MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Gus Malzahn squeezed into his postgame news conference, gripping both sides of the podium and exhaling deeply.
Fifth-ranked Auburn had just eked out a 20-14 victory over No. 20 Kansas State, and Malzahn was asked whether it was the kind of nip-and-tuck nonconference game that he likes to play.
“After they’re over and you win, yeah,” the Tigers’ coach said. “You do.”
Auburn’s vaunted ground game held in check all night, the Tigers finally pulled away when they went to the air. Nick Marshall threw for 231 yards and two touchdowns, and Auburn forced a trio of turnovers while capitalizing on three missed field goals by the Wildcats.
Still, the game wasn’t over until Marshall found D’haquille Williams running wide open on third-and-9 at the Auburn 37. The completion with 2:06 remaining went for 39 yards, a first down that effectively ended the game, and gave the Tigers (3-0) their first nonconference road win over a ranked team since knocking off Florida State in 1984.
“Our guys found a way,” Malzahn said. “I told them after the game, I think this could be a game that really helps us in the future, because we faced some major adversity tonight.”
Not nearly as much as Kansas State.
Jake Waters threw for 245 yards, but he also tossed two picks — one in the Auburn end zone. The Wildcats (2-1) also fumbled the ball away, and Jack Cantele missed those crucial field goals.
Still, the Wildcats tried to rally in the closing minutes, scoring on a run by Charles Jones out of the wildcat formation with 3:49 left. But after holding the Tigers to third down, Marshall took advantage of one more miscue — a bad call on defense — for a first down to seal it.
“There was a ton of mistakes that we made that impacted the outcome,” Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said. “Auburn is a tremendous football team and we just made too many mistakes.”
The result was Kansas State’s lowest point total in more than three years.
“It hurts a lot,” wide receiver Tyler Lockett said. “We left a lot out there on the field. One of the plays I remember, I dropped a touchdown that turned into an interception. Missed field goals, fumbled the ball. We just made a lot of mistakes today.”
Auburn was the highest-ranked team to play in Manhattan since second-ranked Penn State in 1969, and an overflow crowd started tailgating Tuesday. The festivities continued until shortly after kickoff, when the Wildcats started to throw away opportunities to spring an upset.
The first serious miscue was a fumbled handoff deep in Kansas State territory. Auburn hopped on the loose ball and, four plays later, kicked a 34-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
The second turnover was even more costly. The Wildcats had second-and-goal from the Auburn 2, and Waters zipped a pass that bounced off Lockett’s shoulder pads in the end zone. Rather than an easy touchdown, the ball was picked off by the Tigers’ Jonathan Jones.
“Coach always says you get interceptions on tips and overthrows,” Jones said.
The Wildcats kept buckling down on defense, though, stuffing Auburn’s read-option attack. The Tigers had just 55 yards rushing in the first half, the fewest in the Malzahn era.
The nation’s best team in converting third downs also failed on its first five attempts.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Marshall said. “Adversity hit us and we wanted to see how we would respond, and we responded well.”
Kansas State finally scored with 4:56 left in the first half when DeMarcus Robinson scampered in from 3 yards out for his first career touchdown. But the Tigers hurried the other way, capping a 75-yard drive with Marshall’s 40-yard strike to Ricardo Louis for a 10-7 lead.
Cantele pushed a potential tying field-goal attempt wide on the final play of the half, his second miss of the night. He hooked one wide left late in the first quarter.
He made it a frustrating hat-trick midway through the third quarter.
The Wildcats had once again marched downfield, and once again pushed the ball inside the Auburn 5. But after the Tigers stiffened, Cantele was summoned to try a 22-yarder — a mere chip-shot, hardly more than an extra point. He missed it wide right.
The Tigers tacked on a touchdown and a field goal, eventually putting the game out of reach.
“It was a collective team loss,” Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller said. “There were some missed opportunities there and that’s all I can really say.”
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