STARKVILLE — In the last two contests previous to Saturday’s matchup with Auburn, Mississippi State built a bit of goodwill from its fanbase by playing exciting, tightly contested games while shorthanded against Ole Miss and Georgia, even if both were losing efforts.
That narrative tried to survive for a third straight game, as MSU coach Mike Leach said the Bulldogs were below the 53-man threshold once again following his team’s 24-10 loss to Auburn. Alas, even in what was a one-possession game for most of the night, fans in Davis Wade Stadium and those watching on TV would probably tell you they watched paint dry.
The first half was reserved for kickers only, with both teams combining to go 2 of 15 on third down en route to three combined field goals. Auburn’s offense was such a mess it saw a running back run into a receiver on a play when the guard is pulling, Bo Nix scrambling for his life every play because the offensive line couldn’t block anybody and so much misdirection it almost looks like the offense itself was confused. Nix also didn’t complete a single pass in the third quarter, either.
Nevertheless, MSU couldn’t take advantage of an opposing signal caller who finished with 125 passing yards on 32 attempts. Leach, an offensive-minded coach, saw his air raid limited to less than 300 total yards for the fifth time in nine games and averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per play.
His team will finish the regular season with no more than three wins.
In his postgame interview, Leach said nobody expected the Bulldogs to play Auburn this close at the start of the season. Probably a fair point. But those same would-be fortune tellers would probably also predict MSU beat Arkansas by double digits and that Auburn wouldn’t get absolutely humiliated by Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Point being: Things change.
Most of the talk leading up to the game was around the bubbling cauldron of Gus Malzahn’s future at Auburn for what seems like the third straight year, after turning in another disappointing season (in Tigers fan’s eyes, at least). Even though $21 million reasons may have kept Malzahn in place if the Tigers lost Saturday, dropped passes, poor protection and consistently thwarted checkdown attempts made darn sure he stayed in place for at least another year. A video circulated on social media after the game that showed Malzahn dancing in celebration in the locker room following the win, which, sadly, was probably one of the more agile moves anyone affiliated with either program made all night.
Of course, there were positives. Zach Arnett’s defense held up relatively well for the most part until getting beat deep in the fourth quarter when the unit that had carried the Bulldogs for three quarters just looked gassed.
Probably the biggest positive of the night resulted in the early diagnosis of Marquiss Spencer, who made fans at Davis Wade hold their collective breath when he laid motionless on the field for an uncomfortable amount of time after sustaining an injury. Both MSU and Auburn players took a knee on the field in support of Spencer. Eventually, the 6-foot-4, 300-pound defensive end had to be carried off on a backboard. But so far, so good.
“(He’s) moving around, looks very positive,” Leach said regarding Spencer postgame.
To add insult to (literal) injury, officials called Spencer, the dude laying on his back on the field, for a targeting penalty. This after what looked to be a textbook targeting call was overturned in the first half.
“If you give me $10,000, I’ll give you the best explanation you’ve heard in your entire life,” Leach said of the overturned call. Even guys who get paid $5 million a year like to avoid fines, too.
MSU will attempt to salvage something besides moral victories in its season finale against Missouri next week. But it’s going to need its offense to perform better.
Hodge is the former sports editor for The Dispatch.