Neither were necessary. The 6-4 Uzomah got a step behind 5-10 Bulldog CB Cedric Jiles over on the right side of the end zone for an easy catch. The winning play was reviewed to show Jiles had pushed Uzomah out of bounds en route, which made it legal for him to return inbounds and continue the play.
All State had left was the ten ticks, used up on a 18-yard catch by WR Joe Morrow. But Coach Dan Mullen nor team looked at that last gasp afterwords. They only recalled all those chances to make a defensive stop before field goal range. Or, equally and maybe even more so to Mullen, how a whole fourth quarter wasn't well-used. State had possession 10:38 of that period and didn't produce a point.
"We had the ball a couple of times in the fourth quarter, opportunities to score," Mullen said. "We knew we needed one more touchdown, all through the fourth quarter we kept saying that. We had some good drives, we had some opportunities. And we didn't make the plays we need to to win."
The Dogs almost did. The defense intercepted Auburn's first turn of the last period and forced a punt just this side of mid-field on the second. The offense turned those into a pair of seven-play series, the latter showing just how determined Mullen was to seal this deal. With 4th-and-1 at the MSU 29-yard line he let QB Dak Prescott, who was making his first SEC start, dive over the pile for another set of downs at 4:38.
A 4th-and-two at the 40 was too much to risk at the time, and P Baker Swedenburg did his job with a 50-yard punt well-covered at the 12. A turnover, a long penalty, just keeping the clock rolling would have worked, yet Auburn only had to convert one third down. Which quarterback Marshall did with a 11-yard keeper to State's 25 at around 40 seconds.
"We just have to finish," said LB Benardrick McKinney using the word repeated by everyone. "The defense, we played hard the whole game but the fourth quarter we just didn't finish like we should."
"We always know it's going to be a whole game," said WR Jameon Lewis. "But we just didn't finish."
Nor did the Bulldogs start that well, trailing 11-0 after ten game minutes. A 40-yard field goal at 10:53 put Auburn on their board first. Then a busted Auburn play with a worse-busted State coverage freed Quan Bray for what turned into a 76-yard touchdown pass at 4:54, made more painful as the Tigers hustled to the line for a fast two-point conversion thrown by Ryan White and caught by Brandon Fulse.
In-between State had missed a 35-yard field goal by Devon Bell at 5:44 after a dozen-play drive directed by Prescott. Making his second college start, in place of senior Tyler Russell who Mullen said was still uncleared after his August 31 concussion, the sophomore put in a solid all-around effort. He rushed for 133 yards on 22 carries, many if not most of them keepers he called for himself, with touchdowns of five and two yards.
He also threw for 213 yards completing 15-of-28 with no turnovers. Prescott was 3-of-6 in the fourth quarter in fact, but rushed nine times that period as Auburn forced the issue up front. He said nothing changed schematically in the fourth quarter. "That's all the way throughout the game, not just the last series. It's just something the coaches allowed me to do and they do a good job of getting us prepared for those things."
"He probably ran it more than I'd like him to, at times you've got to get Perk (LaDarius Perkins) more carries," Mullen said. "But I mean they just kind of dictated to have him run it, and he did and he was successful." Except at the very end when on 3rd-and-4 Prescott dove straight ahead for just two yards.
Though the Tigers did put up points on their first two turns, it wasn't with the trademark running game. State's defense was able to limit damage on the ground. "That's our defensive plan every game, stop the run." Unfortunately Marshall responded with 9-of-11 passing in the first quarter alone for 151 yards. The touchdown came on a big break as CB Justin Cox let Bray free behind him, but what annoyed Mullen more was a string of missed tackles and inability to bring receivers down on first contact.
"We did a pretty good job against the pass," Mullen said. "We just didn't tackle in the open field. Basically quick screens all night long, bubbles and quick screens. Tonight I bet we're going to have a lot of missed tackles when we finalize and grade the film."
Yet the Bulldog offense responded to the double-digit deficit by striking pretty quickly themselves. Prescott found WR Robert Johnson uncovered, ironically similar to Bray, for a 61-yard catch and run down to the Tiger 14. Lewis took it from there on an end-around for the touchdown. But in a decision Mullen will surely rue in review he also opted to try for two and RB Nick Griffin was stopped short as State drew a flag anyway.
Auburn countered with a short field goal early in the second period for a 14-6 lead. Finally though the Dog defense forced a three-and-out the next turn, and Prescott directed a 84-yard drive capped by his first touchdown scamper. State took the one point this time, and Whitley intercepted a last-play heave before halftime to keep it a 14-13 game.
Though the fourth quarter is what will be remembered longer, the Bulldogs could have taken complete control in the third. With first-turn for the new half they went 75 yards in just six plays, 47 coming on a Prescott keeper as did the touchdown at 12:38 from two yards out. The potentially pivotal moment came on 2nd-and-5 at the Tiger 30 when Marshall rolled left and forced a throw that CB Taveze Calhoun got both hands on. He deflected it rather than intercepted, and freakishly Marshall caught his own carom…and then tiptoed the sideline for 37 yards.
Auburn had to settle for another field goal, a 47-yarder, but the might-have-beens lingered. So did a couple of short State series that effectively let the Tigers off the hook for the fatal fourth.
Their fast and efficient final drive gave Auburn the yardage edge, 459 to 415 on two more plays. Corey Grant (44 yards) and Tre Mason (34) were relatively contained but Marshall burned State—aided of course by all the missed tackles—for 339 yards on 23-of-34 throwing with the two touchdowns.
Perkins got just eight carries for 36 yards. Robert Johnson and Morrow caught four balls each for 84 and 40 yards. Prescott became the first Bulldog quarterback to top 100 yards in both running and throwing since Chris Relf…who did it here two years ago in the game he was tackled shy of the goal on State's last play.
"I did alright. I never feel good or satisfied with a loss," Prescott said. "I've got to go in the film room and see what we did wrong and fix some things and get ready for next week."
Fixing a shaken squad, now 1-2 and off to a 0-1 SEC start for the 13th time in the last 14 seasons, is Mullen's larger job. "I mean it's a pretty simple deal. We had an opportunity to finish the game on offense, we didn't do it; we had an opportunity to finish the game on defense, didn't do it.
"And that's coaching, to me that's all coaching. So that's on me, that's on our assistant coaches, our defensive staff, our offensive staff, to make sure we have kids in a situation prepared to go finish a game. And we did not do that."