By Brad Locke/
STARKVILLE – Onterio McCalebb had just sucked the air out of Davis Wade Stadium and most of its 56,111 occupants, and old demons seemed to linger above the silence.
Then Tyler Russell stepped back on the field and went to work.
Russell methodically led Mississippi State on two consecutive touchdown drives, and eventually led the Bulldogs to a convincing 28-10 win over Auburn on Saturday.
In the past, a play like McCalebb’s – a 100-yard kickoff return to open the second half and give Auburn a 10-7 lead – would have put MSU on its heels. Especially when coupled with an often-sloppy first half filled with mistakes and missed chances.
The response this time was different, and it’s what fourth-year coach Dan Mullen has been seeking in his pursuit of some lofty goals, which include an SEC championship.
“This is a turning point,” said tailback LaDarius Perkins, who rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. “We’ve made mistakes in games, we’ve just got to overcome them. In the past we let the turnovers and stuff get to us, the three-and-outs, that gets to us.”
Russell led the way, completing 20 of 29 passes for 222 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. On three second-half scoring drives, he was a combined 7 of 10 for 103 yards.
“He’s not maybe the biggest rah-rah guy. He’s not running up and down and pumping the crowd or any of that stuff, but he’s a competitor,” Mullen said. “He’s a fierce competitor in his own way. You could see that today, the poise in which he handled the game.”
MSU is now 2-0 for the first time since 2000, and it won its SEC opener for the first time since 1999. The Bulldogs snapped Auburn’s four-game winning streak in this series,
Russell marched MSU (2-0, 1-0 SEC) 75 yards in eight plays, hitting Chad Bumphis for a 13-yard score and 14-10 lead with 11 minutes, 35 seconds left in the third quarter. Russell then led a 58-yard drive that ended with his 3-yard TD strike to Marcus Green, who had 54 yards and two scores on the day.
In the fourth, Perkins scored on a 21-yard run to cap the scoring.
Clean second half
The second half was a lot cleaner for MSU than the first, when it committed five penalties, lost a fumble and failed to get points out of two Johnthan Banks interceptions.
The Bulldogs’ confidence wasn’t shaken. The second half is when State gained 231 of its 388 total yards, and it committed no penalties. Darius Slay had an interception in the end zone, and MSU wound up with five takeaways against one turnover.
The defense gave Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier fits all day. The sophomore, in his second career start, was 13 of 22 for 125 yards and three interceptions. He had minus-2 yards passing at halftime.
Auburn (0-2, 0-1 SEC) gained 91 yards on the ground.
This win sets up MSU for a potentially great start given the schedule, but the players are trying to not think too far ahead. In fact, Mullen and his players trotted out the clichampé about getting a monkey of their backs, but with a twist.
“People are going to be expecting us to beat everybody now,” Banks said. “There wasn’t no monkey off our back. There’s a bigger monkey on our back now.”
Click here for Brad Locke’s Inside Mississippi State Sports Blog.