Auburn’s vastly improved offense still shows one weak spot in rout of Mississippi State

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football has showed over the last three weeks that it’s turned a corner on offense. Its run game, though, is coming around that curve much slower than expected.

Jarrett Stidham stole the show once again Saturday night with an incredibly efficient passing performance that featured four different passes of 45-plus yards. Auburn’s offensive line looked tougher after reshuffling. The No. 13 Tigers’ receivers got great separation and made the most of their opportunities in a 42-10 rout of No. 24 Mississippi State.

But outside of a couple of long runs, Auburn’s rushing attack provided some cause for caution moving forward on a suddenly explosive offense.

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When Auburn’s first-team offense scored its final touchdown on Mississippi State, it had rushed for 160 yards on 35 carries — an average of 4.6 per touch. Those average numbers are somewhat deceptive, though.

Eighty-nine of those yards came on just two carries, an early 59-yard sprint from Kerryon Johnson and a 30-yard end-around by wide receiver Eli Stove. On all other plays, the Tigers barely averaged 2.15 yards per carry against Mississippi State.

Heading into the game, Auburn’s combo of Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson was billed as potentially healthy for the first time in a year. That obviously wasn’t the case against the Bulldogs.

Pettway was visibly struggling, carrying the ball just five times for six yards. The defending SEC rushing yards per game champion also fumbled the ball away in the third quarter.

Auburn football-Auburn Tigers-Auburn-Kerryon Johnson
Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson scored two rushing touchdowns and had one long run Saturday. (Benjamin Wolk/SEC Country)

Even Johnson, who scored two more short-range rushing touchdowns after recording five last week against Missouri, looked less than 100 percent. He never seemed to hit top speed on the 59-yard run on the opening drive. A fully healthy Johnson would’ve gone the distance.

Injuries have clearly hampered Auburn’s rushing attack, which has consistently been one of the best in the SEC and the country under Gus Malzahn.

Sophomore running back Kam Martin, who entered the game leading the team in rushing despite sitting out two games, didn’t get a carry Saturday night.

While Malzahn said he was “banged up” earlier this week, he was expected to play and be a bigger factor in the offense. He still lined up as a kick returner without issue.

Auburn coaches spoke highly of its rushing depth all offseason. Thanks to injuries and a lack of work for assumedly healthy running backs such as Malik Miller and Devan Barrett, that depth hasn’t made much of an impact through the first five games of the season.

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As Stidham and the Auburn receivers feasted on an overhyped Mississippi State pass defense Saturday night, the rushing game still lagged behind.

Auburn will undoubtedly be pleased with the way its offense has improved since a 14-6 loss to Clemson in Week 2.

Malzahn, though, has hammered the importance of running the ball. It didn’t look great against Mercer, and it took advantage of a bad Missouri defense last weekend. Against a Mississippi State front that looks more like what Auburn will face the rest of the season, the Tigers couldn’t hit that next level on the ground.

That will be just enough to keep Auburn’s rising offense from thinking it’s arrived as it heads into the meat of its SEC schedule.

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