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wise decision could be doubly rewarding for Auburn

Auburn wide receiver D'haquille Williams (1) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the second half Thursday against Kansas State. / Charlie Riedell, AP

Auburn wide receiver D’haquille Williams (1) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the second half Thursday against Kansas State. / Charlie Riedell, AP

MANHATTAN, Kan. — Emerging from the postgame melee, Gus Malzahn suddenly spied a familiar face.

“Did you like that double move?” the coach asked — meaning the critical pass, a few moments earlier, that allowed Auburn to wriggle free, finally, from an upset trap.

The question included satisfaction, and some lingering exhilaration. When Nick Marshall connected with D’haquille “Duke” Williams on the slant-and-go with two minutes left, Malzahn gave a fist pump. But the collective emotion after the fifth-ranked Tigers’ 20-14 victory against No. 20 Kansas State wasn’t so much, “We got ‘em,” as something else:

“It was good,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said, “to get out of here with a win.”

No. 5 Tigers 20, No. 20 Wildcats 14 

Against a ranked opponent on the road, that’s more than enough. Come December, if Auburn is in the hunt for a playoff berth, the win will be an asset. It did not come easy. And it could easily have gone the other way.

Kansas State committed several catastrophic errors: two interceptions, a fumble and three missed field goals. The Wildcats’ night in one play: In the first half, with all the momentum, Kansas State was deep in Auburn territory and seemed certain to score. Tyler Lockett was wide open on the slant. Jake Waters’ pass was on target. But the receiver couldn’t make the catch, instead deflecting the football into the air — and into the arms of a Tiger defender.

Afterward, K-State coach Bill Snyder was asked if Auburn won or Kansas State lost, and said: “The latter.”

Auburn’s perspective, of course, is different. Although the Tigers managed 128 rushing yards, the second-lowest in Malzahn’s two seasons, scored just two touchdowns and never found a rhythm, they shrugged off the struggles and did just enough.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn's offense did not have its way against Kansas State on Thursday night. / Scott Sewell, USA TODAY Sports

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn’s offense did not have its way against Kansas State on Thursday night. / Scott Sewell, USA TODAY Sports

“Even though last year’s team could handle adversity as good as (any team) I’ve seen, this year is a new team,” Malzahn said. “It’s a new year. So we learned a lot about our guys. … They found a way to win.

“A lot of teams couldn’t win in that kind of environment. (Kansas State is) talented and they played their guts out and it was good for us.”

And when, finally, it came down to one play — the double move — the Tigers made all the right moves. It started with the decision-making process.

Leading 20-14 with less than three minutes left, Auburn faced third-and-9 at its 37. Lashlee suggested they run the play clock down, then use one of their two remaining timeouts.

“You think we’ll need it later?” Malzahn asked.

“Well, the plan is to not,” Lashlee said. “We’re gonna get (the first down) and not need it.”

They waited, then called timeout with 2:06 left. And then the conversation turned: Which play? They could run the ball, run off some more clock, and then punt to Kansas State, giving the Wildcats one more chance with maybe 75 seconds left.

College Football Computer Composite: Where do the Tigers rank?

Playing it safe made sense. Auburn’s defense had played well. But add these factors: On the road. Revved-up crowd. Swirling wind. And maybe most important, they’d be punting to Lockett, the Wildcats’ extremely dangerous punt returner.

“He was killing us all night,” Malzahn said.

Otherwise, they could pass, trying to get the first down. If they converted, game over. If not, the clock would stop. They’d give the ball back to K-State — Lockett would still get the first shot — with a lot more time to operate.

“We just felt strong,” Malzahn said, “that we just give our guys a chance to go ahead and win the game.”

And maybe it was time to go big. They’d thrown the slant to Williams several times, including a key third-down conversion on an earlier drive for a touchdown. They’d talked about how the slant-and-go would be there, but they’d never had the right situation.

Nick Marshall didn't have the greatest completion percentage in Auburn's 20-14 win Thursday, but he still accounted for 277 yards of offense. / Scott Sewell, USA TODAY Sports

Nick Marshall didn’t have the greatest completion percentage in Auburn’s 20-14 win Thursday, but he still accounted for 277 yards of offense. / Scott Sewell, USA TODAY Sports

Malzahn expected Kansas State to send pressure. Marshall said he could make the throw. Williams said the cornerback would bite on the fake.

“You’ve got to have the guts to stick with (the call),” Lashlee said.

And the ability to make the play. Williams, a gifted junior-college transfer who appears ready to be a game-breaker, had eight catches for 110 yards. The touchdown came on a 9-yard fade route, giving Auburn a 20-7 lead with a little more than 14 minutes left.

Still, if not for two drops on deep balls, Williams might have had 210 yards and another TD. But Malzahn and Lashlee said they were confident in his ability to execute.

Ditto for Marshall, who hadn’t been sharp passing in the first half — though there were those drops, and several other passes were batted down. But in 2013, when it counted, Marshall made plays time and again.

“When the game’s on the line, Nick’s got that knack,” Malzahn said.

Marshall dropped back. Williams started as if on the slant. The cornerback, Danzel McDaniel, had played well for most of the night. But he bit on the slant.

Marshall pump-faked, then threw deep as Williams suddenly cut upfield. Thirty-nine yards later, they connected. And the Tigers ran out the final 100 seconds.

“It’s a moment of relief,” Lashlee said. “One, because you realize you just won the game. Two, you realize you don’t have to answer the questions, ‘Why’d you throw it on third-and-9?’

“It felt good.”

If there was satisfaction, it came in finding, at least on Thursday, an important answer:

“Last year they executed all the time,” Malzahn said. “They found ways to win. They did the same thing tonight. … We have players who can execute in that moment.”

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