Observations: Auburn 27, Mississippi State 13
The Tigers needed to show something new in a must-win game. They did that early and often — and it might turn their season around.
(Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers)
Fittingly, it all started with a speech from Cadillac Williams.
Around this time last year, Williams got Auburn football — and its fans — believing again. Thrust into an interim head coaching role, Williams preached the importance of playing for one another and playing for Auburn to a group of players that had lost four straight SEC games. The Tigers fell just short in an overtime road loss to remember against Mississippi State, but the belief was brought back to the program.
On Saturday, ahead of a game against the same opponent, Williams was called into pre-game action again. First-year head coach Hugh Freeze tabbed Williams to motivate the Tigers before their own chance to end a four-game SEC losing streak.
“His message was just forget about everything and think about ourselves,” tight end Rivaldo Fairweather said. “Think about what we play for. Think about our ‘why.’ Just go out there, put it all on the line.
“And his message got to everybody. It really touched everybody.”
And the evidence was clear from the beginning.
An Auburn offense that had been struggling massively against quality competition opened the game Saturday afternoon with the ball and went right down the field for an 8-play, 75-yard touchdown drive — the first time the Tigers had found the end zone on the first possession since the opener against overmatched UMass.
The next time Auburn got the ball? It was another 75-yard touchdown drive — this time in five plays — and an early two-score lead. The Tigers would score 10 more points in their remaining four possessions of the first half, including a picture-perfect two-minute drill that went for 68 yards and a touchdown in just 1:05 of game time.
Auburn headed into the locker room with 24 points. The Tigers had scored more points and thrown for more yardage in a handful of drives than they had in any game against a Power 5 team all season. And Mississippi State only had three points, courtesy of a field goal that came on its first drive of the game.
Auburn couldn’t afford to let an opportunity against a struggling SEC team that was without its starting quarterback and leading rusher slip through its fingers.
Not at home. Not if it wanted to have a good chance at making a bowl game. Not if it wanted to finish Year 1 under Freeze with some real momentum.
“It's just really exciting to see,” Freeze said. “It's not easy to win in this league. This was a big one for us, I think, with the remaining stretch that we have and going on the road the next two weeks. … You never want to say it, because you don't want to make too much of one game — but it had the feeling, for me, as a critical game.”
Auburn didn’t play a strong second half at all. Mississippi State held Auburn’s offense to just 60 yards and three points on four straight drives before the Tigers iced the game with a 17- and a 50-yard run by Jarquez Hunter on the last possession. The Bulldogs also averaged nearly 6 yards per play after halftime and scored twice.
Those are issues to be cleaned up, for sure. But Mississippi State never got within two scores of Auburn after the Tigers’ second drive of the game. While fans might have been understandably frustrated at how the second half went, Auburn wasn’t in any real danger of blowing a good lead — like it did the last time the Bulldogs were inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Now, Auburn is just two wins away from bowl eligibility and an additional victory away from setting up an Iron Bowl with real momentum.
“The ball is rolling now,” Jack linebacker Jalen McLeod said. “We want to keep that ball rolling. You’ve got a chance to go to a bowl game. We’re going to keep going — 8-4 looks better than 6-6, so we’re going for that 8-4.”
It’s just one game, but the belief looks like it’s back in Auburn again. And, this time, it comes with a Cadillac-inspired win over Mississippi State.
“It was kind of really a nostalgic thing, to be honest,” inside linebacker Eugene Asante said. I was like, 'Oh, this is giving flashbacks of last year.' But it was a really good thing. I think Coach Freeze did a really good job in terms of letting Cadillac come up there and incorporate his philosophy to the team.
“He just tried to tell us to lean on our brothers… Take pride in going out there and executing for the brother to your left and your right.”
Here are five Observations, the Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Day from Auburn’s 27-13 win over Mississippi State.
