No. 1 Mississippi State & No. 5 Auburn Survive Scares Against Unranked SEC Opponents
In a week with few marquee matchups, teams in the SEC sure managed to make things interesting. A statement that is sure to elicit plenty of groans from the conference’s hater types, not that it makes it any less true.
The two primetime games were definitely the highlight of the day, but even unranked Kentucky managed to keep things interesting against No. 1 Mississippi State. Ultimately two touchdowns separated the Wildcats and Bulldogs, but Kentucky was just seven points down when they failed to recover a miserably executed onside kick late in the fourth quarter.
Kentucky’s botched coverage made matters worse, allowing MSU’s Christian Holmes to easily run it 61-yards for the victory-clinching touchdown with 2:22 remaining. The final score was 45-31.
Another game few expected would be close was No. 5 Auburn vs. underachieving and unranked South Carolina. Playing at home, the Tigers were 18-point favorites against the Gamecocks, who have looked mediocre on their best days after beginning the season ranked No. 9 in the country.
It was anything but a defensive battle at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night, with both teams combining for a total of three punts—one for South Carolina, two for Auburn.
The game got off to an unexpected start, with the Gamecocks marching down the field and scoring easily on the opening possession. The Tigers punted on the subsequent drive and were poised to go down 14-0 until a Dylan Thompson pass was intercepted in the end zone by Cassanova McKinzy. Auburn went on to score on the drive, representing a 14-point swing in the score.
The action was knotted up at 7-7 after 15 minutes of play, which is when both teams floored it on offense and never looked back. South Carolina and Auburn traded scored over the next three quarters, exchanging leads and touchdowns a number of times along the way—aside from PATs, not a single field goal was attempted.
The Gamecocks were particularly impressive on fourth down, converting an astonishing 5-of-6—something they needed to do in order to make up for their inefficiency on third downs, which were just 6-of-14.
Taking the place of three-year starter Connor Shaw, Thompson’s play continued to be maddeningly inconsistent. He was 29-of-50 for 204 yards per pass, averaging 8 yards per play, with five touchdowns and three interceptions. As usual, his interceptions came at crucial times in the game and his inability to connect with the long ball, particularly in the end zone, proved costly.
South Carolina’s offensive standouts continue to be junior running back Mike Davis and sophomore wide receiver Pharoh Cooper. Pulling double duty on the ground and through the air, Davis was responsible for over 170 yards of total offense and a touchdown. Cooper added 127 yards receiving and two touchdowns, in addition to the pass he completed early in the second, giving the Gamecocks a critical first down.
Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall’s workload was substantially less than that of Thompson’s. Marshall was 12-of-14 for 139 yards, averaging 9.9 yards per pass, with one touchdown and zero interceptions. He received plenty of help from running back Cameron Artis-Payne and wide receiver Ricardo Lewis, who combined for nearly 270 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
In the end, as is so often the case, turnovers were likely the difference in the game. South Carolina converted a Quan Bray fumble into seven points in the second quarter, but Auburn converted two Thompson interceptions into touchdowns and sealed the win by picking him off in the end zone as time expired.
It was absolutely a critical win for both the Bulldogs and the Tigers. Mississippi State has upcoming battles with Alabama and Ole Miss looming large on their schedule and Auburn has Georgia and Alabama.