In the league opener for both teams, 17th-ranked Auburn gave Mississippi State a demonstration in pure Southeastern Conference power. The Tigers punched out a pair of first-quarter touchdowns and kept swinging until the clock ended with the scoreboard showing 43-14. Auburn left town 2-0 overall, while State fell to 1-1.
The Dogs fell hard, too. “We could have played better than we played,” tailback Fred Reid said. “But Auburn’s a good team.”
A much better team this September Saturday than Mississippi State, which a week before had given Sylvester Croom his first victory as head coach. His first loss was an occasion he’d rather not remember, though forgetting this defeat might take a while.
“Auburn beat us about every way you can beat us,” Croom said.
That they did, piling up margins on the stat sheet as lopsided as the final score. The Tigers ground (often literally) out 465 total yards, netting 7.4 yards per offensive snap, while holding State to total gains of only 271. And 97of those yards came in the fourth quarter, long after the outcome had been settled. In fact, if not for a couple of late touchdowns manufactured by State’s second team against Tiger backups the Bulldogs were in danger of being shut out before 51,021 at home and on regional TV.
“We could have done a whole lot better,” said defensive end Willie Evans. “We just weren’t ourselves today.”
Unfortunately Auburn was everything Croom expected, and feared. “I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out how they beat us,” the coach said. “They beat us on the line of scrimmage.”
Beat-up was another way to say it. The Tigers put their anticipated advantages in the trenches, both sides, to use early and often and established a physical style State just could not match. “Auburn’s a really good team,” Reid agreed. “They played really hard and we didn’t play as hard as we’re supposed to.”
“I don’t know if we had given our best if we would have won,” Croom said. “I know that’s not as good as we can play. And that’s what bothers me.”
Auburn claimed a fourth-straight win in the series, and handed the Dogs their ninth-consecutive loss in SEC West play.
It would have taken an extreme State effort to cope with Auburn’s touted ground-pounding offense. Dog veterans knew how difficult the tailback tandem of Carnell ‘Cadillac’ Williams and Ronnie Brown are to slow, much less stop. Croom knew their talent as well, having seen tape of them as a NFL backfield coach the last two winters. “They’ll be playing on Sunday,” he said.
On Saturday both looked like pros already, with Brown gaining 147 yards and Williams 122 with a pair of touchdowns. On 34 combined carries the pair averaged 7.9 yards, and left bruised Bulldog bodies in their wake(s). “They’ve got some great running backs and they found the holes,” Evans said. “Great running backs make great plays.”
The Dog defense was on its collective heels right from the start as Auburn rolled on drives of 70 and 61 yards in the first two turns. As their linemen overpowered State up front the big backs could read the blocking and pick their alleys. And there were always gaps with the blocking flow going toward the MSU ‘nose’ and the backs cutting against the grain.
“If those guys get in the hole at an angle and you’re one-on-one it’s difficult,” Croom said. State knew it could not win a straight matchup of muscle so the plan was to stunt and meet the runner in the gaps. Unfortunately too many gaps went un-filled, and the support could not stop Brown or Williams once they had a head of steam.
“I just thought we would tackle better than that, I really did,” Croom said. “Maybe I was naïve about that.”
There was nothing fancy about the first drive, just an 11-play series of shots into the line with some tosses by quarterback Jason Campbell to spread out the support. After getting to the MSU five-yard line Campbell, the Taylorsville native, found Anthony Mix coming across a step in front of safety Slovakia Griffith and hit him at the goal line for the opening touchdown.
The second drive was depressingly similar, taking nine plays as Brown and Williams bouncing outside the ends. The Tiger ballcarrier also never went down on initial contact, breaking tackles for additional yards such as when Brown ran through Ronald Fields for a gainer of nine. On his next tote Brown bounced off two Bulldogs before Clarence McDougal dragged him down at the two-yard line to prevent the score…temporarily. Williams did the honors, spinning through a gap at center for the touchdown and 14-0 lead.
Down by two scores already State’s offense had to adjust the gameplan accordingly. A ten-play drive extending into the second quarter did let the defense catch its breath but produced no points. The Bulldogs wanted run the package against Auburn but never got the chance.
“We wanted to mix some runs in, different kinds of runs, try to get on the edge with different personnel, and complete some high-percentage passes and then hope to take some shots up the field,” Croom said. “But with that lead they had they could sit back in coverage and not allow that.”
The Tiger front could also come after quarterback Omarr Conner almost at will. While Conner did evade long enough to throw the ball—he completed his first seven tosses—the net gains were modest. The running game never even got off the ground.
“Their defense was whipping our front,” Croom said. “Bottom line, they whipped us.”
The whipping got worse in the second quarter. On 2nd-and-6 at the Tiger 11-yard line Brown blasted through right guard, shrugged linebacker Marvin Byrdsong aside, and made 59 yards before Griffith could coerce him out of bounds at the Bulldog 30-yard line. On third-and-five from the MSU 25, Campbell waited until Ben Obomanu came open in the again-empty middle. Before taking a hard hit from Bennett and Andrew Powell the Tiger quarterback was able to release and Obomanu easily outran the pursuit to reach the left pylon at 7:48 for a 21-0 halftime lead.
Auburn padded the lead twice more in a long third period. Williams got his second touchdown on a three-yard burst at 6:41, then after State gave the ball over on downs across midfield the coverage failed again. On 3rd-and-10 at his 42-yard line Campbell had plenty of time to find Mix at the State 40. The wideout was swarmed yet somehow spun out of three arm-tackles to get loose down the left sideline and cross the goal at 0:26.
The Tigers tacked on one last score after intercepting Kyle York on a deep throw down the middle. Seven plays later backup Brandon Cox threw a seven-yard lob and Obomanu beat rookie cornerback Mario Bobo for a leaping grab in the end zone. Holder Sam Rives bobbled the PAT snap but was able to run around right end for two meaningless points.
Croom let his own second unit play the rest of the way and they finally did what the starters could not, albeit against the Tiger backups. York directed a 17-play drive of 83 yards capped by his one-yard throw to Jason Husband in the end zone. Cox fumbled on a sack by tackle Avery Hannibal at Auburn’s 15-yard line and York again hooked up with Husband, for a nine-yard touchdown play.
“The only thing that was even pleasing was the way our second unit went out and finished the football game,” said Croom. “They played hard and didn’t quit, some young guys made plays.” York finished with 77 yards on 8-of-10 passing. Conner got no points but was 16-of-26 for 113 yards. He was also hit, a lot, and came to the postgame conference with a brace on his throwing wrist.
It was a frustrating day for the triggerman, who actually thought he threw better his second time out. Conner also saw missed chances to keep the game competitive. “We just killed ourselves on drives. We had penalties, maybe I messed up on a call, I held the clock too long. Those things killed our drives.”
So did State’s inability to run the ball, as Norwood finished with 41 yards on nine carries and Reid 11 on four. Backup Jason Jude collected 32 yards on 11 four-quarter runs. If there was a bright spot it was how the ball was spread around, with 11 Dogs making catches. But this also pointed to a lack of prowess on the ground against a SEC defense.
“They were shutting us down,” Reid said. “We couldn’t execute the run and if you can’t run you basically don’t have anything going on offense. We have to work at that because that’s where everything starts.”
Croom said the work starts back on Monday as the Bulldogs try to recover from a beating and get ready for a chance at some redemption. He is not worried about motivating his team, either.
“I don’t think our players like the taste of what happened today, and I know I don’t. If any of them are satisfied with our performance today, they’re in the wrong place.”