Auburn staves off Kansas State in rare nonconference showdown

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MANHATTAN, Kan. – Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs stood on his team’s sideline late Thursday and stared into the gaping (e)maw of the Kansas State student section. The Tigers had survived a 20-14 slugfest just as memorable for the mistakes as the perfectly executed plays.

Jacobs looked like a man who needed to catch his breath, and after a late Wildcats touchdown and subsequent third-and-9 for Auburn had put the victory in doubt, oxygen probably had been in short supply for the Tigers the previous 10 minutes.

“That was good,” Jacobs said. “That was like an SEC atmosphere.”

Auburn tries to play one quality, out-of-conference game a year. In recent years, the Tigers have faced Clemson, West Virginia and Georgia Tech. They’ve got Louisville at the Georgia Dome next year, which isn’t nearly as fun as a game on a campus site. In 2016 and 2017, they’ll play another home-and-home with Clemson.

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It would be nice if Auburn and everyone else in the SEC –- and the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 for that matter -- would play two such games a year. It would be really nice to see everyone schedule the way Florida State did this year.

The Seminoles played Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas, to open the season. In October, they’ll face Notre Dame. In November, they’ll face Florida.

It would be swell if the College Football Playoff selection committee backed up the promise to reward teams that challenge themselves, because that would force schools to schedule better games. And college football is a better sport when we get more games like the one played Thursday in the Little Apple.

Peak college football comes when a stadium hums the way Bill Snyder Family Stadium did during an Auburn timeout with 2:06 remaining and the Tigers facing third-and-9 from their own 37 and nursing a six-point lead. On one sideline stood Kansas State’s Snyder, who, if we’re weighting by degree of difficulty, might be the best college football coach who ever lived. On the other side stood Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, who built a quirky-but-smashmouth offense that dominated Arkansas high school football and has dominated college football almost as thoroughly.

Both coaches huddled with their assistants and tried to guess what the other would call. “You’re just trying to predict what defense they're going to be in,” Malzahn said.

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Once they made their best educated guess, Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee faced a choice.

“There’s a little bit of nerves,” Lashlee said. “We ran [the clock] down and called timeout because we wanted to make sure we got the right play. There’s two schools of thought. You run it, you probably won’t get it, but you run 40 more seconds on the clock. You give it to them with 1:15, and maybe you get a good punt. Or you try to win the game there. If it doesn’t work, you’re going to give them to it with about two minutes or 1:45. Coach and I decided, ‘Let’s try to win the game.’”

Malzahn and Lashlee decided to throw. But what route? Which receiver? D’haquille “Duke” Williams, a junior who watched Auburn’s SEC title run last year from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, asked Lashlee for the ball. Williams had dropped a sure 66-yard touchdown pass, a perfect teardrop from quarterback Nick Marshall, in the second quarter and killed a drive, and Williams yearned to atone.

“I made a mistake in that first half,” Williams said after the game. “I had to redeem myself.”

Williams had an idea. The Tigers had thrown several slants to Williams already, and Kansas State cornerback Danzel McDaniel was crashing hard on the short route. So Williams suggested a slant and go, better known as ‘Sluggo.’ On a Sluggo, the receiver runs a slant and then jams his foot into the ground and turns upfield. If it works, the defender will bite on the slant and lose precious fractions of a second as he recovers and gives chase.

The coaches didn’t have to call Williams’ number. They could have thrown to Ricardo Louis, who had caught a 40-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter and who had more famously had begged for the ball on a November day in Jordan-Hare Stadium last season when all hope seemed lost against Georgia.

But Lashlee believed Williams, who caught a 9-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, would deliver. Lashlee knew Marshall would deliver after all the magic he has worked in the past 13 months.

“It’s why our guys believe in him, why they follow him,” Lashlee said. “He’s able to lead in clutch situations. The moments are never too big for him. It doesn’t matter if he’s played great all game or struggled or somewhere in between. When the game is on the line, he comes through for us.”

So Malzahn and Lashlee called the Sluggo for Williams.

“Sometimes,” Lashlee said, “you’ve got to trust your players.” So as the purple-clad masses screamed and shook the stands, the Tigers took the field.

When Williams lined up for the play, he knew. McDaniel lined up seven yards off the line of scrimmage. He shaded Williams to the inside. He was playing the slant and only the slant. When Williams darted toward the hashmarks, McDaniel lunged forward, hoping to cut off the pass he was sure was coming. Suddenly, Williams planted and headed down the sideline. McDaniel had no chance. Marshall’s pass floated over his head and into the hands of Williams. In the second quarter, Williams had looked at the empty, waiting end zone instead of looking Marshall’s pass into his hands. This time, Williams watched the ball settle into his paws. Then he covered up the ball as McDaniel tried to strip it. McDaniel brought down Williams after a 39-yard gain, and the air leaked out of the stadium. It was over. Tigers coaches had made the gutsiest call they could, and their players had delivered.

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That play didn’t win Auburn the game. The Tigers’ willingness to let Marshall win with his arm when Kansas State shut down Auburn’s usually prolific running game – the Tigers averaged 2.8 yards a carry Thursday after averaging 6.7 a carry in their previous 11 games – certainly helped. So did three missed field goals and three crippling turnovers by the Wildcats.

“There were a ton of mistakes that we made that impacted the outcome of the ball game,” Snyder said. “Auburn is a tremendous football team. We just made too many mistakes.”

Said Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters: “We should have won that. There is no excuse. It almost hurts worse.”

It was sloppy for three quarters for the Wildcats and Tigers. But what makes games like Thursday’s beautiful are those moments such as the one during that timeout. It had it all. A chess match between great coaching minds. A choice between the safe play and the winning one. A player seeking redemption and suggesting to his coordinator a way to achieve it. A crowd ready to explode.

We don’t usually get those moments when Georgia State takes a fat check to get creamed. They require some measure of competitive equality and the excitement generated by the fact that the outcome isn’t determined the moment the game is scheduled.

So please, College Football Playoff selection committee, reward the teams that schedule great games. Punish the teams that don’t. Everyone will get the message, and we’ll get more moments like the one Thursday when a stadium throbbed, two great coaches matched wits, one player redeemed himself and we remembered why this has always been our favorite sport.