Nick Fitzgerald had no chance.
Within two seconds of catching a first-down snap, Mississippi State’s greenhorn quarterback had Auburn star pass-rusher Carl Lawson draped all over his body. Fellow Tigers behemoth Montravius Adams snatched up the ensuing fumble and stormed into the end zone for 6 easy points.
It was the sort of play that victimizes bad football teams. After Saturday’s 38-14 loss and the preceding ugly win against UMass, Mississippi State (2-3, 1-2 SEC) is fitting that description more and more.
Auburn’s beatdown produced other moments of ineptitude or even stupidity, to be sure.
Left tackle Martinas Rankin, the culprit on Lawson’s sack, also provided us with an excellent statue impersonation, which allowed another Auburn lineman (Marlon Davidson) to strip Fitzgerald untouched. With the deficit mounting, a Bulldogs special teamer decked Auburn’s kicker late and without reason. Ashton Shumpert and Traver Jung each drew unsportsmanlike penalties on the same play.
But the Adams scoop-and-score deserves a spotlight because it plainly illustrates just how outmatched Dan Mullen’s team was at Davis Wade Stadium.
Montravius Adams is playing his best football right now, Gus Malzahn said this week. Um, yep. pic.twitter.com/QLoVwvaWKZ
— Lauren Shute (@LShute13) October 8, 2016
Mullen hasn’t presided over a losing season since 2009, his first in Starkville, but that streak will end this year. There’s one guaranteed win left on this schedule (Samford), two question marks (at BYU and at Kentucky) and four likely SEC West losses.
A bowl game? Fat chance. 4-8 is a real, live possibility.
At best, 2016 is what most expected it to be for MSU: a rebuilding year. At worst?
Athletic director Scott Stricklin is leaving for Florida. Fans are pissed off about everything. But let’s be clear: Mullen is the best thing to ever happen to this program. Trying to out-build, out-recruit and out-gun the Alabamas, LSUs and Auburns of the world at Mississippi State makes year-to-year consistency nearly impossible. Amazingly, consistency has been his trademark.
We know Mullen at least drew interest from other programs this past offseason — there didn’t seem to be much reciprocation on his part, but it’s likely he tested the waters.
Losing him would be catastrophic. This team looks out of its league in 2016; he’s the only one who can get this group back out of the SEC cellar in 2017 and beyond.
As bad as the offense played at times, you can defend it to a point. Auburn has one of the country’s top defenses, and the inexperience at quarterback and other key positions made it a tough matchup for Mississippi State. Fitzgerald made a couple nice throws, including the 37-yard touchdown to Keith Mixon. He’s still developing and has a bright future if Mullen is there to guide him.
The poor defensive play coming off a bye week and the 7 penalties for 80 yards — 4 of them personal fouls — are much bigger sources of concern.
In three of the team’s first five games, the MSU secondary simply has been carved up. South Alabama’s Dallas Davis passed for 285 yards and 2 touchdowns. UMass quarterback Andrew Ford threw for 4 touchdowns. On Saturday, Auburn’s Sean White was nearly perfect. His interception was the receiver’s fault — a gift that, wouldn’t you know it, the Bulldogs squandered on an interception at the Tigers’ 2-yard line.
First-time coordinator Peter Sirmon was hired into a tough position, and Mullen is on his third defensive chief in as many years. Coaching turnover, youth and weak recruiting hauls all have played a big part in the defense’s current shoddiness.
But for Mississippi State and other, smaller Power Five programs, this sort of on-field ebb and flow is unavoidable, even for a coach of Mullen’s caliber. Whoever replaces Stricklin needs to make sure Mullen stays, no matter what.