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Five Keys for Mississippi State-Auburn

 

Matthew Stevens

 

1. Who is going to play quarterback at Mississippi State? 

 

This question has been on the mind of most MSU fans entering the Southeastern Conference opener. The only people who know the answer is the MSU medical staff and training staff. MSU senior quarterback Tyler Russell was involved in practice this week even though he hadn't taken his concussion test to clear him for contact in a game. MSU coach Dan Mullen said Monday his fifth-year senior quarterback, who missed a 51-7 victory against Alcorn State University last week, hadn't taken his concussion test, but he felt confident Russell would be able to "do some things" on the field. Despite having extra adrenaline, MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning said he was pleased with sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott's performance in his first career start. "The first pass he threw was impressive to me because I thought it might go in the bleachers with as jacked up as he was," Koenning said. "He was a tremendous leader and knows the system. We love the way he leads this football team." 

 

2. Can Mississippi State slow down Auburn's rushing attack? 

 

Tre Mason, Corey Grant, and Cameron Artis-Payne have given Auburn coach Gus Malzahn plenty of options in his running back rotation. All three rank in the top 15 individually in the SEC. "They are all three unique," Malzahn said. "As a play-caller, it helps you utilize them in different ways. I think that has become one of our strengths." Grant has the biggest play from scrimmage, a 75-yard touchdown run. He also has the most yards, 186 on 16 carries. Mason has 172 yards on 29 carries. Artis-Payne has 154 yards on 29 carries. If one thing is clear from the season-opening loss to No. 13 Oklahoma State, MSU (1-1) has trouble covering the perimeter on defense. The Bulldogs will have to find a way to get outside containment, especially on Mason, to prevent Auburn (2-0) from making big gains. 

 

3. Can Nick Marshall lead Auburn to a SEC victory? 

 

Two years ago, Nick Marshall was trying to figure out how to play safety at Georgia. This year, he's being asked to control Auburn's offense. Auburn's coaches said the junior quarterback has improved despite committing more turnovers in his second start than in his debut against Washington State. Malzahn and Mullen have said they have been impressed with Marshall's ability to utilize the deep pass to counter Auburn's running attack. Marshall has thrown for 246 yards and two touchdowns while completing 55.6 percent (20 of 36) of his passes. 

 

4. How important is this game to Malzahn and Mullen? 

 

Up until MSU's 28-10 victory last year in Starkville, Mullen had never beaten the Tigers as a head coach or as an assistant coach. "That was huge. It was one of my top wins since being a head coach," Mullen said. "Every year, you start off with them. It adds that natural rivalry." Auburn beat MSU 17-14 in 2010 and 41-34 on a last-second stop by Ryan Smith in 2011 with Malzahn as an offensive coordinator for the Tigers. Mullen understands a victory at Auburn will go a long way to helping his team become bowl eligible. 

 

5. Can Auburn put aside thoughts of its 10-game SEC losing streak? 

 

While it seems unbelievable, the last time Auburn won a conference game was Oct. 29, 2011, against Ole Miss. The average margin during the SEC skid has been 25.7 points, and the Tigers have been outscored 94-0 since the last time they managed a point against a league defense. Malzahn wasn't around for last year's winless SEC record. He has said he tries not to bring up 2012 with his players because he doesn't want negative thoughts in their minds. 

 

 

 

Players to Watch 

 

MSU 

 

Junior WR Joe Morrow 

 

The former four-star recruit from Ocean Springs has one catch for 15 yards in two games. He has to be a consistent target Saturday or he could lose his starting job to freshman De'Runnya Wilson. 

 

Senior DE Denico Autry 

 

MSU's promise of havoc isn't registering in the sacks department. Only defensive tackle Curtis Virges has earned a sack in two games. To make Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall uncomfortable, he must consistently see Autry's No. 90 in MSU in his face. 

 

 

 

Auburn 

 

Junior RB Corey Grant 

 

Grant is the first Auburn player to score touchdowns in the first two games of the season since Onterio McCalebb in 2009. 

 

Senior K Corey Parkey 

 

Parkey has made 14 straight field goals from 45 yards and in dating back to the 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl. 

 

 

 

Numbers of the game 

 

10 

 

Number of consecutive losses for Auburn in SEC play. 

 

1-9 

 

Record for MSU in its last 10 SEC openers, including a four-game losing streak to Auburn. 

 

17 

 

Number of consecutive wins by MSU when the Bulldogs lead at halftime.

 

 

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