AUBURN, Ala. — For the third straight season, Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen will leave a game against Auburn University with a 0-1 record in the Southeastern Conference.
Throughout the week of preparation, Mullen and his players said they”d begin to know how No. 16 MSU would stack up with the league”s elite after playing defending national champion Auburn on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The answer is one inch short after a disappointing 41-34 loss.
“We came up an inch short,” Mullen said. “We have to find a way to take that final inch. That”s what is separating us from being a great team.”
One inch is how far senior quarterback Chris Relf came from the goal line on the game”s final play.
One inch is what it looked like Auburn received on an official”s spot on a first down late in the third quarter.
One inch is what separates MSU from its first 1-0 start in the SEC since 1999.
With 10 seconds remaining in the game and MSU 2 yards from a touchdown, Relf optioned to the left and was wrapped up by backup safety Ryan Smith to end the game.
“The ball was in my hands and this is a game of inches, and I just didn”t come up with the big inch there,” Relf said.
Auburn who has won four of its past five games by less than 10 points dating back to last season, extended the nation”s longest winning streak to 17 games with the victory.
“Coming down to the last play and fighting, scratching, and clawing for every inch, you have a heavyweight fight,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “Fifteen rounds, last man standing, That”s what you have to do to be able to win these games.”
The loss for MSU (1-1, 0-1 SEC) is the 10th in its past 11 attempts against Auburn. The 41 points is the most the Bulldogs have allowed since a 49-24 loss in Mullen”s first trip to Auburn two years ago.
“To give up 235 yards on 36 carries is embarrassing,” Mullen said. “That”s really poor by our defensive coaching staff. We”ll get that fixed.”
The first two possessions couldn”t have gone much worse for MSU. The Bulldogs went three-and-out on their first offensive series and the Tigers used the excellent field position to get an early lead. Sophomore Michael Dyer (18 carries 150 yards, two touchdowns) eluded four tacklers on his way to a 35-yard touchdown.
On MSU”s next possession, Relf hit junior defensive back T”Sharvan Bell in the helmet and the ricochet landed in the hands of sophomore Demetruce McNeal, who weaved his way for a 44-yard return that gave the crowd of 87,541 reason to expect a blowout.
“I just told everyone relax,” Mullen said. “We spotted them 14 points, and I wish we had those 14 points right now.”
Multiple personal foul penalties following the touchdown forced Auburn to kick from the 15-yard line. MSU capitalized as sophomore tailback LaDarius Perkins, who had a quiet outing last week in a 59-14 win at the University of Memphis, scampered 40 yards around the corner for the Bulldogs” first touchdown.
The run was the second-longest in Perkins” career, and the fifth MSU touchdown of at least 40 yards this season. MSU had six scores of that length last season.
MSU tied the score on its next drive by slicing up the defense on inside carries between the offensive tackles. Relf then executed a rollout to his left, and just as defensive end Dee Ford thought he had a sack, Relf found junior wide receiver Brandon Heaves on an out-and-up route to the corner for a 15-yard score.
The touchdown was the first for Heavens, who committed to Auburn more than three years ago, since the 2010 season-opening win against Memphis.
MSU gained 531 yards (333 rushing) and held a 12-minute, 14-second advantage in time of possession but left Auburn with another Western Division loss.
“There is something to be said for knowing you can fight down to the end when it doesn”t look good and still be able to win a game,” Chizik said.
Relf had 301 yards (195 passing, 106 rushing) and one touchdown. The senior from Montgomery, Ala., had nearly 4 yards per carry on 27 attempts through the middle of the defense.
“I was extremely impressed with that young man because I don”t know how many times he carried the ball, but I think at halftime it was 15,” Chizik said. “That is an extremely tough day taking that many hits and still being able to throw the ball like he does.”
MSU took its first lead after junior cornerback Johnthan Banks stepped in front of a short sideline route for a 27-yard interception return for a touchdown. The former East Webster High School standout read quarterback Barrett Trotter”s eyes for his first interception. In the process, he tied teammate Corey Broomfield for the nation”s lead among active players with three interception returns for scores.
Trotter rebounded for his first career interception to find junior receiver Emory Blake (seven catches, career-high 108 yards) over the middle for a 46-yard pitch and catch for a touchdown. Auburn took the field back before the halftime break on Dyer”s second touchdown, as the sophomore carried three defenders into the end zone.
“We are all clicking,” Blake said. “We were all making plays out there, and was a great overall win for the team.”
After 30 minutes, the teams had 55 points, 594 yards, 26 first downs, and 259 rushing yards. Last season, both teams combined for 594 in a 17-14 Auburn victory.
Mullen was furious at halftime, calling the performance that left his team trailing 31-24 at halftime “the worst we”ve played in a long time around here.”
“It did feel like we were down by more than (seven),” MSU safety Charles Mitchell said. “We kept getting in bad field position and couldn”t get anything going.”
Five days from now, MSU must stop the negative momentum slide and gear up for its home opener against No. 2 LSU at Davis Wade Stadium. ESPN will broadcast the game at 7 p.m.
“It”s going to test your character, test the character of our coaching staff, strength staff, our administration, our trainers, and our student body. ” Mullen said. “We have to see how we respond.”