The Bulldogs improved to 2-1, 1-1 SEC, while the host Tigers (1-2, 0-1) lost their league opener and a second-straight home game.
Carroll didn't have to throw a single pass in State's winning series. The rookie, forced into action mid-first quarter when starter Mike Henig was put out with a broken throwing hand, was still the right guy at this pressurized time. He handed off to either Anthony Dixon or Christian Ducre all ten plays in a drive covering 44 yards and turning a 14-13 deficit into MSU's margin of victory. It was Ducre scoring the six points at 5:27 on a five-yard burst, giving State back the lead it had lost just before halftime.
So it wasn't a cinematic-style series for the true freshman quarterback. Or, from his vantage point, shocking he and State got it done. "I don't think it's amazing," Carroll said. "I don't think I deserve all the credit. I expected our team was going to do that." Tall talk from a new kid on the SEC block, maybe, but an accurate assessment of how the Bulldogs felt even about going into a venue where they had not succeeded since 1999. Croom wasn't at all surprised himself that his team could and would hang with the host Tigers from kick to horn.
"We told our players all week it was going to be sixty minutes. And it was just like we thought it would be. And we made some plays at the end."
Not just on offense, either. It was a gallant Bulldog defense that got the ball in position for that game-changing drive with an interception by safety Demario Bobo at the Tiger 44-yard line with 10:42 left on the clock. But the real heroism came on Auburn's own last turn as senior quarterback Brandon Cox—himself benched in the second quarter—came back on the field to move his team from their 24 all the way inside State's ten-yard line with four downs and 2:00 left to salvage the day.
"It was gut-check, all or nothing," defensive end Titus Brown said. "Like the last five, ten seconds of your life."
Defensive end Avery Hannibal hurried Cox, the SEC's winningest active quarterback, into overthrowing tight end Gabe McKenzie in the end zone. A throw to Carl Stewart was complete but cornerback Anthony Johnson hammered him instantly for no game. And on third down Cox slid a strike to the middle of the end zone for Tommy Trott that linebacker Jamay Chaney tipped away.
It might have been an even better play without Chaney's intervention, safety Derek Pegues claimed. "I had a great view. If he hadn't tipped the ball I'd have had another pick and gone and sealed the game right there! He didn't know I was behind, that was a good recognition on his part playing his side and I can live with that!"
On 4th-and-goal the Tigers lined up with the three wideouts to their right, but with a passel of other eligible receivers at the line…typical Tommy Tuberville fare at crunch time. State rushed one true tackle and three end-types, and everybody else played back to force the throw underneath. "We knew they liked to run that three-tight end set and were going to try to get the ball to one of them at the goal line," Pegues said. "We just tried to get our hands on them and mess the timing up." Which by great good coincidence was the job that fell to Chaney, knocking Rodgeriqus Smith off his route even as Cox unloaded under Brown's pressure. The ball fell harmlessly to turf short of the goal line at 0:28.
"I didn't even want to look," Brown admitted. "I just heard the reaction of the crowd and knew it was an incomplete pass." Two Carroll kneel-downs later Brown and the Bulldogs were headed for the corner of Jordan-Hare Stadium where a couple-thousand State fans were the only folk of the 82,191 left cheering.
The calmest Dog in the house may have been the pup, Carroll, who emerged as State's #2 triggerman after another week battling junior Riddell for the privilege. His stat line, 3-of-10 passing for ten whole yards, wasn't much to howl about. His poise under SEC pressure was another matter entirely.
"I knew I had to come out and lead the team regardless what year I was, however many snaps I've had," Carroll said. "I knew as long as we executed like in practice it wasn't going to be a problem." What quarterback and offensive squad-mates executed was the sort of play selection Mississippi State had in mind all along for Auburn. As Croom put it, "We're not a finesse outfit. We're just going to line up and hit people in the mouth."
The Dogs did, behind Dixon's 103 rushing yards on 29 bruising carries and 63 more yards from Ducre in 10 attempts. State netted four yards each run and while only getting one touchdown they moved the chains often enough and ate sufficient clock to keep things in their preferred smashing style. MSU ended up with 172 total ground yards, to only 41 through the air on 5-of-18 throwing. Henig lasted just one series and was 1-of-3 for 16; Riddell was 1-of-5 throws for 15 yards.
"I thought for the most part Josh did well," said Croom, adding that the junior was both still rusty from his early-season suspension and still "a little bit in the doghouse. But we planned to get him in the game this week and I'm pleased with the way he handled himself. Both those guys did a great job. And Mike was paying well until he got hurt." Henig is likely out at least the next three weeks, possibly longer with a broken third metacarpal on the throwing hand. Not surprisingly Croom, who watched his veteran quarterback put out twice last year with broken bones, felt a bit cracked-up himself when Henig went out after one series.
"Mike responded better than I did. Because me and the Lord were having some serious conversations over there. Some serious conversations. But we were able to get it done."
There really was some intervention from above, if only as high as the coach's booth, prior to the key fourth-quarter series because Croom was ready to send Riddell back on the field. McCorvey overruled his boss in favor of Carroll. "Woody was adamant about getting him back in there. That was a great call." And a beautifully-called series ensued where State succeeded by doing nothing more complicated than giving the ball to the heavy haulers. Dixon had six-straight rushes for a net of 19 yards, before the Dogs faced 3rd-and-12 at the Tiger 25.
