn came in as the top rushing offense in the SEC (287 yards per game), after all. Along with Marshall's efficient, error-free day passing, there can be few complaints — if any — about the Tigers' offense.
It seems like Auburn's defense should be graded on a curve; everyone knows the Tigers give up yards by the bushel. And yes, on Saturday they gave up far more points than normal. Then again, the Aggies were the top-ranked offense in the SEC. And the Tigers saw a game like this coming as early as last week, when defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he knew his unit wouldn't be able to "stop" Texas A&M. Auburn just needed to "disrupt" Manziel and Co. And that's exactly what the Tigers did with their pair of pickoffs and trio of sacks.
Kudos are also in order for how well the Tigers' bottled up the Aggies' running game. Texas A&M could muster only 133 rushing yards. That narked more than a season-low effort by the Aggies on the ground. It was also the fewest since Manziel became the quarterback last year in Kevin Sumlin's first year as the Aggies' head coach.
Any way you slice it, that's a noteworthy accomplishment for the defense.
That being said ... giving up 287 yards receiving to one player is pretty jarring. I suppose one could say the Tigers let Evans "get his" and limited everyone else, but the Aggies still had a chance to win the game on their final possession in spite of their dependence on the sophomore receiver. If they had done a bit better job on Evans, this grade would be higher.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
Auburn's specialists were their typical selves in Saturday's win. Kicker Cody Parkey converted his only field goal attempt (a 27-yarder in the first quarter) and six-for-six on extra-points. Fellow senior Steven Clark punted five times, averaging 39.8 per kick. More importantly, that limited the Aggies to just one yard on two returns. The one area where Auburn struggled was on kick returns, as Texas A&M ran back three returns for 81 yards. The only was that would drastically alter this grade, however, is if one had gone for a touchdown. That, of course, wasn't the case.
Always remember that my grades aren't cumulative; just because the defense gets, say, a D, doesn't mean it would prevent the team as a whole receiving a B. (Call me a "nutty professor," if you will.) That's why Auburn gets an A from me. Auburn went into Kyle Field as two-touchdown underdogs and left as conquerors. And isn't that all that really matters? Winning is paramount; everything else, in the end, is effectively meaningless.
And in what will please many around the country — not just Auburn fans — the Tigers also literally added injury to insult, forcing Manziel out of the game for one series in the fourth quarter after tweaking his right shoulder. Many wanted to see Manziel receive a bit of a comeuppance this year given his antics last year and during the offseason, and the Tigers did a bit to sate that segment of college football observers who don't mind engaging in a bit of schadenfreude.