War Eagle Extra

Here’s what Auburn must do to be successful against Mississippi State

Gus Malzahn is here to set the record straight: Mississippi State embarrassed his Auburn Tigers last season, and that’s not going to fly this time around.

The head coach, who usually stays reserved in press conferences and tries to play things close to the sweater vest, has been anything but that since the seventh-ranked Tigers knocked off Texas A&M 28-20 in College Station, Texas last week. Auburn’s football account posted a video in which the coach can be seen jumping around, flinging his arms up and down and yelling “boom!” alongside a hyped-up locker room.

Malzahn was much more animated than usual in his weekly Tuesday press conference. The Texas A&M win is “behind us,” he said, and the Tigers are focused on one thing: Making up for the 23-9 loss the Bulldogs dealt them a season ago.

This may not be the “new” Malzahn, but it’s hard to argue with the results.

“Playing next week, we don’t care who we’re playing next week, we’ve got our hands full,” Malzahn said. “Our guys understand that, you can’t even think about that, and I really don’t think anybody has … We’re happy we beat a good team on the road — that was a big win, but that’s behind us. Really after our team meeting on Sunday, you can tell it’s behind us, they’ve already flipped the page.”

There’s no denying that Mississippi State is, on paper, a team Auburn should beat. The Tigers opened as a double-digit favorite over the visiting Bulldogs, and while Mississippi State is 3-1, that one loss came against Kansas State at home.

Auburn, to compare, has wins over two top-25 opponents: No. 13 Oregon and No. 23 Texas A&M, with games against three of the top four teams (No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Georgia, No. 4 LSU) still to come.

Auburn leads the all-time series over Mississippi State 63-27, but the programs have split the previous four games 2-2. Auburn won the last game between the two teams at Jordan-Hare Stadium, 49-10 in 2017.

“Every time we play Mississippi State — doesn’t matter if it was 2009, 2010, or this year — it’s a physical game,” Malzahn said. “That’s just part of the rivalry and that’s part of playing a good team.”

Lean on the defense

While the Tigers’ offense gets up to speed, their defense continues to live up to the expectations bestowed by Malzahn at SEC Media Days.

The Tigers defense held Texas A&M to 56 rushing yards, and allowed just two field goals to Tulane. The Tigers’ fourth-down stop late in the Oregon game likely kept the Ducks from winning in Arlington.

The Tigers have won the SEC’s defensive lineman of the week award three weeks in a row: Marlon Davidson, twice, and Derrick Brown. Safety Jeremiah Dinson was named the SEC’s defensive player of the week after the Tigers’ win against Oregon.

Brown was named Bednarik Award Player of the Week after becoming the first Auburn player since 2016 to record at least two sacks, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble in one game and the first Auburn player since 2012 to record a sack, tackle for loss, a forced fumble and a pass breakup in one game, according to the Maxwell Football Club.

“We felt like we knew what we were going to get for the most part from our guys through the spring and fall camp and we have so many guys back,” Malzahn said. “We also have a lot of guys that have played in big games before. And when you play in the big games, whether it’s the SEC championship two years ago, there is nothing like experience that can help you moving forward.”

The Tigers rank 34th nationally in total defense and 20th in rushing defense, giving up an average of 89 rushing yards per game.

Get the run game going

When Auburn’s run game gets going, Malzahn’s offense works best. The Tigers ran for 206 yards against Oregon, 467 yards against Kent State and 195 yards against Texas A&M.

Much of the reason the Tigers’ offense fell flat in Starkville, Mississippi, last year was because the run game was almost nonexistent. Auburn ran for 90 yards on 21 carries, good for a measly 4.3 yards per carry, last season against the Bulldogs. Malzahn called it embarrassing.

Starting quarterback Bo Nix and backup Joey Gatewood have become more and more involved in the run game lately, which has largely opened up the interior run game after a dreadful rushing performance against Tulane.

The Tigers now average around 260 rushing yards per game (a stat slightly skewed by the rushing explosion vs. Kent State), so there’s reason for optimism.

“I think that’s his best friend,” Malzahn said. “I mean if you’re able to run the football — and we are Auburn, we need to be successful running the football — when we have our good teams, we can do that. A freshman quarterback — that’s his best friend.”

Bo Nix, just keep improving

Nix has not lit up the world in his first four games as the Tigers’ main signal-caller. But the freshman has been good enough, and that’s more than enough for Malzahn, quarterbacks coach Kenny Dillingham and the Auburn fanbase to feel good about.

Nix must continue to improve, especially this week, because the Bulldogs are likely going to bring lots of pressure.

The Bulldogs have intercepted four passes on the year and returned one for a touchdown. The Bulldogs enter Saturday with a turnover margin of plus-four, and have forced 11 turnovers on the year.

“They’re very opportunistic,” Malzahn said, “they get after you, they’re a very aggressive team. Just like last week, there is probably a good chance we’ll see quite a bit of pressure with our freshman quarterback. So, we’ve got to have answers for that.”

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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.