In one of the more intriguing coaching matchups of the early college football season, Gus Malzahn's No. 5 Auburn Tigers held off Bill Snyder's No. 20 Kansas State Wildcats, 20-14, in Manhattan on Thursday night. It was one of the stranger games of 2014 thus far. Defenses played a larger role than expected, and the home team's unstable play stole the show, for better and worse. With Week 4 already off to a strange start, let's make some sense of what we saw Thursday night.
1. The better team won
Auburn averaged more yards per play, made fewer crippling errors, and actually took advantage of its scoring opportunities. And with a chance to put the game away, Malzahn's team put the game away.
Because of the opportunities that KSU both created and botched, it's easy for this result to take on an "Auburn was lucky" or "KSU handed the Tigers the game" tone, and while that's true to a certain degree, let's not lose focus of the simple fact that Auburn didn't make the crippling mistakes KSU made and that, for the game as a whole, Auburn's offense was more steady and successful than Kansas State's. Avoiding mistakes is part of playing strong football, and only one team did it in Manhattan.
2. The other team defined the game
Obviously. It felt like a bit of a letdown seeing Snyder's team so wonderfully follow the script, only to undo its own progress. To win this game, the Wildcats needed to tilt the field in their favor and take Auburn out of its offensive comfort zone (i.e. control the run game). They did so beautifully.
Of Auburn's 12 possessions, nine began at or inside the Tigers' 25. An early, silly KSU fumble on a botched exchange handed the Tigers the ball at KSU's 21, and a late-game interception set them up near midfield. But the field tilting was successful for the most part; Auburn started drives at its 1, 12, 20, 20, 24, 24, 25, 25, and 25. Meanwhile, six of KSU's 11 drives started beyond its 35.
Pinning Auburn deep and avoiding big gashes on the ground were necessities, and the Wildcats pulled off that part of the gameplan with aplomb. KSU clogged the line of scrimmage and almost completely prevented running backs Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant from getting rolling (combined: 28 carries, 90 yards). They dared Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall to pass, and for a while, he couldn't. He completed just five of his first 13 passes for 56 yards and an interception. And after a nice finish to the second quarter (four-for-five, 62 yards, and a touchdown), he was mostly harmless in the third quarter as well (three-for-six, 27 yards).
Auburn's got too much talent to stop for four quarters, however. There's almost no way you're going to keep the Tigers under 20 points, and when Auburn absolutely needed to move the ball, it found a way. Marshall was five-for-seven for 86 yards in the fourth quarter, throwing a lovely fade to D'haquille Williams to give Auburn a 17-7 lead with 14 minutes left, then delivering a strike to Williams for 39 yards on third-and-long to ice the game with two minutes remaining.
3. Ifs, buts, candy, nuts
KSU set the game up to play out exactly as it wanted, but that only matters if you finish the job.
Thanks to the magic of field position, the Wildcats created two to three more scoring opportunities than the Tigers -- trips inside the opponent's 40: KSU 7, Auburn 5 (four if you don't count Auburn's final drive, in which it wasn't actually trying to score) -- and simply couldn't finish.
Tyler Lockett not only dropped a touchdown pass but deflected directly to Jonathan Jones for an interception. Jack Cantele missed a 41-yard field goal attempt. Cantele missed a 42-yard attempt that was addled by a bad snap. Cantele missed a 22-yard attempt badly.
Cantele is a solid kicker who had a nightmare of a night, but even if he'd only made one field goal (two of them were, after all, from beyond 40 yards), KSU put itself in position to lead by about a 20-10 margin heading into the fourth quarter.
But while there was some luck involved (particularly on Jones' interception, and the 22-yard kick that Cantele probably makes nine times out of 10), and while Auburn teed up a couple of potential turnovers that KSU politely declined, don't penalize Auburn for the fact that KSU made bigger mistakes. Creating opportunities is only part of the game. And again, Auburn outgained the Wildcats. This wasn't a game like the one two weeks ago, when KSU outgained Iowa State by 150 yards but was almost done in by a couple of unique plays.
