AUBURN — Saturday’s game at Jordan-Hare Stadium looks like a potential trap, at least on paper. Auburn is coming off a huge win in its SEC opener and first true road game at then-No. 15 Texas A&M. Next week, it will travel to Gainesville to take on one-time annual rival Florida in what could be a top-10 matchup.
All that stands between those two games on the schedule is a home date with unranked Mississippi State, a 3-1 team that needed four quarters to defeat Louisiana-Lafayette in Week 1 and lost at home to Kansas State in Week 3. Starting quarterback Tommy Stevens missed last week’s game and is questionable to play in this one. The Tigers opened as a nine-point favorite, and the line has since moved to 11.
But the idea that anyone in Auburn’s locker room might be dwelling on last week’s win over the Aggies or looking past Saturday’s game against the Bulldogs and ahead to next week’s at the Gators had head coach Gus Malzahn almost as fired up as he was when he tore into wide receiver Matthew Hill late in Saturday’s win in College Station, Texas.
“That A&M game’s behind us. We don’t care who we’re playing next week,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got our hands full. Our guys understand that. You can’t even think about that. And I really don’t think anybody has. Matter of fact, this is the first time I’ve thought about it.
“We’re playing a really good team. It’s our first SEC (home) game. And the key is you’ve got to get better. Yeah, we’re happy. We beat a good team on the road. That was a big win, but that’s behind us. And really, after our team meeting on Sunday, you could tell it was behind us. They’ve already flipped the page. They’ve got our attention, and they should.”
The reason for that, outside the obvious “every game counts the same” cliché, has a lot to do with the last time the two SEC West foes met. Mississippi State didn’t simply defeat Auburn 23-9 in Starkville on Oct. 6 of last season — “they just lined up and whipped us,” Malzahn said.
The Bulldogs eviscerated the Tigers’ defense on their way 349 rushing yards on 57 carries (6.1 average), which was the most the program had allowed in a single game since Leonard Fournette and LSU rumbled for 411 on Sept. 19, 2015 — the season before Kevin Steele took over as defensive coordinator. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald accounted for 195 of those yards on 28 carries and scored both of the team’s touchdowns with his legs.
“They definitely embarrassed us last year,” senior defensive tackle Derrick Brown said. “We let the quarterback run for a bunch of yards. That was the highest rushing total we gave up all year. On defense, look at their rushing statistics and stuff like that — that's a lot of yards to give up in a game. That really was an embarrassment.”
And it wasn’t just the defense that struggled at Davis-Wade Stadium. Auburn’s offensive performance was abysmal, too. It rushed for only 90 yards on 21 carries, which was the third straight game it been held below the century mark — the first time that had happened since 1999.
The Tigers went into halftime with just 79 total yards of offense and didn’t even possess the ball between the 8:37 mark of the second quarter and 6:55 mark of the third. JaTarvious Whitlow fumbled through the end zone on what would have been a 42-yard score. Darius Slayton dropped what would have been a touchdown pass from Jarrett Stidham.
“That was a bad game, top to bottom, really everywhere,” senior right tackle Jack Driscoll said. “It’s something that we’re really going to hold a grudge on this week, because like you said, we got embarrassed and that’s unacceptable — offense, defense, special teams, everyone included.”