WR Shane Hooks (Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers)
Auburn, quite literally, called its shot in the passing game
Let’s take it back to something Freeze said in his Monday press conference:
“I told the staff yesterday, we’ve got to be more balanced,” Freeze said. “I firmly believe you play to your strengths and I do think we have proven we can be somewhat successful running the football, but I do think you have to play balanced football. We’ve got to find the things our players can do, receivers, quarterbacks, protections, and be more aggressive in calling those. I expect to see that change some.”
Five days later, Auburn opened the game with an 11-yard Hunter run. Then the Tigers went no-huddle, hurrying to the line. After a 4-yard Hunter run, Payton Thorne fired a quick pass to Caleb Burton III on the outside for a 15-yard gain.
Thorne then took a deep shot to Malcolm Johnson Jr. on first down. A couple of plays later, Thorne hit a slant to Jay Fair to convert a third-and-3. Auburn was spreading the field and playing fast — exactly like fans had imagined its offense would look like under Freeze and Philip Montgomery.
Thorne then hit another quick one to Fair for seven yards, followed by a 1-on-1 fade to Shane Hooks that the transfer receiver won emphatically — through a face mask — for a 27-yard touchdown. Hooks hadn’t made a catch since the SEC opener against Texas A&M a month ago. But he was in the end zone again.
Remember how the Tigers’ offense looked on the final drive against Ole Miss last week? You weren’t the only ones who noticed how much better it was, Auburn fans.
“You know, when I went in Sunday after our last drive at Ole Miss, I said, ‘This is what we're gonna do: We're gonna play with some tempo,’” Freeze said. “… And we're gonna throw our RPOs and give our kids a chance to play free and fast and see if they perform in that a little better.”
On the next drive, it was all Thorne: A 6-yard pass to Camden Brown, followed by a draw play for 8. He hit Fairweather for 6 and MJJ for 8 before hitting Ja’Varrius Johnson in stride for a 45-yard deep-shot touchdown.
In two drives, Thorne had more passing yards and touchdowns than he had in any game against a Power 5 opponent this season. By halftime, he became the first Auburn quarterback to have three passing touchdowns against an SEC opponent since Bo Nix… all the way back in 2020.
“When you connect down the field early on, you feel good about it,” Thorne said. “Even just the little 5-yard hits, that’s good early in the game to get those completions and get those guys involved in the game and make the defense react to it.”
Auburn was aggressively taking advantage of a weak Mississippi State secondary that had given up a ridiculously high completion percentage over the past month. Freeze didn’t try to hide it during the week, either.
“We've gotten a little better,” Freeze said. “This team loads the box, so it's very difficult to not throw it some. I've said all week in every media deal that I was on that we had to be balanced, and we had to throw the football. That was the plan. Fortunately, we executed it pretty well.”
Thorne played quite well, going 20-26 (76.9%) for 230 yards (8.85 YPA) in the victory. That was a career-best in completion percentage, and that YPA mark was his best against a Power 5 opponent since a win over Wisconsin last season. His passing efficiency (189.3) was his highest for a single game since a win over Maryland in 2021.
“I saw the quarterback I’ve been seeing every day,” Fairweather said. “Because in practice — we really do look amazing in practice. And finally we got to see our quarterback be comfortable in there and sling it around, make the right checks, making the right throws, making the right reads.
“That’s the Payton I’ve known since I got here. We’re going to continue to see that Payton.”
Freeze said the Tigers planned to use Robby Ashford more, but Thorne started so well — and Auburn never got into many situations where it could realistically run Ashford’s packages.
Auburn was better served playing fast and getting the ball out of Thorne’s hands quickly, and the result was a lot more like what the Tigers wanted to get out of the Michigan State transfer in 2023.
“I like tempo,” Thorne said. “I feel like I've done it in my past before — whether that's two-minute drill or other scenarios. It's become a part of college football, and Coach Freeze emphasized it this week. We went out and executed to the best of our ability and made plays. So I thought it was great. It was a big part of what we did today.”
(Jamie Holt/Auburn Tigers)
Everybody ate on offense — which is ideal for this team
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