Just as Dak Prescott said. “This team did a great job tonight.”
Good, rather great enough take down the second-rated club in the country and take the lead of both the Western Division and overall Southeastern Conference. Mississippi State remained perfect on the season at 6-0, achieving bowl eligibility with half the schedule still ahead. They are also 3-0 SEC, and when the national rankings are released Sunday grabbing the top spot is entirely possible.
Auburn left 5-1, 2-1 SEC, and far from knocked-out of any title chase themselves. At the same time the Tigers knew they’d been given all sorts of opportunities for the road win and still come up short. The Bulldogs are just that good here in October.
Even when they aren’t razor-sharp.
And this might have been the real takeaway from Saturday. Without playing near their best football in most aspects, the Bulldogs were able to take care of business against the best opposition faced so far. “Every time we needed to make a play, a guy stepped up and made a play,” Coach Dan Mullen said.
Or guys made plays. Whether it was a State receiving muscling aside coverage for a clutch catch, or running back dragging a Tiger for the extra yards; a defensive lineman shrugging off frustrations to keep a little pressure on Auburn’s brilliant Nick Marshall, or the oft-criticized defensive backs breaking something up; the job got done.
”That’s a great team, a lot of great athletes and a good quarterback,” S Jay Hughes said. “It was definitely a challenge. But we were able to make enough plays to win the game.”
A win celebrated by 62,945, the largest-ever crowd at Davis Wade Stadium. Practically all home folk stayed to the end, despite showers in the middle-quarters. And to their credit the Tiger faithful hung around hoping for miracles. That it didn’t develop that way didn’t diminish their club’s caliber a bit.
It did affirm the increasing respect coming in Bulldog direction. “Give Mississippi State credit and congratulations to those guys,” Tiger Coach Gus Malzahn said. “They are a very good football team.”
Sufficiently so not to need another spectacular performance from Prescott. The junior did not have a terrible afternoon really; 18-of-34 for 246 yards and a touchdown, to go with his fourth 100-yard rushing output this season, 121 specifically with two more scores. But Prescott also had two of his passes picked off and bobbled a few early-game exchanges.
“I had one of my sub-par games of the season, didn’t really play very well. But my teammates rallied around me, did a great job making plays and I couldn’t be more excited.” Beyond that, Prescott’s mettle showed when it mattered most. Twice when the Tigers got within a single series of catching up, he directed drives that kept the Bulldogs in control.
This was the sort of leadership that make Prescott priceless not only to the offense but entire team. As Mullen said, “I guarantee he’s more mad at himself. It’s all about the next play, and we trust our players to make plays.”
The critical plays early on came from a Dog defense facing the best run/throw combination in the conference, outside their own locker room of course. They took Marshall off his own game right at the start, enabling State to build a 21-0 lead in only nine minutes (see Game Summary posted earlier).
Marshall’s first play, and pass, of the day was floated short and intercepted by Hughes. Prescott turned that into a quick touchdown drive with a big-time catch, run, and rattle-off-Tigers play by WR De’Runnya Wilson. The second Tiger series also lasted just one play, resulted in a fumbled catch, and was converted into a one-yard touchdown dive by RB Josh Robinson. The third State score was on a genuine drive of 71 yards in seven snaps with Prescott doing the honors himself from two yards.
“Turnovers, those are major big,” said DT Kaleb Eulls. “Especially when you get them very quickly and kind of turn some points out of it.”
Even after missing a field goal Auburn was far from dead. State even relaxed the grip with a fake punt for turnover that became a made kick and 21-3 margin. Then Prescott’s first interception was translated into a second three-pointer, and when KR Jamoral Graham fumbled away a punt the Tigers struck for their first touchdown.
If there was tension on State’s sideline it didn’t show, much less slow the offense. Though Prescott had ended a good drive with an end-zone interception, he was still in charge. “They’d made some plays and got back into the game. It was important for us to kill that momentum right then before it got too big and we did just that to get us some momentum going into halftime.”
It took eight plays to go the 75 yards with Prescott keeping for the final 15 and a 28-13 halftime margin. Rain had begun falling too and seemed to bother Auburn, their deep-threat receivers in particular, more than MSU. Or it did until the Tigers got within 28-20 on a great pattern and throw at 6:09 of the third quarter.
This was crunch time for both sides and the Dog defense resurfaced for the occasion with consecutive stops. Each time on multiple incompletions as Marshall couldn’t get the ball to anyone when it mattered most. They didn’t shut him down, but Eulls said the trick was making just the few necessary stops.
“The key to that was study him, try to get an edge, know his strengths and weaknesses and what he was comfortable with.”
Besides, the offense was bound to regain stride eventually. It came with a ten-play, 75-yard drive that included a tough 4th-and-8 choice to go for it at the Tiger 26. Wilson was interfered with on the sideline route for first down, and Prescott pushed the ball into PAT-range for PK Evan Sobiesk to hit the 21-yarder.
Just 26 seconds later it was a done Dog deal as S Quadry Antoine stripped Auburn’s Ricardo Louis of the kickoff return at the 15. A 14-yard throw to TE Malcolm Johnson set up an easy touchdown for Robinson. Auburn was able to tack on a field goal in the ensuing series, but the fact the Tigers settled for three on 4th-and-short at State’s 25 with time getting shorter was the real story there.
Robinson just missed a third 100-yard rushing game, with 97 on 19 carries but two touchdowns in the process. Those were his fifth and sixth scores of this SEC season. Prescott and Robinson accounted for 40 of the 44 rushes (sacks included) by State. M.Johnson caught five of Prescott’s passes for 60 yards, and Wilson had 72 yards with a touchdown on his four balls.
Marshall ended up 17-of-35 for 209 yards with two interceptions against as many touchdowns and had to run 17 times, for 100 yards on the nose. Cameron Artis-Payne netted 70 yards on 16 rushes, but Auburn’s ground game failed to produce points. Duke Williams was their go-to guy with 108 yards on six catches and the two touchdowns.
The Dog defensive key wasn’t shutting anyone down or out, but limiting explosive plays. That they did. “I credit that to the pass rush, the front seven is amazing,” said safety Hughes. “That was the only reason I got my interception, me and (S Justin) Cox. We help each other make plays.” CB Taveze Calhoun and LB Christian Holmes had six tackles each and it said so much about both the rotation and the reliability of the 1A and 1B units that they led the stat sheet. Six teammates had five tackles each, with sacks by DE Preston Smith and LB Matthew Wells.
Plus, said Prescott, the end-result reflected how the defense dominated and made a 21-0 start possible. “That’s all on the defense. A great job by them, they gave us great field position there in the first quarter. They get some turnovers, and we get some points.”
What looked in preseason like ‘murderers row’ has become a victory parade for the Bulldogs with three-straight wins over top-ten victims, a program first. They also have an open date to enjoy the string of success and, maybe, a top ranking tomorrow? That will depend on how pollsters weigh #1 Florida State’s expected win over Syracuse, and maybe an impressive road showing by Ole Miss at Texas A&M that was half-finished by this filing.
Hughes said Mullen had already given the Bulldogs his opinion on polls and such going into the bye-week. “He was saying enjoy this one but come ready to work Tuesday. This isn’t the end, just the beginning.”
But, a great one.