No. 8 Auburn gets first test against Mississippi State

Head coach Gus Malzahn (left), offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey (right) and their Auburn Tigers take on Mississippi State on Saturday.Photo Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Sports Xchange

After the opener at a neutral site and four consecutive home games, No. 8 Auburn plays its first true road game of the season Saturday at unranked Mississippi State.

Kickoff at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville for the matchup of Southeastern Conference West Division rivals is 7:30 p.m. ET. ESPN will have the telecast.

The Tigers (4-1, 1-1 SEC) have a huge cushion in the overall series (63-26-2) but are a more modest 13-6-1 in games played at Starkville, which has its own brand of crowd noise that can be a concern for opponents.

“It’s a tough place to play,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “They have the cowbells and all that. That’s always a factor when you go there as far as being loud.

“It’s a different kind of loud. It’s not just human voices and everything. That’s really unique and different that you’ve got to prepare for.”

Perhaps of bigger concern will be the Tigers’ ability to get their running game back.

They showed some encouraging signs in last week’s 24-13 victory over Southern Mississippi when junior running back Kam Martin rushed for 90 yards on 24 carries and provided a little spark at the end.

After the Tigers came up with an interception at Southern Mississippi’s 25-yard line, Martin logged five consecutive carries to move them to the 5-yard line for a chip-shot, clinching field goal.

“He ran with a passion,” Malzahn said. “The game was on the line, and you could really tell that he was trying to will himself and will that offense to win. That was real impressive.”

Nevertheless, no other Auburn back managed more than 23 yards, and as a team the Tigers are rushing for only 178.6 yards a game, which would be a season low by nearly 18 yards under Malzahn if the Tigers don’t pick up the pace.

“Two running backs, very, very talented — Kam Martin, No. 9 and 28, JaTarvious Whitlow. He’s their leading rusher,” Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead said.

Throw out the 429 yards the Tigers ran for against an overmatched Alabama State team and Auburn’s rushing average is at 116 yards a game. That’s quite a fall from the 328 yards the Tigers averaged in Malzahn’s first season in 2013.

Their low for a season under Malzahn is the 196.4 yards they averaged a game in 2015.

Compounding the problem for Auburn, the Bulldogs have lost their last two games, but have been stingy against the run. Kentucky gashed them for 229 yards, but Florida rushed for only 118 last week. For the season, they have allowed an average of only 120 yards a game.

“Very impressed with their front seven,” Malzahn said. “The safeties are very aggressive. Right now, they’re eighth in points allowed in the country. They’re 11th in total defense.”

Auburn has been tough to run against as well, holding its five foes to an average of less than 93 yards a game. The Tigers allowed a season-high 145 to Arkansas, but came back last week to hold Southern Miss to just 45.

“They are the third-ranked scoring defense in the country, fifth in third-down conversion percentage, and seventh in turnovers,” Moorhead said. “They’ve given up five touchdowns the entire season, and only one of them on the ground.

“Interesting to see, looking at the scoring defense rankings from this year, that six of the top 10 scoring defenses are from the SEC, and we’ve played two of those three already.

“Now, we’ll have another opportunity to go against one this week.”

Mississippi State has rushed for an average of 219 yards a game, but quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who was suspended for the opener, has completed only 52 of 106 passes for 160 yards a game. He was only 11-of-26 for 98 yards in last week’s 13-6 loss to Florida.

“We need him to play better moving forward than what he did against Florida,” Moorhead said.