Both teams did kind of the same thing at first. You'd expect these two to use run-first offenses, but they each opened with more of a passing-type game. In Mississippi State's case, I think it may have been in order to catch the defense off guard. If true, then mission accomplished. In Auburn's case, I think it was more to counter the inevitable Manny Diaz blitzes because the throws were mostly bubble screens. Both got more balanced as the game went on, with MSU going more run-heavy than Auburn. Also, Auburn didn't crank up its light speed offense, instead going more deliberate for a Gus Malzahn team.
Speaking of Diaz, he sure loves to blitz. He brings guys from anywhere at any time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it's always a concern for the opponent's offensive line. Auburn didn't blitz very often, generally letting its defensive line do work. That's the standard way to defend against an option team, and it worked well. Auburn occasionally blitzed on third downs, but nothing heavy.
Auburn's early blitz-busting bubble screens worked to perfection, the best example of which being Emory Blake's 39-yard TD reception in the first quarter. Two guys blitzed but couldn't get to Cameron Newton in time to deflect the quick pass, and the safety was too late in getting all the way across the field. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Diaz adapted to Auburn's game plan fairly quickly. There was little that was easy for Auburn's offense the rest of the way.
Newton was the star of the game for Auburn, and for good reason. His passing was good but not great. He only connected on 57.9% of his passes, and some of his misses were way off. However, he keeps a play alive with his feet like few others, and his size makes him very difficult to stop. Him being on the move is what kept the Auburn offense on the move. The times it bogged down were when he was only handing off and throwing from the pocket. I know Auburn's staff probably wants to keep the number of hits he takes low, but his running is easily the most effective piece of the offense.
Dan Mullen talked like he had a quarterback controversy this off season, and the Memphis game made it look like he might have been right. This game made it look like he was a lunatic back then. Chris Relf was by far the better of his two quarterbacks, as Tyler Russell delivered an interception and two three-and-outs on his three drives. Relf will never be confused for a polished passer as his accuracy came and went throughout the game, but he commands the team well though, and he makes good decisions on the option.
Speaking of, Mississippi State's option was working well. It's difficult to tell when you look at the team's 3.5 yards per carry rate in the box score, but it moved the ball consistently without many losses. Where Mississippi State got into trouble was when Mullen leaned on Relf's arm too many times in a row. Relf may have scorched Memphis's pass defense, but Thursday's Tiger defense was a far cry from Week 1's Tiger defense. When Relf was able to complete his passes regularly, MSU had its longest drives. When he didn't, the offense sputtered some. Of course, State's stone-handed receivers contributed to the passing struggles quite a bit.
One last word. I can't say enough about the line play on both sides. When the offenses were struggling, it was often because of the defensive lines breaking through blocks and wreaking havoc. When the offenses were moving the ball, it was largely due to the offensive lines stiffening up and opening some great running lanes for the backs. It was a classic battle in the trenches with both sides winning some and losing some. No matter what, No. 90 was usually one of the best players on the field. Nick Fairley may have earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors (and he did earn it), but DE Pernell McPhee had an outstanding game for State. Bonus points go to Auburn's offensive line, which barely missed a step despite losing Lee Ziemba to injury.
THREE QUESTIONS ANSWERED
1. Is Auburn a real divisional contender this year?
In many ways, it's far too early to tell. Alabama looks really good, LSU looks largely unchanged, and we haven't seen Arkansas play a real opponent yet. This question revolves around Auburn's strength relative to the rest of the teams, and we don't know that much about them.
For right now, I'd have to say it's borderline. The defensive line is better, but not much else on the defense is. The offense was good, but it seemed tentative at times, almost like it didn't know who the go-to guy is. Ben Tate was that player last year, but I couldn't tell if Auburn wanted Newton or Onterio McCalebb to be that guy this year.
2. How closely did the Mississippi State fans follow the new cowbell restrictions?
They gave it their best shot in the first half, and they succeeded for the most part except for a few random people. I was actually kind of surprised by that.
For most of the second half, they just rang them with abandon. It was a huge game with a lot on the line, and the Bulldogs were close throughout the whole half. Old habits die hard, I guess. I expect the school to pick up fines for most of its home conference games.
3. Should Mississippi State have thrown it three times after the onside kick?
The greatest point of criticism I've seen for Mullen in the game was that he had Relf throw it three times after the successful onside kick. All three passes were incomplete, and MSU lost the big momentum it had gained.
My answer to this question is probably not, but I can understand what Mullen did there. You, I, Auburn's defense, and everyone else was expecting runs, so the passes were unexpected. The first pass in particular was OK, as it was a seam route that Relf can completed earlier in the game for a nice gain. He ended up just barely overthrowing that one. Plus, Relf had gone five of six on the previous drive, with only his floating jump pass going incomplete.
The second down pass was a bit iffy, and then you kind of have to throw on third-and-10. If there's anything to be upset about, it's that second down play.