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Gus Malzahn Press Conference Review: Previewing Mississippi State

Gus Malzahn speaks with the media on Tuesday, September 26. (Photo: Auburn Athletics/Todd Van Emst)

Head Coach Gus Malzahn seemed optimistic walking into the press conference room on Tuesday, and it was expected after his team earned their first SEC win last Saturday over Missouri. During his weekly availability, Malzahn discussed the win, previewed this week's SEC West showdown with Mississippi State, and talked about the possibility of a few players returning from injury.

Opening Statement:

Malzahn spent his opening statement discussing the upcoming game with Mississippi State, and how dangerous they can be in all aspects of their game.

We are playing a very good Mississippi State team, one that, in the past, we’ve had a lot of really close games, a lot of very good games. When you look at them defensively, I think they are good up front, I think they are good at linebacker and I think they are very sound on the back end. Todd Grantham is their defensive coordinator. We’ve got a lot of respect for him. We went against him numerous times at Georgia, when he was at Louisville, and he always has his guys prepared. They play extremely hard and they are sound. Offensively, it starts with their quarterback (Nick Fitzgerald). We are very impressed with him. He is a true dual-threat guy. He is like a running back in the backfield, which presents a lot of problems with the plus-one run game for defenses. He’s gotten where he throws the ball extremely accurately when he has time, so that is going to be a big challenge for our defense. Special teams -- a very aggressive type of special teams -- they are not scared to fake any kind whether it’s a punt, whether it’s field goals or anything like that, so we’ve got to be prepared in all those phases. It’s going to be a good one. They are playing at a high level and we expect it to be a good game.”

Running back availability:

Running Backs were a strong topic with Malzahn on Tuesday, covering an array of angles. Will the Mississippi State game be the first time that both Kerryon Johnson and Kam Pettway are fully healthy?

“I think it would be a positive if both of them were healthy at the same time. We have not been able to play them both at the same time. Hopefully this will be the first game where that can happen.”

How important is it for the team to have both Johnson and Pettway to both be in the backfield?

"What really got us towards the end of last year was both of them got banged up, so you would like to see what they can do when they are both healthy. Both of them are different. Both of them are extremely talented in their own way. We will see what happens.”

Whether it be Johnson, or Pettway, that's not available, one player has stepped up to the occasion, and now leads the team in rushing, that's Kam Martin. Martin leads Auburn in rushing with 210 yards on 23 carries. How much has Martin impressed his head coach?

“Kam Martin has gotten it done when he has gone out there. He had the big explosive run where he cut it back across midfield. He had a really good jump cut in a pace situation in the play after that. He is a guy that performs at a high level when he is in there. He gives us a little bit different of a dimension when he is in there with his quickness and his explosiveness. He runs bigger than he is. He broke a couple tackles there that we were impressed with, too.”

Quarterback play:

Last week was rather eventful for the Auburn offense. Last season's primary starter, Sean White, was released from the team following his arrest on September 16 for public intoxication. Freshman Malik Willis was bumped up to second-string quarterback, and saw significant playing time in last week's win over Missouri.

“The first thing you can see is he can make some things happen with his feet. I thought he did a very good job on our zone read where he threw the touchdown pass that got called back. I was very impressed with that. He needs more experience. I think it was good for him to get out there and get a complete quarter of work in because, like I have said before, he has done a really good job in scrimmage-type situations up to this point. So it was really good for him to get out there especially with him being our No. 2 guy now. It was good for him and it was good for Chip Lindsey to be able to get him out there and get used to him a little bit to see how he is going to react in certain situations. Overall, we were pleased with the way he performed.”

Starter Jarrett Stidham has also improved over the last four games. Stidham completed 13 passes for 218 yards.

"I think he is getting to a point where he can react and not have to think about everything that goes with it. I thought he played at a very high level last week. I was very impressed with, when things broke down, his decision-making. I think he scrambled for two third-down conversions. He scrambled for a big one down in the red zone, protected the football and he showed a lot of toughness. He got hit a couple of times and showed a lot of toughness. I think he will have an opportunity to keep improving.”

Performance Carry Over:

Auburn has gained over 450 yards in three of their four games so far on the season, and has improved in every game. Auburn's defense has also not allowed more than 14 points to an opponent. Last week over Missouri, Auburn played an abundance of players late in the game, gaining them valuable experience. How important is it to continue that success against Mississippi State?

"Our defense has played at an extremely high level and established themselves as one of the better defenses. Our offense for the first time actually played well in the run game and pass game. We have to keep building upon the things that we can be good at. My message to our team is that if you look at our league there will be teams that will be up high one week or two weeks, then have a setback. The teams that can win championships in this league are the ones that figure out a way to get a little bit better each week. Now, that is a hard challenge in this league. That is the challenge that I’ve put on our coaches and players -- to find a way to improve each week even if it is just a little bit. If we can do that, then we have a chance.”

Nick Fitzgerald:

Mississippi State has a quarterback that is considered to be among the conference's best. In his career, Fitzgerald has tossed 55 touchdowns, thrown for 5,073 yards, and has nine 100-yard rushing games. What is it about Fitzgerald that stands out to Malzahn?

“He puts a lot of pressure on you because it’s a plus-one. You can have an extra blocker in the run game when the QB is running it. The fact that he is really fast, he can really go and you worry about the plays that hit between the tackles, and they hit quick. The last two years, he has had some huge runs in between the tackles."

Auburn-Mississippi State history:

This series has been interesting over the last few years. So much so, that Malzahn says that this game is a "good rivalry."

“What was it, 2010, when we won the national championship, it was a three-point game. In 2011, it went down to the last (play), they ran, they got stopped on the 1-foot line. (In) 2013, we had to drive the field and C.J. (Uzomah) caught it from Nick (Marshall) almost on the last play of the game."

#13 Auburn battles #24 Mississippi State on Saturday at 5 P.M. Central at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

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