Auburn, Ala.--Auburn had never lost a SEC opener under Coach Tommy Tuberville but Saturday the Tigers did just that as the Mississippi State Bulldogs scratched out a 19-14 win to give Auburn two consecutive defeats and put them in a serious hole already for the 2007 season.
In a loss to South Florida last week, Auburn turned the ball over five times to essentially give away a victory to the Bulls. This time around it was much of the same as quarterback Brandon Cox threw interceptions on each of his first two pass attempts, one returned by MSU's Derek Pegues for a touchdown, freshman Kodi Burns turned the ball over twice, and Mario Fannin added his third fumble in two games to kill Auburn's hopes against the Bulldogs.
"It was a game of mistakes on both sides," Auburn's Tommy Tuberville said. "Neither team executed very well on offense. It came down really to a good punt by their guy that flipped the field. They got pretty good field position and defensively, we couldn't hold them out. We had great effort. We had guys fighting hard. I thought there were times when we had an opportunity to score more points but we just shot ourselves in the foot. Turnovers continue to be our problem."
The story of the day for Auburn is at quarterback where Cox again had an off day before driving the Tigers down the field late in a comeback attempt. A fourth down pass into the endzone failed, a fitting end to another rough day by Cox under center. Although he turned the ball over twice, Burns gave the offense a lift as he rushed for 87 yards and threw for 65 on 8-12 passing. Tuberville said at the moment he's not sure what to make of the quarterback position.
"I don't know," Tuberville said. "It was good to see Brandon come back in. He was a leader the whole game, talking to Kodi and trying to get him going. I thought Kodi gave us an opportunity but when you only have so much offense you can run eventually they kind of caught up to it. You've got to be able to run a little bit more of the offense than what we're able to run with Kodi.
"There was no need to hold Kodi out after the way Brandon started. He made a couple of bad throws and then after that I thought Kodi did a good job. He'll get a lot better. He'll be better each week. We'll have to look at the film and see where we're at."
Coming into the game, Auburn installed a package of plays for Burns that they hoped would be used only sparingly throughout the contest. When Cox struggled to open the game, that plan was scrapped with Burns handling the duties full time. Tuberville said it was something they hoped to avoid but didn't have any choice.
"We weren't really 100 percent on whether we were going to play him," Tuberville said. "We worked him a lot this week. We were hoping we would come out and make some plays. Blake (Field), we feel like he can move the ball for us too but he's a lot like Brandon. We just needed a change of pace."
While turnovers were the story on offense, defensively the Tigers held Mississippi State to just 213 total yards but for the second week in a row gave up a scoring drive late to allow the opposition to take the lead. Playing without starting quarterback Michael Henig, the Bulldogs turned to workhorse back Anthony Dixon and back up Christian Ducre. They combined for 166 rushing yards as the Bulldogs had just 41 passing yards.
The two key plays for Auburn's defense both came in third down situations on the final drive. Completing just five passes on the day, Mississippi State instead ran draw plays on third and 12 as well as third and goal from the five yard line. Both worked as the Bulldogs first picked up a first down and then a touchdown to ultimately give them the victory.
"They out-guessed us," Tuberville said. "It was third and 11 or 12 and they run the draw play. We didn't have anybody there to make the tackle. We were guessing. When you get down there that's about what you have to do. They made a third down conversion and we didn't make a fourth down conversion. That's basically what the game came down to."
Now the Tigers try to regroup and find a way to improve before non-conference foe New Mexico State comes to town. The first order of business is to find an offense that can be a consistent threat without turning the ball over almost every 10 plays. Tuberville said right now the Tigers have to get it going because there is no tomorrow.
"We're struggling a little bit running the ball," Tuberville said. "When we struggle running the ball that's obviously going to give us problems in the passing game. We're not doing things right in a lot of places. It's not just quarterback. Brandon got a lot of blame last week and there is blame everywhere from me to all the coaches to the players. This group knows where they're at and what they've got to do. We've got to look forward. We can't look back and dwell on these losses. We know we can win some games and we know we can be a pretty good team. Our goal is to get better each week."