Resounding answers about Auburn’s ability to defend its SEC title will have to wait.
Perhaps that’s a strange statement given a 20-14 win on the road against a ranked Kansas State team, but the Tigers didn’t need to show a mastery of the passing game or overwhelming defense for this win.
Auburn did to Kansas State what it proved it could do a year ago — Gus Malzhan’s team won’t squander opportunities. And Kansas State gave Auburn plenty of time to atone for early third-down issues, a slow start in the passing game and an uncharacteristically quiet day on the ground.
Kansas State’s three missed field goals and three turnovers sealed Auburn’s win as much as Nick Marshall’s arm.
"We should have won that," Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters told the media. "There is no excuse. It almost hurts worse. It is frustrating because you work so hard to get in those situations and to play a great team like that."
The Wildcats followed a plan most SEC teams are sure to follow this season — shut down the run game and make Nick Marshall prove he’s improved as a passer. A year ago, Auburn backed off the passing attack and allowed Marshall’s legs and Tre Mason to carry the way.
Kansas State held Auburn to 128 rushing yards on 45 carries. Auburn accounted for more yards through the air (231) than on the ground for only the second time under Malzahn and the first time since a loss to Mississippi State on Sept. 14, 2013.
The Auburn passing game was far from consistent as drops from D’haquille Williams and Sammie Coates and tipped passes at the line prevented Auburn from extending drives and cost one probable touchdown. Marshall and his receivers eventually settled in, converting 10 of their final 13 third down attempts and delivering on a 39-yard pass on third-and-9 to seal the game.
"Nick is always level headed, and he keeps his spirits up no matter what," Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne told the media after the game. "Whether he completes three passes in a row or whether he gets ten drops in a row, he is our leader so we look to him."
And the Auburn defense? Holding Kansas State to 285 yards and 4.1 yards per play should be noted. Kansas State managed only 40 rushing yards.
At the same time, Kansas State managed fair amount of self-sabotage with missed field goals of 34, 42 and 22 yards and an interception from the 1-yard line. On its first six trips inside Auburn’s 40-yard line, Kansas State scored 7 points. An extra 13 points, certainly would make those yardage figures seem awfully hollow.
In other words, not a very Bill Snyder-like performance in terms of turnovers and efficiency.
For that, Auburn has to be thankful. The Tigers leave Manhattan with all playoff dreams intact even if the team remains a work in progress.