By The Associated Press
AUBURN, Ala. — Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen put the ball and the game in Chris Relf’s hands, and the quarterback nearly came through.
Auburn backup safety Ryan Smith stopped Relf just shy of the goal line with a leg tackle on the final play to preserve the Tigers’ 41-34 win over the 16th-ranked Bulldogs. It was a gamble that almost paid off with 10 seconds left and time for two plays with an incomplete pass.
“Chris made the call on the last play of the game,” Mullen said. “We gave him two choices (pass or run). I put it in his hands and he made the right call. I like that. I like that confidence.
“Chris said, ‘I feel great about this run call.’ It looked like he had it and the kid made a heck of an open-field tackle.”
Relf kept the ball on an option and headed for the end zone before Smith brought the 240-pound quarterback down for the Tigers (2-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference).
The Bulldogs (1-1, 0-1) had their highest ranking since being No. 13 in November 2000, and the offense has racked up 1,176 yards in its first two games. They’re still trying to make more headway in the brutal SEC West with No. 2 LSU visiting Thursday night.
“We’ve got to find a way to take that final inch,” Mullen said. “That’s about where we are as a program. And as a football team, we have got to find a way to get that final inch. That’s what’s separating us from being great.”
The Tigers apparently still have the same flair for the dramatic as last year’s national title team, just with players such as Smith bailing them out instead of superstars Cam Newton and Nick Fairley. It was Smith’s first tackle of the season and fourth of his career.
“I was just trying to go across and make the play,” he said. “You don’t really have time to think — you just make the play. I knew he was going to keep the ball. He had been keeping it all day.”
Mullen said he would have gone for two points and the win if Relf had punched it across.
By Relf’s estimate, he was an inch shy of scoring.
“We didn’t come up with the big inch,” he said. “I should have made the play.”
Daren Bates, Jake Holland and Neiko Thorpe had led a swarm of defenders to stop Vick Ballard for a short loss on the previous play after Auburn called timeout to regroup.
“We called time out there at the end and told them what was going to happen the final two plays,” Tigers coach Gene Chizik said.
Mike Dyer rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns for the Tigers, who extended major college football’s longest win streak to 17 games. This one will do more to convince poll voters that they can still be competitive in the SEC despite the loss of Newton, Fairley and a host of other starters.
Dyer led the players’ sprint toward the student section to celebrate while the final play was reviewed — and quickly upheld.
Mississippi State’s offense racked up 97 plays, 531 yards and 31 first downs.
Ballard ran for a 3-yard touchdown with 4:51 left to keep Mississippi State alive. The reigning SEC offensive player of the week set it up with runs of 19, 13 and 6 yards.
The Bulldogs then held Auburn to three and out and got the ball back with nearly 3 minutes remaining.
Relf passed for 195 yards and a touchdown and ran 27 times for 106 yards. Ballard ran 21 times for 106 yards to help Mississippi State play keep away.
“He’s just a big man,” Chizik said of Relf. “He’s able to fall forward for 2 or 3 yards. I was extremely impressed with that young man. That is an extremely tough day, taking that many hits and still being able to throw the ball like he does.”
Barrett Trotter was 16 of 23 passing for 146 yards and two touchdowns for the Tigers. Emory Blake accounted for most of the passing yards with 108 yards on seven catches, including a 46-yard touchdown.
Both quarterbacks had interceptions returned for touchdowns, but the offenses supplied most of the big plays.
Trotter rolled right and hit tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen for a 10-yard touchdown a minute into the fourth quarter for a 41-27 lead. Dyer, who also had a 52-yard run on the drive, had taken a direct snap and converted a fourth-and-1 by a couple of inches to keep it going.
It was close enough that a pool reporter asked for a clarification from the SEC.
“When the officiating crew put the first down stake in its final position, the nose of the football was touching the stake making it a first down,” said Steve Shaw, the league’s coordinator of officials.
The Bulldogs converted a fourth down play in their own territory on their next possession but couldn’t reach midfield.
That wasn’t a problem the final two drives, or many others.
The Tigers took a 31-24 lead into halftime in a series that include a 3-2 Auburn win just three years ago before both programs turned to new offenses and started putting up big numbers.
The Tigers finished with two quick touchdowns to survive Utah State and opened with two more for a 28-point run-up in a 5:28 span.
Auburn’s eagle, Spirit, also showed his resilience. The bald eagle hit the window to a luxury box during his pre-game flight. Apparently unharmed, he rallied and landed near midfield as usual.
More in Sunday’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.