It was Ducre's turn to run a draw-carry, with tight end Eric Butler sealing off the ‘sam' linebacker to open up a 18-yard burst. Dixon got two on first down, Ducre nothing on second, and McCorvey came back with what looked like a passing package. It wasn't. "That was Zebra-29, a play pretty much for me," Ducre said. "And it opened up just like in practice so I ran hard, and (fullback) Jeremy Jones sealed it up."
"It was a great call by Woody, as soon as he called it I said he's going to walk in standing up," Croom said. "I was surprised so many people hit him." Ducre had to stretch the ball across the goal in the grasp of Chris Evans, but he made it at 5:15. The two-point try, Carroll's only pass of the quarter, was wide of Jamayel Smith in the end zone, so the Dog defense still had to do their part to make that five-point margin hold up.
In the aftermath it wasn't easy to recall how State had owned a 13-0 lead. Henig directed the first scoring drive, taking 12 snaps to cover 58 yards to get in position for a 32-yard field goal from Adam Carlson. Dixon and Ducre showed State's gameplan with and 24 and 23 yards respectively in that series. But before the kick, Henig had been taken down by Eric Brock on third down to break the hand.
Settling for three points didn't sting so much after the Dog defense quickly provided seven. An offensive facemask on their first snap put Auburn in 1st-and-22 at their twelve-yard line. Cox tried to hit (surprise) a tight end, only to have the ball go off Cole Bennett's hands and into Pegues' with 20 unobstructed yards in front of him. His touchdown return, the third of his career and a MSU program record, made it a 10-0 game.
Even a Tiger kickoff return to State's 43, with Carlson preventing the touchdown, didn't hurt. Because on third down Cox felt pressure from behind and threw for a double-covered Montez Billings. Corner Anthony Johnson had forward position and made the leaping interception. State could do nothing with this turnover, though, and Carroll was extremely fortunate his third-down throw to Lance Long wasn't caught and returned for the touchdown by Patrick Lee.
"We dodged a bullet because it was just a mis-understanding in the huddle from the start!" Carroll said. "But we survived."
Auburn chose to change quarterbacks themselves, putting freshman Kodi Burns under-center at 5:28 of the quarter. His fancy footwork both produced good yards for Burns and loosened the defense for backs Ben Tate and Mario Fannin. A turnover ended this Tiger possession when Burns tried to pass and was blind-sided by Chaney to force a fumble recovered by end Jimmie Holmes.
Carroll was a much more poised playmaker the second time-out, directing a smart series that had Dixon get 13 on a draw and a reverse by Co-Eric Riley 12 more. Carroll would have had his first college touchdown pass if tight end Jason Husband had held on to a throw into the end zone. Instead State let Carlson convert again, from 30 yards out, for a 13-0 lead by 12:27.
An exchange of punts, and missed block-in-the-back, had Auburn starting on their 46-yard line. This time the Tigers went the distance with Tate skipping a diving tackle try by cornerback Marcus Washington en route to a 28-yard touchdown scamper at 4:18. Then Pegues lost the handle on the ensuing kickoff, with Auburn recovering at the Bulldog 30-yard line. Burns broke the goal on 2nd-and-feet for a 14-13 Tiger lead 30 ticks before intermission.
Rookie Burns was burning the Bulldogs with his quick feet and decision-making. Croom admitted that, while State expected the kid to play, preparation for the option-style quarterback was limited as most work naturally focused on veteran Cox. And as Brown noted, "We didn't prepare for the option." But State's defense didn't panic in the locker room or third quarter. "We had to gap it up, read our keys, and everything took care of itself."
As in, keeping the Tigers from padding that one-point lead all period. Sub-tackle Quinton Wesley stopped a promising Auburn drive by stripping Fannin at State's 20-yard line, with tackle Kyle Love recovering. A swap of kicks later Riddell made his debut and hooked up with Tony Burks for 16 yards to move the chains once. This time the Tigers were caught back-blocking and were pinned back. That didn't compare to their own following punt, downed inside the Dog two-yard line at 1:39 of the quarter.
Auburn got the ball back at State's 37 as McAdams kicked out of the end zone. This time the defense read Burns perfectly, with yet another tight end-screen losing six yards on Wesley's smart tackle at the 39. And when the MSU offense failed to advance, the defense got the ball back on 2nd-and-nine as Burns threw deep and Bobo was in position.
Though it wasn't a great punt, Croom said McAdams' effort just to give the defense room to work with mattered much. As did Carlson's second kickoff following the touchdown; his first attempt went out-of-bounds but Auburn gambled on a re-kick. Carlson hit it to the Tiger 14 and Fannin only got 10 yards before safety Keith Fitzhugh crushed him. "And our defense sucked up their guts and made plays," Croom said.
Burns finished with 87 net yards and a touchdown, and was 8-of-12 throwing dumps and screens for 65 yards. Cox was just 4-of-10 for 42 yards and had two passes picked, yet the Dog defense expected him to be leading Auburn's last-chance. "He's been in this league a long time," Brown noted. And while Cox got his team as far as the nine, they went no farther. Tate led his team with 91 rushing yards and Fannin added 40. Smith, Cox's target on fourth down, had a team-best four grabs for 78 yards.
Five different Dogs caught the mere five completed passes. For that matter the home team won the stat-battle, 323 yards to 213 and 4.8 yards per-snap to 3.5. Which meant nothing to a joyful bunch of Bulldogs of course.
"That's what all the two-a-days, the running, the lifting is for," said Brown. "To go out and show you're mentally tough as well as physically. And we showed that today."
Croom didn't bridle at the suggestion Mississippi State had scored an upset on the plains. He did disagree, though. "We felt it was a dead-even game coming in. I'm sure some people will call it an upset but we don't care. We know who we are."