By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
AUBURN, Ala. – Mississippi State isn’t a contender yet, but it’s inching closer.
No. 16-ranked MSU came up inches shy of the goal line on the game’s final play Saturday afternoon, as unranked Auburn escaped with a 41-34 win in front of 87,451 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
With 10 seconds on the clock, State quarterback Chris Relf took a snap from the Auburn 2-yard line and ran left on an option play. He turned it inside but was stuffed by cornerback Ryan Smith inside the 1. MSU was out of timeouts, and the clock ran out on Dan Mullen’s chance for his first signature win as a head coach.
He’s now 2-9 against SEC Western Division opponents, with both those wins coming against rival Ole Miss.
It was that kind of day for MSU (1-1, 0-1 SEC), which just missed on several potentially big plays, mostly in the passing game.
“We’ve got to find a way to take that final inch,” Mullen said. “That’s kind of where we are right now as a program. As a coaching staff, 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 a great team.”
Auburn (2-0, 1-0), the reigning SEC and BCS champion, rediscovered the running game that played such a huge role in last season’s undefeated run but was starkly absent in its 42-38 win over Utah State a week earlier.
Tailback Michael Dyer rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries, and Auburn got 235 of its 381 yards on the ground. MSU had trouble keeping Dyer from turning the corner, and for the second straight week State struggled with tackling.
“Missed tackles, and they were able to out-leverage us a couple of times,” linebacker Cam Lawrence said. “That’s one thing, we were expecting them to run in between the tackles, and they got outside of us.”
Lawrence led MSU with 14 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss and the Bulldogs’ lone sack.
Despite piling up 531 total yards, MSU suffered its 12th consecutive SEC-opening loss. Auburn won its 17th straight game, the nation’s current longest winning streak.
The game was a shootout from the start, with Auburn racing to a 14-0 lead thanks to Dyer’s 35-yard TD run and a 44-yard interception returned for touchdown by Demetruce McNeal. MSU answered with three touchdowns, including Johnthan Banks’ third career interception return for TD to make it 21-14 early in the second quarter.
Auburn added a pair of TDs before the half and took a 31-24 lead into the break. MSU lost starting left tackle James Carmon to a knee injury during the second quarter, and he was on crutches in the second half.
Mullen told his team in the locker room that it was the worst he’d seen them play in a long time. The Bulldogs were called for eight penalties in the first half and just weren’t sharp on defense.
“Sometimes you come out, you expect something, and when you get it, you don’t know how to act,” said junior cornerback Corey Broomfield, who had five tackles and two pass break-ups.
Auburn QB Barrett Trotter was solid, completing 16 of 23 passes for 146 yards, two TDs and the interception. His favorite target was Emory Blake, who had seven catches for 108 yards and a score.
Auburn took a 41-27 lead with 14:03 to go in the game on a 10-yard pass from Trotter to tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, but MSU clawed back. After the teams traded punts, the Bulldogs marched 83 yards in 12 plays, with Vick Ballard busting in the end zone from 2 yards out with 4:51 left.
MSU’s offensive line suffered another blow on that drive when center Quentin Saulsberry was knocked out of the game with some kind of leg injury. Redshirt freshman Dillon Day filled in capably.
Ballard rushed for 135 yards, including 107 in the second half. He had 28 yards on five carries on the game’s final drive.
Relf wound up with 195 yards on 20-of-33 passing, and he rushed for 106 yards on 27 carries. On the last play, he appeared to have a path to the end zone when he turned it inside but got his legs cut out from underneath him by Smith, the cornerback.
“It felt like I was in, but I didn’t make the touchdown,” Relf said. “It’s just a matter of inches.”