By the second half of last year’s game between Auburn and Mississippi State, the Bulldogs had all but given up on throwing the ball. It wasn’t because they couldn’t. Rather, they didn’t need to. Auburn couldn’t stop their rushing attack.

Mississippi State ran for 349 yards — a season-high against an FBS defense and the most Auburn allowed since LSU gashed them for 415 yards in 2015.

MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald carried the ball 28 times for 195 yards and 2 scores. Kylin Hill added 126 more yards. The Bulldogs only attempted 17 passes, completing 9 for a mere 69 yards. No matter, that running game helped State pull away in a 23-9 victory.

It was embarrassing for an Auburn defense that prides itself on stopping the run.

That was then.

While Hill remains and freshman quarterback Garrett Shrader proved himself to be a worthy dual-threat on Saturday against Kentucky (180 passing yards, 125 rushing yards), Fitzgerald is gone and this is a totally different Auburn defense.

Yet what might matter the most is the fact that Kevin Steele’s defense will be more prepared for Joe Moorhead’s offensive attack this season than when facing him for the first ever time last October.

The Tigers have already faced 2 dual-threat quarterbacks in Tulane’s Justin McMillan and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond. Here are their stats:

  • McMillan: 10-for-33, 103 passing yards, 54 rushing yards
  • Mond: 31-for-49, 335 passing yards, 2  TDs, 26 rushing yards

That is far from the performance that Fitzgerald put up last season and the Tigers, especially the starting front 4 who were all part of the defeat last season, will be amped up to not let it happen again. Auburn’s rush defense has been solid, allowing just 89.50 yards per game on the ground. Last season, that number was remarkably higher at 135.92 yards per game.

There seems to be an edge to this defense, proven with stout open-field tackling against an agile Aggies’ offense this past Saturday in Kyle Field. Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Co. have dominated opposing offensive lines, including taking over the game against Oregon’s group in the second half of the season opener.

With a true freshman likely at quarterback in Shrader — the status of injured dual-threat starting quarterback Tommy Stevens is up in the air — look for Steele to load the box and take away the running game, forcing Shrader to use his arm to move the chains. If the Tigers can take the rush away from Hill and Shrader, it would spell trouble for Moorhead’s offense, as a young linebacker corps and veteran secondary unit has taken a leap for the Tigers.

Schemes and personnel aside, this all comes down to pride for the Tigers.

There aren’t many times that an Auburn defense will get embarrassed like it did last year in Starkville. A year later, that rushing total — 349 yards — seems like a horrific typo. Look at again and recognize the fact that the Bulldogs knew they could run it down Auburn’s throat and the defense could do nothing to stop it. That will be a fact that will more than likely be mentioned quite often in meeting rooms and on the practice field by coaches through the week.

It was a bad night for the Tigers’ defense last season. Don’t expect that to happen again.