State Stopped A Play Short By Tigers, 41-34

AUBURN -- It was a touchdown's difference on the scoreboard. On the field, Chris Relf saw a much narrow margin Much, much narrower. "The ball was in my hands, it was just a matter of a game of inches," he said. "I didn't come up with the big inch."

No, he didn't. The Mississippi State quarterback was cut down so close, and too far, from the goal line by Auburn safety Ryan Smith on the game's final play. The stop, on a keeper around left tackle, ran out the clock and finished a 41-34 Tiger (2-0) victory over the #16-ranked Bulldogs (1-1) in the SEC opener for each.

It was an upset in the polls, but more disturbing to Coach Dan Mullen. "I didn't have them ready to go enough for that final inch. And we came up an inch short."

This was all the tougher to take for a Bulldog offense that piled up 531 official yards, or 19,116 other inches, over the course of an explosive afternoon. Of that, 149 yards came on just the last two State series as they tried to come all the way back from a two-touchdown deficit in the final 8:24.

To their credit, the Bulldogs got close enough for it to come down to a last play. Or, two, as there were ten seconds remaining when Relf took the snap from outside the one-yard line, ball spotted well between the hashes. The quarterback had been given two plays to pick from and Mullen approved Relf's choice to take the ball leftward behind his tight end, the extra blocking end (defensive tackle Fletcher Cox) and a fullback.

"I was looking at the corner coming upfield, so I was going to take it in," Relf said. "The guy (Smith) came back-side and chopped me. It was just a matter of inches. I had the option to pitch but the corner came upfield. And I just didn't get it." Not even on review, which showed Relf coming down a step short while trying to extend the ball far enough. He couldn't.

For that matter two plays earlier tailback Vick Ballard came up just about as shy as he raced for the right pylon eight yards away. Ballard vaulted, extended, and came down way out of bounds. The spot of a yard away was not disputed by MSU coaches any more than the final shot, as Mullen watched the replay after review upheld the call.

"Chris said he felt great about the run call, we looked like we had it. And the kid made a heck of an open-field tackle. We missed a lot of those tackles, their kid made it."

That comment pointed to Mullen's real frustrating factor. He was not nearly so upset about the last inch itself as many other opportunities during the three-plus hour, 156 (official) offensive play game. The Bulldogs had 97 of those hikes, outgained the home team by 150 yards, had the ball over twelve more minutes…and still lost a shootout.

In Mullen's mind it was literally an inch here or there all game, not just the final play.

"That's a tough loss for us right there. That's 100% and completely on me, I need to get our team better prepared. I don't think our team played as well as we should."

The coach was still smarting over spotting Auburn two instant touchdowns on basic Bulldog mistakes that a top-twenty team oughtn't have made at any point and certainly least of all in an opening quarter. "Sometimes you expect something, and when you get it you don't know how to act," CB Corey Broomfield said. "I guess we're just surprised."

Badly so. A penalty on the opening kickoff return and two more flags had State punting from the four-yard line, giving Auburn great field position for their first series. They seized opportunity with a 35-yard touchdown run by Michael Dyer at 12:37. Less than a minute later it was 14-0 as Relf tried to hit WR Chad Bumphis coming off his cut, only to plunk Tiger T'Sharvan Bell in the helmet. The carom was caught by Demetruce McNeal for a 44-yard touchdown return.

"I told everybody just relax," Mullen said. "Unfortunately we spotted them 14 points and it came back to hurt us. But there was no panic, we calmed down and came back and actually took the lead."

The Dogs did indeed as LaDarius Perkins took an option pitch 40 yards for State's first touchdown, then Relf capped a 67-yard drive with a 15-yard strike to Brandon Heavens in the end zone. The lead was earned when CB Johnthan Banks stepped in front of Barrett Trotter's sideline throw at the Tiger 27 and went untouched into the end zone at 10:36.