Sometimes games simply don't play out as you expect them to. Of course, if that weren't true -- if everything followed the script you had laid out in your head -- the games would start to become boring. There's never much boring about college football (or, especially, Auburn football).
In this game, both defenses performed quite a bit better than I anticipated. Even while creating seven solid scoring opportunities, Kansas State was never able to take advantage of an Auburn secondary that both gave up a few big plays against San Jose State and came to Manhattan without suspended starting safety Jermaine Whitehead. Jake Waters completed just six of 13 passes to Lockett for 45 yards (albeit with two defensive pass interference penalties), took three sacks, and threw two interceptions (though one was entirely on Lockett). Running backs DeMarcus Robinson and Charles Jones rushed 19 times for just 47 yards. Auburn's defense crowded the line of scrimmage with minimal repercussions.
Waters benefited from a career night for wideout Curry Sexton (15 targets, 11 catches, 121 yards) but still averaged just 5.4 yards per pass attempt. He needed a good game from Lockett, but Auburn prevented that from happening.
Meanwhile, even taking the vaunted Bill Snyder wizardry into account, I didn't even know it was possible to hold Auburn's running backs to 3.2 yards per carry. Even last year, teams tried to limit the damage from Auburn's running game and force Nick Marshall to make plays with his arm; it almost never actually worked. Auburn played it safe for the most part, taking few risks (other than the ballsy deep throw to Williams that ended the game) and understanding that the defense was doing its job. But even while allowing 110 yards to Williams in eight catches, KSU's defensive effort was magnificent. It was even better before speedy corner Morgan Burns went down.
Defenses defined this game in a way that I truly did not expect. I thought both offenses had advantages here. Not so much.
5. A quick note
A note to Jesse Palmer and other members of the ESPN broadcast crew: Kansas State has played in quite a few big games before. The Wildcats won the Big 12 not even two years ago and played in both the Cotton and Fiesta Bowls in very recent history.
In the end, the Wildcats did themselves in with mistakes, and that was unfortunate. If you're dead set on a "KSU was cowed by the big stage" narrative, go right ahead and hammer away with it. But it's a pretty stupid narrative that requires you to ignore that college football existed before 2013 and that KSU went 11-2 in 2012 while Auburn was going 3-9.
6. Next up
KSU wasn't likely to be a national title contender this season, so while losing this game was a huge missed opportunity to win a big game, it didn't really detract from the Wildcats' season goals. After a tuneup against an improving UTEP squad next Saturday, their quest for a Big 12 title begins with a visit from reeling Texas Tech. They get a bye week on October 11, then they head south to try to win their second straight game in Norman. Obviously trips to Oklahoma, TCU, West Virginia, and Baylor give the Wildcats one of the most difficult road slates in conference play (especially with the way TCU and WVU seem to have improved), but after handling Auburn's offensive athleticism and keeping the Tigers under five yards per play, Snyder and his staff have to feel pretty good about their defense's ability to hang with just about anybody.
For Auburn, the was only the beginning of an impending gauntlet. After a Homecoming visit from Louisiana Tech (which, by the way, has been playing ferocious defense itself the last two games) on September 27, the Tigers will face six consecutive teams that are currently ranked or almost ranked in the AP top 25: LSU (AP No. 8, F/+ No. 10), at Mississippi State (AP No. 28, F/+ No. 17), South Carolina (AP No. 14, F/+ No. 19), at Ole Miss (AP No. 10, F/+ No. 6), Texas A&M (AP No. 6, F/+ No. 9), and at Georgia (AP No. 13, F/+ No. 13). And after a Senior Day gimme against Samford, the Tigers head to Tuscaloosa.
There's a reason why, in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, Auburn was projected to both rank in the top 10 overall and finish 8-4. The Tigers' win expectation goes up now that it has survived a grueling trip to Manhattan, but the work is just beginning.