"We just executed," said OLB Cameron Lawrence. "Our coaches were making great calls and we executed well. When you do that things just fall in place."
Something which fell hard, besides the visiting Tigers (0-2, 0-1) was the much-discussed troubles Mississippi State and Dan Mullen have endured against the SEC's Western Division. A 3-12 record in three years was tolerable given that all the wins were over Ole Miss…but a breakout was needed for program pride. Getting it against a Division foe that tormented State with close calls in 2010 and '11 was all the sweeter to veteran Dogs.
"We've always felt we could complete with people in the SEC, beat people in the SEC," CB Johnthan Banks said. "But it feels good to get a win against somebody other than TSUN."
Mullen wasn't overly bothered about specific records or opponents. His worry as the game developed early was avoiding the same second-week letdowns and breakdowns of the first three years. Then when the Bulldogs managed to A) miss a field goal, B) fumble away a gilded opportunity, and C) give up a kickoff return touchdown and lead to open the second half, Mullen saw some old bad signs.
But not, he said, the same sort of squad mindset in adversity.
"I thought we were playing pretty well, then doing things that in the past have just bitten us. We did some of the silly things we've never been able to respond to. But I like the poise our players and coaches had on both sides of the ball. There never was any concern we were going to make the plays."
The Bulldogs did just that. With QB Tyler Russell slicing Auburn apart in the air, and TB LaDarius Perkins leading a ruthless ground game, State scored consecutive touchdowns to regain first the lead and then control. They put it away in the final period on a 21-yard scamper by Perkins for the final margin of victory. It was State's first win over Auburn since 2007, not to mention the first time since 1999 a Bulldog team won their conference opener.
Sure, there was all the standard scouting and scheming. The bottom line was the Bulldogs were better and just plain bigger where it matters in most SEC contests. "I really think our offensive line was better than their defensive line," Smith said. "And it showed."
It did indeed. Even as State averaged six yards per snap, with over a score's worth of plays going for double-digit gains, the fancy numbers came down to superiority at point of contact. A Bulldog line that was subject to preseason questions had the right answers against a surprisingly outmanned and overmatched Auburn bunch.
"The line held up fabulously and they worked together," said Mullen. Russell benefitted most from steady blocking, throwing 20-of-29 for 222 yards and touchdowns of 30, 13, and three yards. Then again the junior quarterback gave his protectors a hand, or foot rather. Russell showed a fine sense when and where to move around the pocket and even vacate it. Not so much to run, but to roll; two of his scoring throws came with Russell breaking to the right and letting targets come open in the end zone.
Russell did not have everything his way, taking two official sacks and several other hard knockdowns; typically on blind-side pressures. He bounced back up each time and typically made the next play work. "We knew they were going to come in and try to hit you," he said. "That's the thing you can't worry about, when you start thinking about the rush you're going to throw picks. Our guys stayed calm and we were able to make big plays."
Perkins and cohorts made their own plays. Auburn had a pair of 300-pound tackles filling the middle yet Bulldog backs consistently found them shoved out of the way or just running the wrong way. With Tiger defensive ends committed to blitzing that left open ground ahead. Perkins picked up 83 yards on his 14 carries with 166 net rushing yards.
"We watched the inside guys and three-technique guys and knew we could run the ball on them," Perkins said. "That was working because of the great blocking of the o-line. And because of passing the ball more, the pass opened up the run."
Auburn could not run. Nor pass all that well. Sophomore Kiehl Frazier had a long, hard day dealing with steady coverage downfield and a defensive scheme that kept him contained and looking anyway. Senior linebacker Lawrence said the trick was not letting Frazier use his obvious mobility any more than possible.
"It was a young quarterback, we knew we could change things up with different looks. We came at him from all directions, we'd blitz him or drop in coverage. I think that might have confused him a little bit." Or a lot as Frazier was 13-of-22 for 125 yards with no scores and three interceptions. Two of those picks went to Banks' account, the other to CB Darius Slay in the end zone to nip Auburn's best and last chance to score an offensive touchdown.
"We played good as a team, not just individually," Banks said. "We just played lights-out on defense. We were really just trying to shut them out."
