AUBURN, Ala. — It took a little longer than desired, but for the first time this year, Auburn showed some killer instinct.
The offensive line wore down New Mexico State, and Tre Mason and Onterio McCalebb took care of the rest with their legs in a 311-yard team rushing performance, including 221 in the second half to alleviate fears of a catastrophic upset.
“We feed off each other greatly,” Mason said. “I learn things from him and he said that he learns things from me. But he’s like my brother, and we’re in this together.”
Mason muffed an exchange with quarterback Jonathan Wallace (Central-Phenix City) on Auburn’s first offensive snap. McCalebb didn’t even have a carry in the opening quarter. The Tigers led just 7-0 at half. McCalebb recovered his own fumble on the second-half kickoff.
An auspicious beginning, it was not. And with the way Auburn hasn’t closed out games this year, fans were prone to start fleeing Jordan-Hare Stadium, averting their eyes from an ugly first half.
But Mason and McCalebb played a game of ‘can you top this?’ in the third and fourth quarters. They had 44 and 33 yards, respectively, at the break. By the time Maino’s “All The Above” was blasting throughout Jordan-Hare Stadium to bridge the fourth quarter, they had each topped the century mark — the first Tigers teammates to do that since Cam Newton (217) and Michael Dyer (2010) did the deed against LSU two years ago.
“We knew they were putting eight or nine guys up around the line of scrimmage, and we just felt like we still needed to run the football,” coach Gene Chizik said. “We went back to some counter game. Sometimes they had to make a guy miss that was unblocked or whatnot, but they ran the ball well.”
Mason has proven he can be a workhorse, even if he isn’t used like one. His 22 carries Saturday tied a career-high, and 152 yards set his new standard. Even as opposing defenses stack the box on him, the sophomore’s yards per carry increased the past four games: 4.6 at Ole Miss, 5.3 at Vanderbilt, 6.7 vs. Texas A&M and 6.9 Saturday.
“He’s running with a lot of confidence,” Chizik said. “He’s very adamant — he wants the ball.”
McCalebb has become something of an afterthought during Mason’s breakout, but he reminded Auburn fans he’s one of the school’s top yard-guzzlers over his career. Eight carries was enough for the explosive senior to rack up 113 yards, scoring twice.
McCalebb has had a penchant for getting brought down for a loss in 2012. It didn’t happen Saturday.
“We knew that we had to run the ball to be successful,” McCalebb said. “All of the offensive line did a great job today. If it wasn’t for them, Tre and I wouldn’t have been able to get all those yards.”
Following Saturday, McCalebb’s 2,469 yards ranks him ninth among Auburn’s all-time rushers. His 38- and 7-yard scores gave him 22 for his career, passing Newton and settling into 10th in the school recordbooks.
Mason notably beat himself up after the season opener when he fumbled the football, and with it momentum, in a 26-17 loss to Clemson. His response after an early mixup showed how he’s matured as the feature back in an offense that needed Saturday’s outburst (a season-high 475 total yards) in the worst way.
“Sometimes, fumbling for a running back can get in your head, and all of a sudden it becomes an issue,” Chizik said. “He’s not that type of player. He can rebound very quickly.”