The ‘blew' part seemed obvious enough on the scoreboard as the host Tigers took a 28-0 victory over the Bulldogs at Jordan-Hare Stadium in the SEC opener for both squads. The outcome evened each's record at 1-1.
Yet despite heading home after a shutout defeat, Croom had just as much to say about the opportunity that he saw Saturday as how it got blown. "We played a good football team," the coach said. "We don't necessarily feel we got beat, we beat ourselves to a large degree."
Croom did have a point, even if his team scored none. The Bulldogs too often did more to spoil their own cause than what Auburn's admirable defense needed to. Whether it was a first-half full of penalties, or a second half settled on turnovers, Mississippi State could look in the locker room mirror and see the culprit. "We had a good chance to win the game but we shot ourselves in the foot with all the mistakes and penalties," said halfback Jerious Norwood. "With a team like Auburn you can't do that and win." Norwood's choice of metaphors was ironic, because on the first series of the day he sprained his left shoulder on a cut-block.
But his evaluation was the same as his coach's, who noted the two decisive stats of State's day. "Penalties and turnovers," said Croom. "And a lot of the penalties on first down. Dumb penalties." First down? How about the very first play from scrimmage when tight end Jeremy Jones was a full step ahead of the snap. That accounted for the first of eight assessed flags against the Dogs, and while the net yardage lost was only 40 the timing and placement of so many of those gaffes were, to put it bluntly, dumb.
"We knew at halftime we were beating ourselves," said WR Keon Humphries.
Yet at intermission State only trailed 14-0, and both of Auburn's scores could have been prevented had a single play been made somewhere on each series. And through the second half the Dog defense made those sorts of plays to keep things in some sense of contention. "The defense pitched a shutout the second half against a quality team," Croom noted. "If we do anything offensively…"
He left the thought unfinished because little needed saying. State managed a mere 207 yards of offense on 59 snaps from scrimmage. Norwood, hampered by the hurt shoulder, was held to 39 yards on 10 carries, less than reserve HB Derek Ambrose got in six tries (41 net). Meanwhile quarterback Omarr Conner followed up a splendid debut with a rough afternoon on the road, hitting just 10 of 19 passes for 116 yards. He threw one crucial third-quarter interception on a forced pass, was sacked five times and harried whenever Auburn got serious about pressuring the passer.
"As a quarterback I'm supposed to keep my poise," Conner said. "I tried to keep my head up and lead my teammates." But nobody was leading State to any scores and the closest opportunity, a second-quarter drive that got to that 14-yard range, was spoiled by—you guessed it—a false start and two sacks, the latter producing one of the two intentional grounding calls. State had to attempt a longish field goal that Keith Andrews missed from 47-yards out.
It was the only real opportunity the Bulldogs had to avoid a shutout. Still coach and players were unanimous that the affair was much more competitive than the final margin and most observers were inclined to agree.
"I felt we lined up toe-to-toe with a good football team," linebacker Quinton Culberson said. "We should have come away with a win today."
And in fact after dominating the stat sheet for the first 20 or so minutes, the Tigers did not exactly roar to their victory. State's defense corrected some of the first-half mistakes without changing a sound gameplan. "We didn't adjust anything at halftime," Croom stated. Auburn scores in the third and fourth quarters came courtesy of turnovers, one of them directly. For the whole day the Tigers picked up 320 yards, well-short of what they had gained in an opening-day defeat by Georgia Tech.
And just 118 yards of that came on the ground, where Auburn averaged under three yards per attempt. As Culberson noted, "Last year they ran the ball down our throats, today we stopped them."
It was quarterback Brandon Cox who made some critical first-half throws that staked his team to an advantage. Auburn's first series was stopped inside midfield as a 3rd-and-13 bullet for Courtney Taylor was broken up by CB Derek Pegues. The next possession went the distance, 59 yards to be exact, as Cox hit tight end Cooper Wallace twice for enough yards that the quarterback could sneak for first downs.
Then he struck downfield for the first time and it worked as the other tight end, Cole Bennett, lost coverage and got open down the middle. He caught Cox's throw at the 15 and shrugged off glancing blows from both Bulldog safeties for a 33-yard touchdown play at 6:56.