The Dogs came pretty close. Nobody scored in the first period at all, though State should have after a smart opening drive to the Tiger 19. PK Devon Bell lined his 36-yard field goal try wide left at 10:44. A series of punts later State was on their 31 and WR Chris Smith catching a Russell throw.
And fumbling it away. A facemask flag helped Auburn get as far as the five-yard line before the Tigers had to kick for three. They were good at 9:40. But as Mullen noted, his team bounced back promptly. Russell directed a 70-yard drive in seven snaps, the last a perfect play-fake that froze everyone Auburn while TE Marcus Green found a great big open seam along the hashmarks. He caught Russell's toss inside the 15 and made the rest of the way on his own steam at 6:53.
State should have expanded immediately as Frazier, rushed but not flushed, threw from a collapsing pocket right to Banks at the 42. Banks barely touched the sideline at the 34 to prevent a pick-six and an illegal block crimped the drive. Bell got another shot, from 46 yards this time with the wind, only to leave it low enough for Angelo Blackson to block. Another Banks interception of Frazier led to nothing due to a block-in-back on the return try.
So it was a 7-3 locker room lead that ought to have been twice as strong. Mullen actually thought it would be sufficient. "I told the defense it they don't score, we win the game. I guess I lied to our guys, within ten seconds of the second half we needed to score again!" Because Onterrio McCalebb took Bell's kick a yard deep in his end zone and ran it all the other way for a go-ahead touchdown. He used a gap opened when teammate Avery Young held, literally, Lawrence to create the needed seam.
"Some would say, and I would agree!" Lawrence could laugh, later. Seriously, "There wasn't any doubt in my mind our offense was going to take the field and respond. I didn't worry about it one bit."
Instead Russell threw for 20 and 11 yards to get a response-drive going. Perkins converted 3rd-and-5, after Auburn was offsides on 3rd-and-10; and after a 16-yard strike to C.Smith it was Russell rolling right and WR Chad Bumphis getting end zone separation. As well as a foot down in the right-back corner for the 13-yard touchdown at 11:35.
"They responded without a hiccup and that's what you want to see," Mullen said.
Auburn didn't. If anything the Tigers had no real response relying on rushes and keepers against a Dog defense looking run. Getting the ball back, State manufactured a 10-play scoring drive featuring a 21-yard strike to WR Jameon Lewis as Russell really stood-in under assault. A personal foul meant first-and-goal at the five and on second down Russell saw Green drifting alone in the end zone at 4:38.
"Basically we wore them down," perkins said. "The pass was killing them, we'd keep passing and then hit them with the run boom-boom! That slowed them down because they had got the momentum for a while with that kickoff return. But after that we shut them down and put the game away."
Perkins had that honor, taking a counter-handoff at Auburn's 21-yard line and shedding a backfield tackle try by Jermaine Whitehead. He broke another hit at the line, got around T'Sharvan Bell's reach at the 15 and made it to the left pylon ahead of cornerback Chris Davis at 12:33 for the clincher.
Playing for pride, the Tigers mustered their first real drives of the last half. One got as far as the Bulldog 13, before Frazier missed high and Slay was there in the end zone for his interception. Next time, Frazier was hit by LB Matthew Wells to force a fumble recovered by DT Josh Boyd. The last chance to score offensively also ended with a forced fumble, recovered by DT Quay Evans at State's 35 yard line.
Lawrence had a team-best 10 tackles with one sack, while backup DE Preston Smith accounted for the other bagging of Frazier. State tallied nine total tackles for losses. Auburn got huge efforts from safety Demetruce McNeal (18 tackles), Whitehead (12) and LB Daren Bates (10). They just did not get enough push from the front, where T.Smith and company were more than the Tigers could handle. Nor did an offense which mustered just 3.5 yards per snap and turned the ball over five times help matters much.
For Bulldog veterans stung by previous setbacks to Tiger teams this was a measure of redemption. Not to mention a chance to finally silence the Western Division topic. "One scripture I believe in, you reap what you sow," Broomfield said. "And we've been putting in a lot of work, not just this year but the four years I've been here and haven't got a win. To get a win like that and play the way we did was a great feeling."
Senior T.Smith earned the last word, though. "It feels great," Smith said. "It still feels great that we can beat them and beat them pretty good. I think it's kind of payback for the close losses."