Auburn was not rattling before the home folk though. They caught State out of defensive positions for positive runs, then when the Dogs crowded closer Trotter got the ball over the middle to Emory Blake for a 46-yard touchdown at 8:37. A series later it was Dyer doing most of the damage with five rushes and 26 yards including the last two, giving Auburn back the lead. They would not lose it either, though the sides swapped field goals for a 31-24 halftime score.

The Tigers scored on four-straight possession counting a three-pointer to open the third quarter, which State matched. Yet if nobody got a touchdown in the period the field position kept tilting Auburn's way as superior returns or big breaks in the ground game kept the moving…and the ball away from Bulldogs just long enough. Trotter found Phillip Lutzenkirchen for a ten-yard touchdown a minute into the last period for what proved the winning points "Our kids played hard, they believed," Mullen said. "We had a couple of deficit we fought back from, they never gave up."

The downfall was what had been given up. Auburn's 381 net yards was more impressive than first appeared. The Tigers got 235 rushing yards, over 6.5 each try; and worse was how easy it often looked. Dyer gashed the defense, particularly through right guard, for 150 yards and two scores on 18 rushes. Onterio McCaleb added 68 yards on 11 runs. State knew both were dangerous runners, but the manner was somewhat surprising to the scheming.

"We thought Dyer was going to run it a lot downhill," LB Cameron Lawrence said. "They were able to get outside us a couple of times. It was a combination of missed fits, and missed tackles. And they were able to out-leverage us a couple of times." A still-young Auburn offensive line earned Bulldog praise as well for both opening the angled creases Dyer and McCaleb used, as well as keeping Trotter (16-of-23, 146 yards) upright all but once.

"They did a good job of their splits with receivers and a lot of times they were able to crack us," Broomfield said. "We weren't able to crack-replace. They did a good job of that. Third down they loved post-wheel, we knew that, we went over that time and time again." But it didn't look that way in action.

Ballard, held to one yard in the first quarter, finished with 135 and the score. Relf got 106 yards of his own, all with multiple hits as he had to haul 27 times. Given the punishment his 20-of-33 passing for 195 yards and a touchdown were pretty impressive indeed. But Relf rued some missed connections in the second and third periods, such as when WR Michael Carr inexplicably slowed on a post-cut and couldn't catch up with the throw. A tying touchdown was there for the taking then.

The last chance was much harder and more dramatic. Mullen wasn't happy with the overall offense despite the big numbers. "We had 531 yards, still only had 34 points. We should have had 41, then you guys could have really got after me as a coach if we'd scored!" Not that State's decision was hard to guess.

"We all knew we were going for two," RT Addison Lawrence said. "We knew it was down between two plays, we didn't know what it was, but we knew we were staying on the field for when that was scored." Except there was no score.

"It's devastating," Mullen admitted. "We didn't play as well as we could have. Give them credit, they played really well today. But I expect that out of them. We certainly knew we were going to have our hands full.

"Come out and dig yourself a hole with silly penalties and an interception for touchdown, just awful. Defensively to give up 235 rushing on 36 carries is embarrassing, that's really poor on our coaching staff." And the coach might have been most irate about completely imbalanced field position that generally came from the kickoff and punting game. State never started better than their own 38 and nine times were either at or inside the 20.

"They outplayed us in certain phases, especially special teams, starting field position, those things," Mullen said. "That squarely falls on my shoulders."

The coach also accepted responsibility for getting his team re-ready for the next Tiger team, an even tougher one as #2-ranked LSU comes to campus. On Thursday, at that, leaving an abbreviated preparation period. Several State coaches were flying back on private plans ahead of the team to get the work-week started earlier than usual.

But this will mean more than planning and practicing. "We've got to put it behind us," C.Lawrence said. "We've got LSU rolling in who is going to be just as good of a team. Hopefully we'll play with a chip on our shoulder now.

As for motivation, "It's easy. You look at the AP poll and see LSU is #2 in the nation," Broomfield said. "You have an opportunity like that in front of you, it's easy to forget about this game here."


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