With only 10 ticks remaining on the fourth quarter game clock, the Auburn defense found itself in an inauspicious position; yet, a familiar one as well. Would the young guns of the plain find another rabbit in the hat and magically pull out a victory against touchdown favorite, Mississippi State?
Throughout the day, Auburn Offensive Coordinator, Gus Malzahn, had orchestrated a masterful symphony on offense. Nevertheless, he was unable to run out the clock with the game on the line and the bully offense of Mississippi State took the field. It did not take long for them end up first and goal with the ball resting between the goal line and the 1-yard line.
Bulldog Head Coach, Dan Mullen, chose to run Vick Ballard off left center but there was no hole. The shifty back, who had nearly scored just a play earlier by diving towards the pylon, side-stepped to go around left tackle but was stood up by Auburn linebacker and freight train, Jake Holland. Other Tiger defenders, including cornerback Chris Davis, helped drive Ballard to the ground and the play resulted in a one yard loss. A Mississippi State time-out stopped the clock with 10 seconds remaining in the game.
Once again, Auburn needed to find the magic of old and somehow, stop a Bulldog offense which carried the ball 62 times for 332 yards so far on the day.
Everyone, including Auburn's defense, expected to see a pass play. After taking the snap from center, Mississippi State quarterback, Chris Relf, chose to run the option to the left. Already, the Tiger defense had stopped them short of the goal. Instead of pitching the ball to his running back, Relf tucked it away and headed towards pay dirt.
1999 was the last year that Mississippi State began a season 1-0 in SEC play. As Relf headed for the end zone, I pondered if 2011 was the year Mississippi State would return to starting 1-0 in SEC play but my answer would come before completion of thought and it was not to be!
Out of nowhere, Tiger safety, Ryan Smith, a sophomore, came up and made one of the most outstanding open field tackles that I have ever witnessed. The bulldog quarterback gained one yard, but he was upended by a determined Auburn defense and the game clock expired with the ball resting where it began just two very long plays prior. The defensive goal line stand by Auburn preserved a 41-34 win over Mississippi State.
All is well that ends well; however, do not let this dramatic finish fool you. The Auburn Tiger defense did rise and for two plays, they owned the world. Prior to that, they would have used their last cent to buy a tackle against the powerful Bulldog offense. The Tigers will need to continue their magical ways as long as the defense gives up very long gains through the air and especially, on the ground.
On a brighter note, the Auburn Tiger offense played relatively well for four quarters of football. Quarterback Barrett Trotter completed 16 of 23 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns. His only sore spot came early in the second quarter when he gave up an interception deep in their own territory and suffered what is known in the football world as, "a pick six."
The interception return for a touchdown gave Mississippi State the lead but it would be their only one of the day. Fortunately, momentum remained with Auburn and it did not take long for the Tigers to score and tie the game.
Another bright spot on offense came by way of Auburn Tiger running back, Michael Dyer. The offensive MVP from last year's National Championship carried the ball 18 times for 150 yards and two touchdowns. His burst through the Bulldog defense was a significant part of Auburn's second victory of the young season.
Auburn Tiger wide receiver, Emory Blake, also had an outstanding day, scoring once and earning 108 yards on a mere 7 receptions.
Kick return specialist, Tre Mason, did not take one all the way on Saturday but he did show the world that he is a big weapon in Auburn's special teams arsenal right now. His brilliant returns against Utah State were no fluke. Against Mississippi State, Mason returned six Bulldog kickoffs for 172 yards. The excellent field position that was set up from the long returns of Tre Mason certainly gave the Tiger offense an advantage many times.
Other than the goal line stand, there were very few bright spots for the Auburn defense. Early in the first quarter, Tiger safety, Demetruce McNeal returned an interception 43 yards for a touchdown thanks to a key block by fellow Auburn defender, T'Sharvan Bell. Outside of that big play, the defense struggled.
Mississippi State gained 31 first downs and racked up a total of 531yards, 333 of it on the ground. Although Auburn walked away with a victory, the Tigers will find themselves in the loss column more times than not if they continue giving up the sort of numbers they allowed against Mississippi State. Give much credit to the Bulldog offense. The Bulldogs from Starkville are sure to give other SEC teams a run for their money this year.
Auburn will surely find themselves ranked when the new polls are released, but how long can the young team remain there? How long can the Tigers, under third year head coach, Gene Chizik, snatch a rabbit from a hat and pull out magical victories when they give up more than 500 yards to the opposing team's offense? Large doses of improvement are needed quickly!
From my seat on the 50 yard line, 18 rows behind the Auburn bench, I could clearly tell that Auburn's defense played with more confidence and more structure. The team moved quicker and played together more as a unit. Clearly, defensive captain Jake Holland provided much better communication and leadership on, and off, the field. This sophomore from Pelham High School is quickly becoming the glue that the defense needs to stick together during rough and trying times.
Auburn Defensive Coordinator Ted Roof certainly has much work to do. He is the medical doctor who will need to find a way to administer the very large doses of improvement that his young Tiger defense so desperately needs. His medicine after the first game seemed to help improve things somewhat against Mississippi State but with stronger opponents waiting down the line, he must continue to increase the dosage.
Another very evident statistic relating to Auburn's victory over Mississippi State is relative to the fans. Not a single soul made his or her way towards the exit before this game ended. Win or lose: "All In!"