"It's tough," agreed quarterback Tray Rutland. "We get better all week and it's still zero on the board at the end of the game."
Following a 15-0 loss ten days earlier by South Carolina, the Bulldogs are now 0-2 overall and SEC. #4-ranked Auburn improved to 2-0 and 1-0 SEC heading into their Western Division showdown with LSU.
Few of the 43,640 at Davis Wade Stadium came anticipating the Tigers to stumble at Starkville. But neither were the Bulldogs, on field or in the stands, expecting to see a second-straight shutout. In fact this was the first time since 1967 State has failed to score in consecutive games. It was also the second year in a row Auburn has blanked a Bulldog team, after a 28-0 win last year at Auburn.
If there were few hopes the Dogs would score the upset, the home faithful did at least expect to see their team score, period. It didn't happen for another week, and by cruel irony State ended with the same total offense—161 yards—as in the opener.
"We did some things well," Coach Sylvester Croom said. "But we're still not making plays when we have opportunities." And he did see opportunities in many if not most MSU possessions. It was failure to cash in on any of that assured the second shutout.
"We just didn't come through all the way on offense," Rutland said. "We got better today. We had a great week of practice and we showed a lot more confidence." The redshirt freshman certainly did, in the face of an aggressive and agile Tiger defense that came after the quarterback all afternoon. His stats were nothing to boast of, with 82 yards on 12-of-25 passing and an interception. He was also sacked four times, and fumbled on his own goal line after the Dog defense forced an encouraging turnover.
Yet Rutland didn't look like a beaten-down Dog for all the pains. "I thought Tray had great poise in the pocket and I thought he did a great job commanding us in the huddle," said senior and former QB Omarr Conner. "You could see the fire in his eyes."
Auburn's defense brought their own brand of heat, holding State to 79 net yards on the ground with a longest carry of 11 yards. That was by freshman halfback Anthony Dixon, who ignored a broken left-pinky and three missed practice days to put in 15 carries for 69 yards. He had not been expected to play with the Tuesday injury. Teammates figured otherwise. "I knew ‘Boo' was going to play!" Conner said.
"We didn't know until yesterday about four or five o'clock he'd even have a chance to play," Croom said. "This morning we threw some passes to him and he didn't seem to have any problem. He's a special young man."
By the same token Auburn's team is supposed to be special. Such as halfback Kenny Irons, the defending SEC rushing champ. He had to work for his 69 net yards on 21 carries. Backup Brad Lester was more efficient with 40 yards on just five runs, including a 20-yard burst for the third Tiger touchdown. In all Auburn managed 111 rushing yards, something of a success for State.
"Our defense played well all day long," Croom said. "We were stopping the run game and playing hard. "(But) a couple of times they made a big third-down play."
And that was almost always via the strong arm of quarterback Brandon Cox. The Tigers were 6-of-13 on third downs for the day and four of those conversions came on Cox passes, three times to star wideout Courtney Taylor. Cox was 18-of-27 passing for 249 yards and a couple of touchdowns with no turnovers. Taylor was on the receiving end of nine throws for 103 yards. Yet nine other Tigers caught a pass and there seemed little the Dogs could do to stop them.
"There were some big plays," safety Jeramie Johnson said. "Third-and-long, you're supposed to get off the field. We knew they were going to pass more than they would run."
The Tiger ground game was slow in starting, but Cox's arm was good and loose from their first possession. He converted on 3rd-and-13 with a dump to Cole Bennett for 18 yards. He then hooked with Taylor on 3rd-and-9 for 18 more yards. The drive ended with a punt that Derek Pegues misplayed into a muff that got into the end zone. Pegues could have left it there as a touchback but ran the ball back out to the 10-yard line at 7:17.
State managed a first down at the 20 on a lunge by starting halfback Brandon Thornton, then punter Blake McAdams hit a low short punt that was fielded on the fly and run back to the MSU 34-yard line. It took the Tigers six plays to put points on the board. Cox found Taylor for 15 yards on second down, and with second-and-goal at the MSU six he flipped a short lob to Gabe McKenzie. The 253-pound tight end was flipped at the goal line by 192-pound cornerback David Heard but momentum carried him into the end zone at 1:07.
