Gus Malzahn won’t kid you: His fast-paced Auburn offense is dependent on the run.
The facts are there for all to see. The seventh-ranked Tigers (5-0, 2-0 SEC) entered Saturday night’s contest leading the SEC in rushing. They ran for 219 yards and six touchdowns against the Mississippi State Bulldogs (3-2, 1-1 SEC), a major factor in their 56-23 win. JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow scored from 30 yards out on the Tigers’ first offensive snap.
But behind every potent rushing attack is a balanced passing game. While quarterback Bo Nix has steadily slid into his role as the Tigers’ full-time starter, he’s had to do so with a banged-up receiving corps, including Seth Williams, who suffered a shoulder injury against Tulane.
Williams is back. He emphasized that much with his play against the Bulldogs.
“You never know when it’s your time,” Williams said. “When it’s your time, you’ve just got to make plays. It was my time tonight, and that’s what I did.”
The sophomore finished the night with 161 yards on eight receptions, good for a whopping 20.1 yards per catch, and two touchdowns. Both of his touchdowns came from 30-plus yards out. The one negative on Williams’ night was the first-half fumble, which marked the only time an Auburn drive did not end in a touchdown in the first half.
There were no dramatic Nix-to-Williams throws like in Arlington, Texas, where the Tigers beat Oregon, but Williams’ return highlights another key aspect of the Tigers’ win: Auburn’s offense, specifically its receivers, are finally getting healthy.
Eight Auburn players caught a pass Saturday. Some of that was due to the extreme scoreline, but the comfort of having a fully stocked receiving corp showed in Nix’s play. Saturday’s game was arguably the best Nix has played in five games at Auburn. His deep ball was working in ways it simply did not in the previous four games, and he showed a calmness in the pocket he had seldom displayed up to this point.
“It shows that we can hit on all cylinders,” Cannella said. “You can’t run the ball without passing the ball, you can’t pass the ball without running the ball.”
Still, the Tigers think they can improve. That might sound a bit crazy after a 56-point outing, but it’s true, to an extent: The Tigers turned the ball over three times via fumbles.
Of course, it’s difficult to find fault in the Tigers’ passing efficiency Saturday night.
Nix opened the third quarter by throwing a 30-yard score to the sophomore, which put the Tigers up by 40 points against a conference opponent, not even five minutes into the third quarter. The Tigers hit the 500-yard total offense mark before the fourth quarter.
Receiver Anthony Schwartz hauled in two catches for 67 yards, one of which was nearly a touchdown had he not stepped out of bounds at the 3-yard line. Tigers receivers Sal Cannella and Will Hastings each caught two passes.
Nix finished with 335 passing yards and two touchdowns, both of which went to Williams.
“We’re definitely not at our full stage yet,” Williams said. “We’ve got a lot of things to work on ... We haven’t reached a peak yet. We’re always going to get better every week.”