When Mississippi State denied Auburn access to either end zone, it marked the first time a Gus Malzahn offense at Auburn failed to score a touchdown. That’s as coordinator or head coach, and would have made for headlines automatically.
Yet adding emphasis to State’s defensive strength in a 17-9 victory was how the Dogs did it. A Tiger team that spent so much of the evening in red zones never made an end zone. As defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said, “They were down there more often than we were. But they didn’t get touchdowns.”
None. Despite snapping the ball 15 times inside the Mississippi State 20-yard line, more typically inside the ten-yard line, Auburn failed to find the goal line. Tiger faithful and for that matter SEC observers were stunned a Malzahn offense didn’t break any plane.
Bulldog defenders? No surprise at all.
“That’s kind of the Mississippi State mindset,” said LB Richie Brown, the game’s tackle champion with 13 credited stops. “If they can’t cross the six-inch line they can’t score. Once they get in the red zone we’re holding them to three.”
State did even better than that, as four Tiger field goals produced just nine points. The one miss could have come after the game’s pivotal point, too. Or one of them as the Dog defense came up with repeated end zone stops.
None of which had Diaz claiming credit. “All I have to do is call the plays when they get down there.” His boss was more effusive.
“Manny did a great job putting guys in position to go make plays,” Coach Dan Mullen said. “Even after we gave up a big play we put guys in position to make a play.”
None were bigger than a true tone-setter in the opening quarter. Given first turn with the ball, the home team roused the crowd as new starting quarterback Sean White drove the Tigers to State’s five-yard line. Surely a struggling Auburn offense was going to score early, gain confidence, and set their season on the right track?
“Certainly both teams knew it was important to start fast,” Diaz said. “No doubt whoever had the first big break was going to have the advantage.”
The Bulldogs made their own break. Ironically it was CB Will Redmond breaking Auburn’s momentum, too. Having miss-timed his jump for a White floater that could have been returned for a touchdown, the senior cornerback was right on time when White threw a bullet on 3rd-and-3. Redmond caught it at the goal and took it out to the 21-yard line.
The offense took it the remaining 79 yards for the first MSU advantage. Another touchdown had State ahead 14-0 in the second quarter. But, not yet in control. Going more to the ground game White whipped his team on a 15-play drive reaching the Bulldog one.
After two interior rushes the ball was inside the one-yard line, and Auburn suddenly rushed former starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson onto the field. The Tigers raced up to the line trying to snap fast, but the SEC refs had heard Mullen’s call for timeout at 1:05.
“They had presented something we had not seen,” said Diaz. “Because it was the end of the half we had the timeouts. Coach Mullen made a great call right there, we needed it. We were going to let them line up and see the formation.”
During the break Malzahn changed his own call, sending White back out to take a shotgun snap instead of the bigger, stronger but less-confident runner Johnson.
“We had a contingency on both,” Diaz said. “At least we had a chance to coach our kids up on what to do. And then we obviously got some fortune with the bobbled snap.”
A high bobbled snap at that, as maybe the Tiger center had adapted for the taller Johnson or excitement got the better of him. Regardless, Auburn fell on the ball at the nine-yard line and settled for the easy points. Which weren’t so easy as the field goal missed.
Auburn would have more third-quarter chances. They reached State’s eight with 4th-and-2 before drawing a penalty, jumping out of field goal formation into an offensive set to get the Dogs to jump. They didn’t. A series later the Tiger reached the seven before kicking again. Both times the home crowd wasn’t happy with the blink, from an offense seldom shy about taking chances.
Diaz might have claimed credit for the red zone success, but didn’t.
“To me that just comes down to the backbone of this program. No matter who the coordinator is, our red zone defense comes out of our weightroom. Coach (Rick) Court teaches those guys in terms of never flinching, never giving in. All you have to do as defensive coordinator is call defenses. But the attitude it takes to dominate in the red zone comes from our strength program.”
Speaking of attitudes… Mullen and Diaz were all-smiles as time ran out this Saturday. A week ago the head coach was giving a very public verbal lashing to the defensive staff. To be fair it resulted from a single Northwestern State drive, eating up half the third quarter and producing the only Demon touchdown.
Both coaches down-played it during the week. Sure enough they were again best buddies as the Bulldogs scored--and defended—a crucial conference victory. Yeah, emotions will run high under stress, Mullen agreed.
“But we have a great relationship. We work really well together and there’s a lot of trust. I think we’re both really intense coaches but I think both understand we’re going to do what we need to do to win. Whether we have to grind it out defensively, whether we’re in a shootout, we’re going to do what we need to do to win.”
Besides, Diaz knew what he was in for upon returning to Mullen’s team for 2015. He coordinated the 2010 Bulldog defense after all, and even in that break-out year for the program there were those days when intensity boiled over for all to see. And hear.
In fact, Mullen said Diaz harked back to one of those close calls of ’10 that still sting both.
“He told me hey, we’ll get a defensive win against Auburn,” said Mullen. “He said it was six years too late, he thought we had one six years ago and they went on to win the national championship.”