Auburn Texas A&M

Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn shake hands during warm ups at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas, on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.

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The defensive struggle everyone expected? Kevin Steele’s unit delivered, but Gus Malzahn had other ideas.

Eighth-ranked Auburn set the tone early, scoring on the opening drive thanks to some vintage Malzahn play calls. Mixing the run, getting freshman quarterback Bo Nix in a comfort zone through the air, the Tigers went 75 yards – the final 57 after receiver Anthony Schwartz took a turbo-charged path to the end zone on a perfectly set-up reverse.

Make no mistake: this is a very good Texas A&M defense. And in an era where the SEC’s usual defensive titans (here’s looking at you, LSU and Alabama) have gone all Big 12, the Aggies can still deliver.

But while Malzahn counterpunched to keep the Aggies off-kilter, Steele’s defense allowed A&M’s offense little room to wiggle in a 28-20 victory over the nation’s 17th-ranked team.

A few weeks ago, Clemson made Mond look ordinary. Saturday, we learned an Auburn defense is similarly elite — not by shutting him down, but by limiting his options.

In fact, Mond’s passing numbers were superior to his freshman counterpart, Nix. But he couldn’t get the Aggies into the end zone until the fourth quarter as Auburn forced a one-dimensional approach by taking away the threat of the run.

Meanwhile, Malzahn had his moments.

Auburn’s second touchdown drive, set up by a 30-yard Christian Tutt punt return, ended with backup quarterback Joey Gatewood lofting a touchdown pass to sophomore tight end John Samuel Shenker.

There were gadgets, of course. This is Malzahn’s offense. A promising flea-flicker misfired when Nix overthrew his receiver.

But what set the Auburn offense apart was patience. Patience from Nix, and patience from Malzahn in not forcing things after taking a 14-0 lead. In fact, Auburn built the initial lead without running back Bobbee Whitlow, who didn’t get his first carry until 17 minutes of game time elapsed.

Instead, Malzahn traded carries with an assortment of six others — including Nix and Gatewood — saving a fresh Whitlow for more important carries with the clock draining in the second half. And he delivered the knockout blow midway through the final period with a score.

Yes, this was just the SEC opener. But it came with a freshman QB making his road debut before 102,000 very loud fans. And it came against an A&M program with unlimited expectations.

Now Auburn has two marquee wins that no one else can yet match, a progressing offense and a defense of the stuff that titles are won.

Hot seat? Gus Malzahn is in the driver’s seat now.

Contact the Montgomery Advertiser's Doug Segrest at sports@montgomeryadvertiser.com.

This article originally ran on annistonstar.com.

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