Auburn had the ball back after a quarter-ending Bulldog punt at their 34-yard line. Cox immediately struck over the middle for Rodgeriqus Smith open at State's 35, and he would have gone the rest of the way for a score if safety Jeramie Johnson hadn't run hard and caught up. "We do strip drills in practice," Johnson said. "I was just grabbing at it." It worked as the ball was torn loose and fellow safety Keith Fitzhugh came up with the fumble barely outside the goal line.
This only delayed another Auburn touchdown, though, On third down Rutland took a short drop and was ready to throw for an open receiver, but a missed block let defensive tackle Sen'derrick Marks come through clean for a thigh-high hit. "How do you miss a cut-block?" asked Croom afterwards. The ball got loose, and Karibi Dede recovered on the one. Irons was stopped in the middle so on second down Brad Lester ran all the way to the left pylon for a 14-0 score at 11:35.
It likely should have stayed that way at halftime, only the Tigers would get a long last chance to pad the margin. The Dogs got the ball twice and produced four first downs. But a third-down sack stopped one series, and Rutland was intercepted at Auburn's 27 by David Irons with 2:01 left. Taylor pulled in a 14-yard throw for one first down, then the Tigers appeared stopped as linebacker Gabe O'Neal stopped Tre Smith at the 33-yard line.
But a spike with 12 seconds left meant Auburn could attempt a 50-yard field goal, which fell short. Except it wouldn't have counted anyway because of a delay penalty. With nothing to lose John Vaughn took another swing, this time at a 55-yarder that cleared the crossbar easily at 0:07 for a 17-0 intermission margin.
Not even two minutes after second-half kickoff it was 24-0. A late hit by De'Mon Glanton on Tristan Davis' kickoff return started the drive on State's side of midfield. "We put our defense in real bad position," Croom said. Irons lost the ball by hitting his own blocker but recovered the fumble for a gain of twelve. A screen pass to Lester netted 11 yards before on first down Irons slipped a tackle at the line, spun out of Heard's hit, and squirted through two defensive backs for the touchdown at 13:13. The Tigers tacked on another touchdown at the other end of the quarter, on a 13-play drive covering 79 yards. On second down at the 20-yard line Rod Smith caught a quick toss on the right sideline and practically jogged into the end zone for a 31-0 score.
State finally got a gift, on the last play of the quarter as a high McAdams punt carried a bit left and was fumbled away by Robert Dunn. Anthony Littlejohn fell on the ball at the Tiger 36. A ten-yard run by Dixon got to the 20-yard line, the first time this season the Bulldogs had reached the red zone. It still produced no points. Rutland overthrew tight end Eric Butler in the end zone, and Adam Carlson's 37-yard kick to avoid the shutout was blocked by Marquis Dunn at 12:03. As if to make it sting all the more Auburn put up three final points of their own. A sack of Rutland, fumble, and 31-yard return had the ball on State's four-yard line. The second-offense couldn't break the goal line but Vaughn easily chipped in a 22-yarder at 3:49.
The Tigers finished with 388 total yards and a 5.7-yard average per snap, over twice what the Bulldogs managed. And possession time was practically even, emphasizing Auburn efficiency. Or perhaps State's in-efficiency moving the football, much less putting points on their own scoreboard. Croom still liked how the Dogs ran the ball on first and second downs, and liked how Rutland handled himself in his first college start. "Tray is going to make some mistakes, but not all mistakes are on him."
"It was what I expected," the quarterback said. Only, he and teammates really did expect to score this time out. Now they have to wait a week for the next chance to get into an end zone when Tulane comes to town for a 6:00 Saturday matchup. The Dogs know they have one side of the game in good shape, but that's not enough to win.
"We've still got to catch up with the defense," Conner acknowledged. "They did a good job, we just have to pick up the pace."