The next time the Tigers had the ball they used a similar approach, rushing Kenny Irons or Carl Stewart between the tackles to open up the outside. It allowed Stewart to dash 19 yards around left end and the first quarter ended with Auburn on State's five-yard line after Cox dove a third time for first down. Stewart lost four yards on a sweep but on third down a play-action froze Bulldog coverage and Cox only had to throw a bullet to wide-open Devin Aromashodu in the end zone for a 14-0 lead.
"We were one or two third downs from getting off the field," CB Kevin Dockery said. "Those one or two plays led to two touchdowns, we probably would have shut them out but who knows? You have to make those plays."
But State needed to score points also and five first-half series produced none. The best Bulldog chance actually came after Auburn's first touchdown when Pegues nearly tied the score, ripping off a 51-yard kickoff return all the way to the Tiger 41-yard line. Only kicker Zach Kutch's saving sideline trip foiled the freshman. Conner tried to hit WR Tee Milons in the end zone; either his throw was a bit long or cornerback David Irons' hand really did interfere, though neither observing officials pulled a hanky.
Conner did hit TE Eric Butler for a 24-yard pickup to the Tiger 14, where a procedure penalty, six-yard sack, and nine-yard loss on grounding lost much of the gained ground. Croom even had to burn a timeout in the meltdown. Conner pushed the ball five yards closer for Andrews, who didn't get enough ball and plunked the crossbar flush with the carom going backwards.
Auburn's John Vaughn matched MSU's miss by leaving a 42-yard attempt of Auburn's own wide to the left. On 2nd-and-20 Conner remained upright long enough to flip a short throw to Will Prosser that netted 18 yards, then had a 12-yard catch by Humphries negated by a Butler hold. Milons pulled in a 36-yard strike and State got to Auburn's 30 before a delay penalty took the ball out of field goal range at this into-the-wind end. Auburn had to punt on the last play of the half from their end zone, State not being able to save time after burning timeouts earlier.
Officially the home team had held the ball almost 18 minutes, which must have felt like a full hour to a weary Dog defense. And yet "We still had a chance to win in the second half," said DE Willie Evans. Or as Dockery said, "We got off to a slow start but we got better as the game went on." The defense, he meant.
The offense also showed life out of the locker room with a nine-play drive eating 4:29 of the clock…after, of course, a first-play false start. Conner hit prosser for 13 yards and hard interior running by Norwood and Demarcus Johnson got State to Auburn's 30-yard line. Then on second down Conner made a mistake under pressure, as in the grasp of Antarrious Williams he forced a throw that sailed high and into Eric Brock's hands.
"We felt we had to make some big plays on offense," Croom said, "we said let's pound the football down the field and take some shots in our play-action game." The plan was the same after State got the ball back on their five-yard line, when Jonathan Lowe lost his bearings and fair-caught a punt heading for the end zone. Norwood lost two yards at left end, then Conner read the coverage and fired a strike to Milons on the right sideline with a blocker in front. "Omarr recognized it and made a nice throw on the ‘hot', said Croom. "If we catch the ball cleanly we've got an easy first down. Instead we turn it over."
Worse than that. Milons juggled the ball, facing the wrong way, and when he finally got control and turned around it was rattled free by Travis Williams. Will Herring scooped the fumble and darted seven yards into the end zone at 7:54 for a 21-0 Tiger lead. With those two Bulldog turnovers the game was lost, no matter how well the defense played, because Auburn could stay back in coverage or come after Conner. So effectively, that State often ran delays and counters in second-and-long situations. Fans were frustrated but there wasn't much choice, Croom said.
"We can't protect against those defensive ends. That's why we ran the ball several times in those long-yardage situations. Sometimes you have to bail out."
State never got to midfield again while the defense, even after substitutions, almost had one scoreless quarter as when Auburn got to the nine-yard line Culberson knocked the ball free from Irons and Dockery recovered. But five plays later Brandon Thornton lost the handle at the MSU 30. Three runs by Brad Lester got all the yards needed for the final margin.
Croom did not hold that score against the defense. The offense was another matter. He said that at halftime the Dogs figured they could contain the Tigers ground game the rest of the way and put enough pressure on Cox to prevent big strikes. "And we go out the second half and offensively don't do anything. That's very disappointing." The 207 net yards were the second-lowest output since Croom came to campus.
State not only lost the 2005 SEC and Western Division opener, but the 18th-consecutive league road game in a streak dating back to 2000. And still the Bulldog locker room was almost defiant after this setback. "One play could make the difference," insisted Conner.
"I felt like we really beat ourselves today," Humphries said.