MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — In the brave new world of college football playoffs, a non-conference win over a ranked team — on the road, no less — could certainly pay dividends when December rolls around.
In that respect, fifth-ranked Auburn made quite the statement with a 20-14 win over No. 20 Kansas State on Thursday night.
Their vaunted ground game held in check, the Tigers were forced to take flight against the Wildcats. Nick Marshall threw for 231 yards and two touchdowns, and the reigning SEC champions logged a momentum-building win with some big conference games looming in a few weeks.
“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.”
Auburn forced a trio of turnover and took advantage of three missed field goals by Kansas State, yet still couldn’t put the game away until the closing minutes.
The Wildcats scored a touchdown with 3:49 left to close within six points, and then stuck Auburn with third-and-9 at its own 37. Marshall dropped back and found D’haquille Williams running wide open, and their 39-yard connection gave the Tigers a first down. They ran out the clock from there, wrapping up their first road win over a ranked team out of conference since 1984.
“Coach said it wasn’t going to be easy,” said Marshall, who also threw an interception. “Adversity hit us and we wanted to see how we would respond, and we responded well.”
Auburn was held to 128 yards rushing, more than 200 below its season average.
“We hadn’t been baptized,” Auburn wide receiver Ricardo Louis said, “so we needed this.”
Jake Waters threw for 245 yards, but he also had two interceptions — one in the Auburn end zone. The Wildcats (2-1) also fumbled the ball away, and Jack Cantele missed those crucial field goals.
“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.
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 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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