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Bo Nix proving to be quarterback Auburn needs in strong win over Kent State

It would be dishonest to call Kent State’s defense equal to the Tulane front seven that Auburn faced last week. But that’s what these types of games are for: The home team irons out any wrinkles in its game plan, and the away team collects a hefty paycheck for getting trounced by a team is really has no business playing.

Still, Auburn’s offense, specifically quarterback Bo Nix, looked far sharper on Saturday, compared to the sluggish outing it had against the Green Wave. Last week, it was Nix’s teammates shouldering the load. Auburn’s 55-16 win over Kent State on Saturday night was the freshman’s time to shine.

There were still freshman moments. Nix overthrew two surefire touchdowns and fumbled on a play fake off receiver Anthony Schwartz’s cast, but it was relatively smooth sailing for the freshman. He had the help of an actual running game this time out, which is a must-have with a young quarterback.

“We really moved (the Golden Flashes) up front,” Nix said. “We got in a rhythm running the ball, so that really opened up certain outside throws, some short ones, and got me in a little bit of a rhythm.”

Speaking of the running game: Nix’s legs.

Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn has not had a true dual-threat quarterback since, arguably, Nick Marshall in 2013 and 2014. He’s got two now in Nix and backup Joey Gatewood (who had a few rare first-half carries), which could open up the offense in ways that former Tigers quarterbacks Jeremy Johnson, Sean White and Jarrett Stidham could not.

For the record: It’s highly unlikely that Nix will put up absurd rushing numbers like Marshall, who now plays cornerback in the Canadian Football League. Heck, Gatewood may even prove to be a better running threat, since the Tigers run the ball every time the redshirt freshman enters the game. But it could be much worse, as Auburn fans have seen these past few seasons.

It started on the Tigers’ opening drive, when Nix pulled the ball on the read option on two consecutive plays. Those runs went for 17 and 18 yards, respectively, and running back JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow, who displayed some worrying ball security issues last week, punched it in for Auburn’s first score.

The Tigers’ third touchdown also came courtesy of Nix, who kept the ball again and trotted into the end zone from one yard out.

Nix did not rely solely on his legs, though he did run for 21 yards (a stat skewed by a sack and the aforementioned fumble) and a touchdown on seven rushes. He got involved in the passing game early. Nix threw a dime to Whitlow that the sophomore dropped, and set up Whitlow’s 16-yard third-quarter touchdown with a nice back shoulder throw to Schwartz, clubbed hand and all.

Yes, it was just Kent State. But think back to last week, when this Auburn offense provided more questions than answers. For comparison, Schwartz called Auburn’s offensive performance Saturday night “probably our best performance of the season.”

Nix was candid with reporters after the Tulane game. He said he’s “got to play a bit better,” and spent much of his interview time looking at the ground. Nix was late on his reads a few times against Tulane, and didn’t see open receivers on several plays. He also threw a lob pass into triple coverage that ended with Hastings receiving a “good lick” from a Green Wave safety.

By that comparison, he did show marked improvement against an admittedly-outmatched defense. He finished 12-of-16 for 161 yards and a touchdown, and if he’d connected on a certain three throws, those stats would look even better.

Malzahn said Nix running the ball more had to do with experience — that the freshman saw certain things differently this time around. This could mean a variety of things, but there were a number of plays against Tulane in which Nix should’ve kept the ball, rather than hand it off. He did not make those mistakes Saturday night.

“Today, (Nix) looked way more composed,” Schwartz said. “Especially with the good reads, the good passes. We’ve all got to improve, but we’re going to get there.”

There will continue to be growing pains and teachable moments, but Nix’s outing Saturday night was a big step in the right direction. The flea flicker touchdown to Eli Stove was just icing on the cake.

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Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.