STARKVILLE — Auburn overcame its own missed chances and a resilient Mississippi State defense to escape Starkville with a 17-14 win Thursday night.
The anticipated shootout between two of the league”s highlight offenses from Week 1 never materialized, as both offenses were held under 350 yards.
Mississippi State”s passing game accounted for just 129 of the team”s 246 yards, as Chris Relf and Tyler Russell looked nothing like they did a week ago against Memphis, when they combined to throw five touchdown passes.
Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton tossed a pair of touchdown passes and finished with 228 combined yards.
Through two turnovers, five dropped passes and three sacks, the Bulldogs had a chance to clinch the win or send the game to overtime with a hair over two minutes left in regulation.
MSU (1-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) blocked a field goal that would have put Auburn (2-0, 1-0) up 20-14, taking over possession at its own 41. Relf converted on fourth-and-5 with a 22-yard pass to Arceto Clark, but the drive burned out when, from the Auburn 40, Leon Berry dropped a pass that would have put the Bulldogs inside the Tigers” redzone and given them a shot to tie with a field goal or go ahead with a touchdown.
MSU head coach Dan Mullen lamented the team”s inability to close-out the game and make the plays needed to win.
“The opportunity was there for us to win and we didn”t grab it,” Mullen said. “In the end [Auburn] made more plays than we did. When they needed to make the play, they did. We didn”t.”
Newton burned a pair of MSU blitzes for touchdown passes in the first half, first finding Emory Blake for a 39-yard score and then Darvin Adams for a 12-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
But Newton was largely held at bay, logging a 17-yard run and the 39-yard score to Blake as his longest plays from scrimmage.
Newton was effective as a runner, finishing with a team-high 70 yards on 18 carries. However, the big plays MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was concerned about early in the week were limited.
Despite holding Gus Malzahn”s offense to 17 points, Diaz wasn”t satisfied with his unit”s play.
“We know we can play so much better than what we did,” Diaz said. “The defense let the team down because we gave up more points than our offense could score. The one drive they score the touchdown, the ball was on the ground twice. Then we have an interception for a touchdown that we bat to the ground.
“We”ve got to get the confidence to make the big-time plays in big-time environments.”
State squandered Sean Brauchle”s brilliant onside kick and the chance to keep momentum following Vick Ballard”s one-yard scoring run to open the second half. Bruachle squib kicked the ball straight up the field and recovered it on the hop only to watch Relf overthrow two receivers and waste the midfield position with a three-and-out.
On the heels of that missed chance, MSU cornerback Corey Broomfield dropped a sure-fire pick-six on the ensuing Auburn possession after sniffing out a bubble screen.
Relf endured a shaky first half that included two sacks on one drive, two fumbles and several overthrown passes. Still, he took all but six snaps in the half.
Bumphis” open drop on the Bulldogs” first pass play proved to be an omen for the disjointedness the Bulldogs would experience on this night.
“Our main goal on offense is to get two first downs,” Bumphis explained, “just so we can get something going and so we don”t put the defense in a bad situation. On about three drives in a row, we didn”t do that.
“It just does back to not making the best of our opportunities.”
Russell, after tying a MSU record four touchdown passes last week against Memphis, failed to replicate the performance against Auburn, especially in the third quarter when he went three-and-out on back-to-back drives. Both drives started from inside MSU”s 15-yard line.
Russell was 4-of-9 for 19 yards with an interception, which came immediately after tight end Brandon Henderson dropped a first-down pass in Auburn territory.
The Bulldogs escaped a pair of short fields and limited Auburn to 123 offensive yards in the second half. Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said the second half experience provided the perfect early-season conference test his team needed. In particular, he singled out his defense for limiting a MSU offense he spent all week praising.
“Coach (Ted) Roof had a great game plan for a very potent offense dating back to last year,” Chizik said. “I thought the players played extremely hard and they executed what we ask them to do most of the time as good as we could do it.
“We didn”t play perfect, but I think Coach Roof had them in the right spots and they played physical and hard. That was encouraging to see….they were relentless down to the last snap.”
Mississippi State travels to LSU next Saturday, while Auburn hosts Clemson.