What we learned from Mississippi State’s 17-9 win over Auburn
Mississippi State defeated Auburn, 17-9, at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday to earn its first SEC win of the season. The Bulldogs (3-1, 1-1 SEC) took an early 14-0 lead into halftime and fought off Auburn’s late-game comeback attempts. It wasn’t a perfect victory by any means, as Mississippi State mustered only 56 yards on the ground and converted just 33 percent of its third-down attempts, but a road win in the SEC is nothing to sneeze at.
Here are three things that we learned about the Bulldogs in their Week 4 win:
Mississippi State is “back in the race”
There is no bigger takeaway than this one. Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said it best: a win means Mississippi State is still alive in the SEC West. A loss would have dropped the Bulldogs to 0-2 in the conference — a place that Auburn currently finds itself — and virtually eliminated any chance to compete for a division title. Instead, Mississippi State really only sits behind LSU and could make it to the SEC Championship Game if it runs the table and the Tigers drop two SEC games. There are still some things that Mullen and the rest of the Bulldogs coaching staff need to improve, but we’ve seen flashes of what this team is capable of. Critics may look at the quality of the game now, but this win will only look better with time.
The defense will bend but won’t break
Looking back on this game, one crucial series of events stands out. Down 14-0, with 8:02 remaining in the first half, Auburn began a drive at its own 24-yard line after surrendering a touchdown on a long, dispiriting drive by the Bulldogs. In response, the Tigers began to move the ball on offense for the first time since their opening possession.
Eleven of Auburn’s 13 plays were runs that steadily moved the offense down the field. Sensing that the Bulldogs defense was getting tired, Tigers coach Gus Malzahn increased the tempo of his offense and limited the personnel changes that Mississippi State could make. Eventually, Auburn found itself in a first-and-goal situation at Mississippi State’s 2-yard line with the defense tired and on its heels. The next four plays may have defined each team’s season.
On first down, Auburn running back Peyton Barber plunged ahead for a one-yard gain. On second down, Barber again went up the middle only to find a wall of Maroon defenders who stopped him short of the goal line. On third down, the Tigers brought in former starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson in what looked like a designed draw play for Johnson, but Mullen called a timeout before the snap. After the break, Malzahn sent out starting quarterback Sean White for the third-down play. The snap was off-target when it reached White, and the quarterback could do nothing but fall on the loose ball as Mississippi State defenders smothered him for an eight-yard loss.
All thoughts of Auburn potentially going for it on fourth-and-one were tossed aside as the Tigers’ field goal unit jogged onto the field to put points on the board before halftime. The kick missed wide right.
It’s easy to look back at a series of events with the comfort of hindsight and decide what mattered and what didn’t. But Mississippi State’s defense held Auburn out of the end zone when it mattered most, and that may have made all the difference.
Where did the running game go?
Coaches often preach the importance of a balanced offensive attack. What the Bulldogs employed offensively on Saturday was anything but balanced. Mississippi State ran the ball 21 times against Auburn while throwing it 41 times. Even with All-SEC quarterback Dak Prescott under center, no team really wants to throw the ball 40 times. What’s even more perplexing was that Mississippi State never once trailed in the game. Usually, teams with a lead try to slow the game up by running the football in the second half and draining the clock. The Bulldogs did the opposite. Leading rushing Brandon Holloway carried the ball only five times despite averaging 8.4 yards per carry (42 yards). Mississippi State doesn’t suddenly need to adopt the wishbone offense, but it will need to find better balance moving forward.
— MSU Football (@HailStateFB) September 27, 2015
Follow William McFadden on Twitter