With a wild and exciting 41-34 decision over 16th-ranked Mississippi State the Tigers improved to 2-0 overall and 1-0 in the SEC thanks to many outstanding plays, but none was bigger than the final one.
Facing goal to go at the Auburn two-yard line with just enough time left for one running play, the visiting Bulldogs called the number of their super-sized quarterback, Chris Relf, on a keeper, but he was cut down a yard shy of the goal line by an unlikely hero, backup sophomore safety Ryan Smith.
"I knew he was going to keep the ball and I knew what I had to do," said Smith, who was lined up tight like a linebacker in Auburn's goal line defense package.
With Auburn's defensive front knocking down Relf's blockers, the former Cordova High star quarterback and safety made a bee line for Relf and cut him down like a chainsaw, sending a capacity crowd, and the Tigers themselves, into celebration.
Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof said he was proud of Smith, who was suspended from the team in the offseason for disciplinary issues before being cleared to return this summer. However, the Auburn coach noted it was a group effort.
"There were a lot of people in front of him doing a lot of dirty jobs that people don't realize and I am equally proud of those guys," Roof said. "Our whole front was trying to get vertical penetration so the quarterback has to bow. They did that and then Ryan was right where he supposed to be and the good guys won."
Ryan Smith makes the big defensive play to end the game.
The final play, the 97th of the game for the Mississippi State offense, ended a game that featured major momentum swings and 531 yards for the MSU offense with most of it coming on the ground.
Relf kept the ball 27 times and gained 106 yards plus the respect of Auburn head coach Gene Chizik, who lauded the senior for his toughness. MSU star running back Vick Ballard carried the football 21 times for 135 yards and a touchdown, but was out-dueled by Auburn sophomore Michael Dyer, who rushed for 150 yards and two scores on 18 carries.
Mississippi State rushed for 333 yards. Auburn countered with 235, a major improvement over the opener vs. Utah State when the Tigers finished with under 100 for the first time in the Gene Chizik Era.
Quarterback Barrett Trotter said the offensive line made a big difference in the game and was much improved over the previous week. The offensive line for game two featured a new lineup with A.J. Greene starting at left tackle and Brandon Mosley moving from left tackle back to his old spot on the right side to replace redshirt freshman Chad Slade.
Commenting on the offensive line, Trotter said, "I felt a lot more comfortable with them. We were able to run the ball a lot better so I was real proud of them."
Asked if the physical week of practices helped the offense improve in week two, the quarterback said, "I definitely think it did. We had to be more prepared and ready to play than we were the previous week."
Chizik, who improved his record to 3-0 vs. MSU head coach Dan Mullen, called the game a brawl and said it reminded him of an old-time, heavyweight boxing match that went to the last man standing.
"I think we got better today," Chizik said, pointing out that the Tigers played a more physical style of football in week two against what he called a very good Mississippi team."
Gene Chizik thanks the fans for their support following the game.
The Tigers got off to a good start, forcing a three-and-out after the opening kickoff and getting the football in terrific field position at the Mississippi State 36.
The Tigers scored on first down from the 35 after the Tigers got pushed back by a dead ball penalty on wide receiver Jay Wisner, who was making his first appearance since leaving the team last season. Michael Dyer took a handoff at right tackle, cut outside and raced down the sideline for a touchdown.
Less than a minute later on the clock the Tigers were up 14-0 when they got their first defensive score of the season as Demetruce McNeal picked off a tipped Relf pass and ran 43 yards for a touchdown with the help of a block near the goal line from T'Sharvan Bell.
The Auburn defense, which started so well, struggled the rest of the first quarter.
The Bulldogs got on the scoreboard by moving 62 yards on just three plays on their next possession. Former Auburn verbal commitment LaDarius Perkins took an option pitch at left end and raced 40 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to 14-7.
Another former Auburn commitment, Brandon Heavens, scored the second touchdown for the Bulldogs. Relf completed a 15-yard pass into the south end zone with 6:32 left in the first quarter for the score to tie the game at 14-14.
The second quarter had just as much action as the first.
Mississippi State took the lead on a pick six on a short sideline route from Trotter to DeAngelo Benton. Johnathan Banks was in perfect position and he had a clear path to the end zone from 27 yards out to make the score 21-14.
Auburn answered with a 46-yard kickoff return by Tre Mason and a 46-yard touchdown pass from Trotter to Emory Blake on a crossing route. Good blocks by left tackle Greene and McCalebb on a blitz gave the quarterback enough time for the route to develop.
Michael Dyer rushed for 150 yards for the Tigers.
After the defense forced a punt by the visitors the Tigers quickly moved the football 59 yards on six plays with Dyer doing much of the damage on the ground. The sophomore running back's second effort on second down and goal to go at the three put the Tigers on top 28-21 with 4:51 left in the half.
Mississippi State continued to hurt Auburn on third down and was able to move the football 70 yards on 12 plays to cut the lead to 28-24 with 40 seconds left in the second quarter.
Although Auburn had just one timeout when the Tigers got the ball at their 20 after the kickoff, the Tigers were able to run five plays and march the ball 54 yards to set up Cody Parkey's first field goal of the season, a 43-yarder, with five seconds left before intermission after a half that lasted right at two hours.
Auburn got the football to start the second half and Mason's 41-yard return put the Tigers in business at midfield. Dyer's runs got the Tigers in field goal range setting up a 37-yarder by Parkey to make the score 34-27.
The Auburn defense's struggles on third down showed up again on MSU's first second half possession. The Bulldogs moved 65 yards on 10 plays before setting for a 32-yard field goal by Derek DePasquale to cut Auburn's lead to 34-27 with 9:12 left in the third quarter.
The Tigers looked to be in good shape as they put together a long drive that started at their eight-yard line late in the third quarter. Tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen caught a 10-yard pass from Trotter with 14:03 to stretch their lead to 41-27.
However, the offense didn't score again, prompting offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to note the Tigers have work to do on third down situations after struggling in those situations in the final period and throughout the game, converting just 4-12 while the Bulldogs made 11-20.
Mainly using the their running attack, the Bulldogs drove the football 83 yards on 12 plays in a do-or-die situation ot cut Auburn's lead to seven points with 4:51 to play.
After the Tigers had a three-and-out, Mississippi State took over on its 33-yard line after a 22-yard punt return by Banks. The Bulldogs had 2:52 left and three timeouts for the final possession of the game that ended a yard shy of the end zone as the clock hit 0:00.
Next up for Auburn is a road trip to Clemson. Kickoff is 11 a.m. CDT next Saturday.