“It felt good to take three knees and get out of here.”
Get out with a 17-9 victory, both over and at Auburn. After years always frustrating and typically painful trips, Mississippi State departed Pat Dye Field happy. And, with a 1-1 SEC record, 3-1 overall.
“It was a great team win,” said Prescott. “The defense did what they needed to do, when they needed to do it. And the offense responded when we felt Auburn had momentum. We fed off each other.”
The Bulldog defense needed to do above-and-beyond duty. They stopped Auburn’s first series with an end zone interception. Then after Mississippi State took a 14-0 lead coordinator Manny Diaz’s unit forced the Tigers four times to settle for field goals. Three went good and the most important of all missed.
In three quarters Auburn’s offense ran 15 plays inside the Bulldog red zone, and came away with no touchdowns. Just as the Bulldogs had trained, DT Chris Jones said.
“Coach Diaz emphasized not letting the ball get into our end zone. That’s the key part of practice. Whatever you got to do don’t let it get in the end zone.”
The Tigers did not. They ran four drives of 11 or more plays. They owned the ball over a dozen more minutes and 16 more snaps. They even topped 200 rushing yards, usually a key to SEC victory. But Auburn never crossed a goal line.
“I thought our defense played unbelievably well,” Coach Dan Mullen said. So well that a week after giving Diaz a very public dressing-down in a runaway win, the head coach and coordinator were sharing sideline laughs. If not for Auburn finding a way to beat the Bulldogs on edge running to extend series, this could have been a shutout.
“But I tell you want, every time we needed them to they came up big,” Mullen said. “Keeping them out of the end zone for the night.” Which was something never-before happening to a Gus Malzahn offense at Auburn, head coach or assistant. These Tigers did manage 389 total yards, compared to just 326 for State.
But then the Bulldogs did find end zones. Both of them, and each score off Prescott’s arm. He hit a wide-open WR Gabe Myles for a 32-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. In the second it was WR De’Runnya Wilson, who was scarcely open at all, turning a tough throw into a big-time catch and touchdown for a 14-0 lead.
Prescott would finish with 29-of-41 passing for 270 yards and those scores. Nothing was intercepted, and the quarterback was never sacked. If not for a strip-fumble after a third-quarter completion, State would have played a turnover-free evening.
“Tonight the offensive line did their job well enough, I got the ball out, the receivers made some good catches,” Prescott said. Prescott got the ball out a lot obviously, 41 passes against 21 team rushes for just 56 yards. Coach and quarterback both said the play imbalance was not a plan, or even a fair reflection of sideline signals.
“We’ve got a quarterback who can get the ball where he needs to,” Mullen said. “We’ve got a great match-up with wide receivers outside making plays. We’re trying to just take advantage of what the defense is giving and getting the ball to our playmakers.”
I.E, the wide and slot receivers and tight ends too. Even the running backs ran more routes than carries, with Prescott working either side of the field equally efficiently. “They weren’t trying to battle us on the line because we’re physical receivers,” Wilson said. “We opened up and ran good routes.” And, ran well after catches for consistent gains.
Auburn did the early gaining, with State giving them first turn with the ball. It didn’t seem wise as the Tigers drove to the five-yard line aided by some broken tackling. CB Will Redmond had a chance to end the series on a floater to his side—“I thought it was a touchdown (return)” Mullen said--but miss-timed the leap. The ball got over for a 22-yard gain.
Co-captain Redmond redeemed himself on third-and-goal at the five though. State flushed first-time starting quarterback Sean White to roll right then fire into a crowd. Redmond was waiting at the goal line for his second pick of the season.
“They probably felt they had the momentum,” Prescott said. “And Will takes it away immediately. So we had to get the offense going and strike quick.”
Ten snaps later State had struck all the way back. With 2nd-and-14 on the Tiger 32 yard line Prescott checked off another sideline call and play-actioned. Myles slid uncovered down the right hashes and clear for a catch around the five.
“They like to rock and roll their safeties down to the tight end,” Prescott said. “They came down, the safety didn’t quite get back to the middle of the field, and Gabe took it over the top. And it was an easy touchdown.”
State really quieted the crowd mid-way of the second quarter with a 79-yard drive. Prescott and WR Fred Ross converted 3rd-and-15 on a 19-yard play; then a 21-yard connection to WR Fred Brown was reviewed and the call changed to complete at the Auburn 16.
ruled complete upon review.
On third down at the 17 Prescott fired for Wilson who was muscling with Carlton Davis on the right sideline around the five. “It wasn’t that good of a throw at all,” Prescott admitted. “For him to come back inside and get it over the top of that guy, I mean just tell him good job.”
Because Wilson managed to both catch the low throw and carry both ball and Tiger across the line at 8:02. “Just using my size to the best of my ability,” he said. “You can’t stop big-time players from making big-time plays.”
Two touchdowns would be enough for a margin of victory. But with the Tiger offense making moves in the second half and pulling within 14-6, PK Westin Graves did give the Dogs some priceless margin to play with. With fourth down on the Auburn 27 instead of going for two more yards Graves got a chance to knock at a career-long try of 44 yards. And it was good at 1:11.
In-between, it was all on the Dog defense. A drive-killing interception was good, but a goal-line stand was better. White and his ground game got going in a big way in the second quarter and got inside State’s one-yard line with second down. Peyton Barber was stuffed twice for a net-yard, and on third down Auburn ran out former starter Jeremy Johnson. Before the snap Mullen got his timeout acknowledged, and during the break Auburn opted to send White back out.
Diaz told the team what to do with either quarterback. It turned out the Tiger center did it for them with a high snap and eight-yard loss. Then Daniel Carlson completed it with a missed field goal to keep it 14-0 at halftime.
Auburn would drive twice in the third quarter for made kicks of 30 and 25 yards. The key was that they chose to settle for field goals at all. “We definitely practiced that,” LB Richie Brown said. “If they can’t cross the six-inch line, they can’t score.”
Four Auburn possessions in the final quarter never even reached a red zone. They did get in Carlson’s range for a 51-yarder at 1:07. The expected on-sides kick went out of bounds and Prescott could take his three kneels.
RB Brandon Holloway had 42 of State’s 56 net rushing yards. Ross led the receiver list with seven catches for 66 yards, while both Wilson and TE Gus Walley had five grabs and Brown four more. Auburn’s Barber was a workhorse with 137 yards on 27 tough totes, while White kept State’s defense honest with 11 runs of his own for 29 yards. White was also efficient throwing, 20-of-28 for 188 yards.
But it all came down to who crossed the goal. State did. Auburn didn’t.
“The defense was ready to go,” said Brown who had 13 tackles with a half of State’s 4.0 sacks. In his first start of the senior season S Kendrick Market had 8 tackles. And DE A.J. Jefferson extended his streak of games with a tackle for loss, as he sacked White once with another stop behind the line and a forced fumble.
Nothing gets easier for State. The Dogs have balanced their SEC record after a last-play home loss to LSU. But they are headed for unbeaten Texas A&M now.
Still, State players feel they really are back in the West Division race. “We never really felt we were out of it,” Brown said. “We’re ready for the next game and excited about it.”