Mississippi State Bulldogs squander second-half opportunities

STARKVILLE – Somebody forgot to bring the fireworks, but No. 20 Auburn didn’t need them Thursday night.
In front of 54,086 at Davis Wade Stadium, a surprisingly stingy defense carried the day for the Tigers (2-0, 1-0 SEC) in a 17-14 win, as they held down an MSU offense that had put on a clinic against Memphis a week earlier.
Of course, that was just Memphis.
Auburn, which had given up 323 passing yards to Arkansas State the week before, limited MSU (1-1, 0-1) to 246 total yards and, fittingly, made one last defensive stand to preserve victory.
In their wins last week, Auburn and MSU gained 608 and 569 total yards, respectively.
“Every time we hit a high note, nobody made the play. We thudded,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said. “That’s from me, all the way down, the top to the bottom of this program. When you hit the high note, you’ve got to explode on the (other) team.”
Prime example: After scoring a touchdown to pull within 17-14 and recovering an onside kick in the third quarter, MSU went three-and-out on its next three possessions and got only three first downs the rest of the game.
Auburn’s defensive effort was led by tackle Nick Fairley, a 6-foot-5, 298-pound junior who had a field day at and behind the line of scrimmage. He intercepted a Tyler Russell pass and recovered a Chris Relf fumble, both in the first half.
Speaking of Relf and Russell, both quarterbacks struggled five days after lighting up those other Tigers. Relf was 12 of 25 for 110 yards and took three sacks, while Russell was 4 of 9 for 19 yards with the interception.
Russell took just six snaps in the first half, and both series he directed in the second half resulted in three plays and a punt.
“I thought Chris was playing fairly well,” Mullen said. “We felt comfortable with him. He looked at me and said he wanted to be the guy in this drive.”
But Relf couldn’t make the big plays, unlike his counterpart, Cam Newton, a 6-6, 250-pound junior college transfer who played under Mullen at Florida in 2007. After torching Arkansas State for 357 total yards, Newton was 11 of 19 for 136 yards and two touchdowns passing and added a team-leading 70 yards on 18 carries.
Auburn was 6 of 14 on third downs, with Newton moving the chains three times through the air and three times on the ground. He also converted a fourth down.
“He’s very creative. Our guys knew that,” Mullen said. “We had him in contain sometimes, and he broke a tackle and spun out of there.”
Onterio McCalebb gained 68 yards on 12 carries, as Auburn posted a very effective 190-yard rushing effort.
MSU’s defense certainly showed some resilience. It yielded 348 total yards but kept the Bulldogs in the game in the second half with some big stops.
The last hold was a blocked field goal with 2 minutes, 19 seconds to go to set up MSU’s last-ditch effort. The rally died at Auburn’s 41-yard line when Relf shot a pass way over the head of Leon Berry, who had cut his route short.
“The opportunity was there for us to win, and we didn’t grab it,” Mullen said. “And you know what, we need to do that to turn the corner for this program.”
Greeted by a chorus of boos on the game’s opening drive, Newton – who signed with Auburn over MSU – moved the Tigers 68 yards in eight plays, converting a fourth-and-1 with his legs and hitting Emory Blake on a swing pass for a 39-yard touchdown on a third-and-8.
MSU eventually responded in unusual fashion.
Auburn fumbled a punt return, setting up the Bulldogs at the Tigers’ 20. Three plays later, Relf fumbled at the 1-yard line, but redshirt freshman guard Gabe Jackson recovered in the end zone for the touchdown, tying it at 7-7.
Then Auburn took control thanks to a couple of MSU turnovers.
The Tigers turned an interception of Russell into a 13-yard scoring pass from Newton to Darvin Adams on third-and-goal. Relf returned and promptly fumbled it away, and that led to a 34-yard Wes Byrum field goal for a 17-7 lead with 4:29 left in the half.
That’s how it stood at halftime.
Relf led MSU on a 12-play, 63 yard scoring drive to open the third quarter. He was 5 of 6 passing for 57 yards on the drive, which took 6:05 off the clock and was capped by Vick Ballard’s 1-yard TD run.
MSU’s leading rusher was receiver Chad Bumphis, who picked up 27 yards on three carries. State was held to 117 rushing yards on 33 carries.
It was the 11th consecutive loss for MSU in its SEC opener, and it hasn’t started a season 2-0 overall since 2000.

Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or brad.locke@djournal.com.

Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal