By David Brandt/The Associated Press
Video highlights at bottom of story on website version of DJournal.com.
Click here for a photo gallery from Daily Journal’s Deste Lee of the game.
STARKVILLE — As Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen watched the dropped passes, missed field goals and costly penalties mount, he couldn’t help but wonder if he was watching one of those sad, what-could-have-been games that have dogged the Bulldogs for years.
The triumphant ending was a welcome surprise.
Mississippi State scored 21 answered points in a dominant second half for a 28-10 victory over Auburn on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium. Tyler Russell threw for 222 yards and three touchdowns — including two to senior tight end Marcus Green — and LaDarius Perkins rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown.
The victory broke a string of unsavory trends for the Bulldogs. They had lost 10 out of the last 11 against Auburn — including four straight — and hadn’t won a Southeastern Conference opener since 1999.
It was also Mullen’s first victory against the SEC Western Division’s best four teams. He was 0-12 combined against Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Auburn until Saturday’s breakthrough.
Now Mullen can concentrate on his stated goal since he arrived at Mississippi State (2-0, 1-0 SEC) four years ago — putting the Bulldogs in position to contend in the SEC’s Western Division.
“A lot of you guys think that this means I’ve got the monkey off my back,” Mullen said. “But in my mind, a bigger one just jumped on. I hope in November, we’re talking about an 800-pound gorilla on my back. That’s where I want my program.”
Auburn briefly took a 10-7 lead when Onterio McCalebb returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown to open the second half, but not much else went right.
The Tigers (0-2, 0-1) struggled through an awful offensive performance, handcuffed by a passing game that alternated between nonexistent and atrocious.
Quarterback Kiehl Frazier was especially bad in the first half — completing just 1 of 7 passes for minus-2 yards and two interceptions. He finished 13 of 22 passing for 125 yards, three interceptions and two lost fumbles.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik stuck with the 6-foot-2, 226-pound sophomore until the bitter end, keeping backup Clint Moseley on the bench.
“I don’t think it is just one player,” Chizik said. “Sometimes it is protection, sometimes it is missing an open receiver. Other than that last drive, we struggled all day in the passing game. Everybody wants to bring up Kiehl Frazier, but there are 10 other guys out there with him.”
While Frazier was struggling, his counterpart Russell had a breakout performance. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound junior was deadly accurate when given time in the pocket, completing 20 of 29 passes without throwing an interception.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Russell said. “Everyone wants the ball. Everyone is hungry.”
McCalebb briefly gave Auburn hope at the beginning of the second half with his stunning touchdown on the kickoff return. He was barely touched as he weaved through Mississippi State’s defense.
But the Bulldogs overcame that costly mistake, leaning on Russell as he picked apart Auburn’s secondary on the next drive. It ended with a beautiful 13-yard touchdown pass, thrown on the run to Chad Bumphis, and Mississippi State never looked back.
“Everyone had confidence,” Russell said. “That’s one that we do in (preseason) camp. The defense or special teams gives up a quick score and we have to go out there and make a play.”
Mississippi State took a 7-3 lead by halftime after a 30-yard touchdown pass from Russell to Green midway through the second quarter. The margin could have been much bigger.
The Bulldogs squandered two interceptions by cornerback Johnthan Banks in Auburn territory, failing to score on both ensuing possessions. Devon Bell also missed two field goals — a 36-yarder that was pulled wide left and a 43-yarder that was blocked.
Banks now has 14 career interceptions, the most for an active player in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The early offensive ineptitude brought back memories of Auburn’s 3-2 victory over Mississippi State in 2008, a game long lamented by both sides for its ugliness.
But the Bulldogs improved quickly. The Tigers did not.
Auburn did not have an offensive touchdown and has scored only one through two games this season. Mike Blakely led Auburn with 42 yards rushing.
Mississippi State outgained Auburn 388-216, and even that wide margin doesn’t do the rout justice. The Tigers had just 90 total yards through three quarters, moving the ball only when the Bulldogs had the game well in hand.
“It was mind-boggling,” Auburn defensive back Jermaine Whitehead said. “We thought this was a game we could take. We missed a lot of opportunities out there.”
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP
Read more in Sunday’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.