AUBURN – Joe Moorhead kept looking up from his notes, introducing the media to Auburn in his press conference this week.
He might as well have rolled his eyes. There’s no introduction needed.
Everybody over in Starkville knows who Gus Malzahn is, he said. Everybody’s heard of Derrick Brown. Everybody saw Bo Nix throw the game-winning touchdown pass against Oregon.
They all know what kind of challenge the Bulldogs face this week against the No. 7 team in the nation — running into the Tigers’ teeth at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
These no mysteries left between these SEC West rivals.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge for us,” said Moorhead, now in his second season as head coach at Mississippi State. “Obviously we’re going to need a great week of practice, and, you know, it’ll come down to our preparation, our effort and how well we execute. I’m very excited for it. Our kids are excited for it. I can’t wait to get out there.
“I haven’t been there. This’ll be my first time to the stadium. So we’re pumped up. We’re going to go get after it.”
Moorhead’s team is 3-1. The Bulldogs bounced back from a non-conference loss to Kansas State with a win in their SEC opener over Kentucky.
He’s coaching a new team in a new season. Former quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is gone, after running all over Auburn last year. Now, the Bulldogs look toward senior quarterback Tommy Stevens, who’s been fighting injury early this season — and to freshman Garrett Shrader, who’s played in his place.
It was Shrader who led Mississippi State to a 28-13 win over Kentucky last week, just a week removed from a 31-24 loss to Kansas State. Mississippi State beat Louisiana in a neutral-site game in New Orleans in the season opener, 38-28, before the Bulldogs beat Southern Miss 38-15 in their first home game.
But the Bulldogs know the bar will be raised Saturday night in Jordan-Hare Stadium, where, if Stevens can’t go again, Shrader could match Nix for a duel between two true-freshman quarterbacks in primetime.
“Obviously, Bo, being coached by his dad in high school, and his dad was a great quarterback at Auburn, he kind of has some of that savvy that you don’t see in a lot of true freshmen,” Moorhead said. “So I think part of it is obviously his talent and ability to beat you with his arm and his legs, but some of that experience beyond his years is the other thing.
“Very, very competitive. And, you know, you watch the end of that Oregon game — I mean, he was as cool as the other side of the pillow. He was just kind of unflappable.”
Moorhead’s impressed with what he’s seen — and of course, on the other side, Malzahn and his team only need to think back to last year’s loss in Starkville to know they’ll have to take Mississippi State seriously.
“Our guys are real excited,” Malzahn said. “I’ve told those guys we’ve got to have a great week. Our urgency has to be there, and we’ve just got to play good, hard-nosed Auburn football for four quarters.
“We’re playing a team that could easily be 4-0. There’s a lot of confidence coming in here.”
Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill is the SEC’s leading rusher so far this season, averaging 137.8 yards per game. Malzahn called him one of the best running backs in the country.
He’ll be thrown against Brown and the rest of that Auburn defensive front, which has helped the Tigers limit opponents to the SEC’s second-best mark in rushing defense, allowing only 89.5 rushing yards per game.
“This is a big game for us,” Malzahn said. “Our guys understand that. We’re very excited. Our crowds have been great. We’re really looking forward to playing in front of our crowd with everybody bringing their A-game.
“This is a big game.”