Auburn 24, Mississippi State 10: 3 things we learned as Tigers offense shows up late

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

Auburn’s offense did, well, almost nothing through the first three quarters Saturday in Starkville. It had only 178 total yards and nine points entering the fourth.

So third-and-7 from the Tigers' own 8-yard line, clinging to a six-point lead, felt like it could be dangerous.

But a 25-yard pass from Bo Nix to Seth Williams down the sideline changed everything. It was the spark for a 10-play, 95-yard drive that ended with a 32-yard touchdown pass to Williams and put the game's first touchdown of the game on the board.

That was the first of back-to-back, fourth-quarter touchdown drives for the Tigers. One week after failing to protect a six-point fourth-quarter lead in a loss to Texas A&M, they increased one to two touchdowns.

The final result was a 24-10 victory over Mississippi State and a 6-4 finish to the regular season.

"This team, if you really look at it, we've had ups and downs, but they've been resilient," coach Gus Malzahn said. "They just keep coming back. They played extremely hard. There was a lot of positive energy out there. It was good to win it the way we did."

Commentary:It’s decision time for Auburn with Gus Malzahn. Be careful what you wish for

Here are three things we learned from the offense’s performance:

1. Third-down failures nearly cost Auburn early

The reason the initial third-down conversion to Williams on that drive was so significant was not just that it sparked that drive; it was that it represented something the Tigers showed no ability to do before then.

The visitors converted just 2 of their first 12 third downs Saturday. They crossed midfield six times in their first eight drives, but passed the 40 on only half of those and had to settle for field goals on all of them. At one point, the offense went three-and-out three times in the span of five drives.

Report card:Grading Auburn's offense, defense, coaching in win at Mississippi State

On that touchdown, drive, though, Auburn faced three third downs and converted them all. That includes the scoring play – it came on third-and-14 after a false start.

"They really played well. They disguised some of their coverages. They stopped one of our plays, and we adjusted," Malzahn said. "Second half, with the game on the line, our guys responded."

Auburn had 165 yards of offense and converted 3 of 4 third downs in the fourth quarter alone.

Oct 3, 2020; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Tank Bigsby (4) avoids pressure during the game between Auburn and Mississippi State at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

2. Tank Bigsby is the closer

Mississippi State immediately answered that first Auburn touchdown. A 65-yard kickoff return gave the offense great field position, and it capitalized with an 8-yard pass from Will Rogers to Austin Williams.

Quickly, it was back to being a six-point game again.

So Auburn turned the game over to its standout freshman running back, and he more than delivered. He carried on four straight plays, gaining 15, 15, 24 and 3 yards to get Auburn down to the 3-yard line.

"Coach had came to me and said, 'You've got to run the ball. We're finna lean on you this quarter,'" Bigsby said. "I just said, 'I'll put the team on my back, and I'll just keep running until we get the victory.' That's what I did, you know. Just not being denied. I just, again, thank my O-line and my teammates for being there and doing it."

Nix scored the 3-yard rushing touchdown that made it a 14-point game late, but it was Bigsby that got the offense there.

He finished the game with a career-high 192 rushing yards on 26 carries. He now has 834 on the season, which pushes him past Bo Jackson (829) for second-most by a freshman in program history. He would need 269 in a bowl game to pass Michael Dyer (1,102) for first.

"He runs violently, he breaks tackles and he’s very explosive," Malzahn said. "I don’t think he’s 100 percent right now, and he rushed for almost 200 yards on the road against one of the best, statistically, defenses in our league. So, I think that’s a lot of good things going on with him.”

Auburn quarterback Bo Nix (10) carries the ball against Mississippi State safety Shawn Preston Jr. (12) on Saturday December 12, 2020.

3. Bo Nix hasn’t quite taken the step forward everyone expected

Bigsby’s late success makes you wonder why the offense didn’t feature him more early. Because, for a while, Nix passes led running back carries by a wide margin.

And until those two passes to Williams, the sophomore quarterback really did not play well at all. The final numbers weren’t pretty either – 15 of 32 for 125 yards.

It was his second straight game throwing for fewer than 150 yards, and his 3.9 yards per attempt mark the lowest of his career. The Tigers missed some opportunities early, with Williams dropping what would have been a fourth-down completion and committing a holding penalty that erased an Eli Stove gain down to the 3-yard line on a screen.

The offensive line, which has been better in run blocking than pass protection all season, didn’t help. Injuries left it without both starting tackles Saturday, with Brenden Coffey making his first career start in place of Brodarious Hamm at right tackle. Nix spent much of the first half scrambling for his life away from pressure that was on him in the pocket immediately.

"Brodarious tried to give it a go in pregame and just couldn't go. Brenden got his first start. He's still learning, but he plays with great effort. He tries to play physically," Malzahn said. "I really think that, with the way we had with injuries and things like that, for our offensive line to come in with a new starting right tackle – I can't say enough good things about that group.

Nix did finish strong, completing 4 of his final 6 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown to go along with his rushing score. Still, if Auburn is ever truly going to start making strides on offense, it will need better from its quarterback.

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.