By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
AUBURN, Ala. – The line between joy and anguish, Addison Lawrence can attest, is a razor-thin one.
Two years ago, he was Mississippi State’s starting right tackle when No. 7 LSU came to Starkville and squeezed out a 30-26 win. The Bulldogs had a chance at the end of that game, but quarterack Tyson Lee was stuffed just short of the goal line on a fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line with just over a minute to play.
On Saturday, MSU had the ball at Auburn’s 1 with 10 seconds left and trailing 41-34. It was third down, and quarterback Chris Relf ran a play very similar to the one called for Lee two years ago, and like Lee was stopped just short of the goal line.
“Yeah, it’s just like LSU,” Lawrence said. “I felt like that again. Going through two games like that just takes years off my life.”
Coach Dan Mullen left this play in the hands of Relf, a fifth-year senior who rushed for 105 yards Saturday. He’d been a big reason MSU was 11 of 20 on third downs, converting both with his arm and his legs.
During a timeout before the last play, Mullen gave Relf the option of calling a pass or a run.
“I got the team together, Chris said, ‘I feel great about this run call. ‘We looked like we had it,” Mullen said. “Their kid made a heck of an open-field tackle.”
The officials reviewed the play and confirmed that Relf had been stopped short. He was tantalizingly close. “About an inch,” he said.
Relf added, “I was looking at the corner coming upfield, so I was going to take it in. I knifed, and the guy just came backside and chopped me.”
Mullen spent much of his postgame press conference talking about inches, and how just one inch here or there could’ve made the difference for MSU. There were several examples for him to point to.
Twice in the second quarter, Relf threw it just a tad long downfield for Chris Smith. In the third, Michael Carr got free of his man and dove for a pass inside the Auburn 5 that led him a little too much.
Then there was a big fourth-and-1 conversion by Auburn late in the third quarter. Tailback Michael Dyer got it very close to the first-down marker, and after a careful measurement, the officials ruled it a first down. Five plays and 30 yards later, the Tigers scored to push their lead to 41-24.
A couple of MSU players said after the game that it looked like the ball was just short of the first-down pole, and a certain television angle showed daylight between the pole and the ball.
The SEC sent out a statement backing up the officials’ call: “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.”
Mullen tried to downplay it.
“We’ve got the best officials in the country, the guy’s standing that far away from it, so I trust they know what they’re doing. They’re fine,” he said.
Mullen has bigger worries, like teaching his team how to pick up those extra crucial inches.
“The higher up the mountain you go, the steeper it gets, and the harder the climb is. And the hardest part of this journey is that last step, and we have to find a way to take that last step and get on top of the mountain.”