Auburn football has historic meltdown in 43-34 loss to Mississippi State
AUBURN — When the Atlanta Braves won the World Series on Nov. 2, Auburn students flocked to Toomer's Corner and draped the trees in toilet paper, celebrating a championship for the nearest major city with an age-old Auburn tradition.
What happened to Auburn football 11 days later should also ring true with the Atlanta sports fans on the Plains.
The Tigers coughed up a 28-3 lead late in the first half Saturday, reminiscent of the Atlanta Falcons' infamous Super Bowl collapse, and lost 43-34 to Mississippi State at Jordan-Hare Stadium in one of the historic program's worst-ever meltdowns. Forty unanswered points by Mississippi State (6-4, 4-3) knocked Auburn (6-4, 3-3 SEC) out of SEC West title contention.
Defensive trend reversed
In Auburn's last five wins, the defense had not allowed a fourth-quarter point and had developed an impressive pattern of improving throughout every game. Mississippi State flipped the script.
Quarterback Will Rogers entered with the highest completion rate in the country (75.2%). In the first quarter, Auburn contained him to 10-of-18 passing with 3.2 yards per attempt. Mike Leach's air raid offense was stumped.
Rogers then went 34-for-37 with six touchdowns and no interceptions the rest of the game. The Tigers didn't get a stop after early in the second quarter. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason stuck to a three- or four-man rush most of the game — when he blitzed, it was disruptive — and Rogers operated comfortably with a clean pocket.
Excluding a brief possession that ended because of halftime, Mississippi State scored touchdowns on six consecutive possessions, with the go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter. The streak was only snapped by a late missed field goal. The Bulldogs ran 10 times in the game, excluding the final possession in which they were trying to run out the clock.
Special teams floundering
The storyline before this game was Leach's hyperbolic frustration with Mississippi State's special teams. Maybe Auburn should hold open special teams tryouts instead.
Nehemiah Pritchett fumbled the opening kick return, and the Tigers recovered to avoid disaster. But it was just the beginning. A solid trick-play kick return in which Jarquez Hunter threw a cross-field lateral to Pritchett was brought back by a penalty. A fourth-quarter kickoff return was also brought back by a flag. Demetris Robertson decided to play a punt off the bounce and had to fall on the ball in traffic.
Anders Carlson missed a 55-yard field goal, and Auburn's other, shorter attempt (while still ahead 28-23) was blocked.
The icing on the cake was when the Tigers trailed 36-28. On a fourth-and-10 at midfield after two dropped passes, Auburn called a fake punt that had no chance. Oscar Chapman's throw was incomplete.
WHAT HAPPENED TO AUBURN?:Auburn football's Bo Nix after loss to Mississippi State: 'I’m not quite sure what happened'
Auburn fans feeling targeted
Once again, the subjectivity of the targeting rule was called into question after a pair of game-altering calls in the second half. Auburn was about to be bailed out on a third-and-19 incompletion because of targeting, but at a cost: Receiver Kobe Hudson (who had a career game) was drilled in the head and stayed on the ground for several minutes. The call was overturned after a review, and Auburn punted.
Then Auburn edge rusher T.D. Moultry was ejected on a targeting review after sacking Rogers on a tackle that seemingly had less intent and less head-to-head contact. Rogers was uninjured. The sack would have left Mississippi State with third-and-21; instead the first down led to a touchdown.
Disappearing ingenuity on offense
A theme throughout Bryan Harsin's first year at Auburn has been the offense's propensity for showing more diverse personnel sets and play designs. When things were going well Saturday, he and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo pulled out some of their most impressive calls and trusted their run game in big spots.
On the Tigers' second possession, receiver Ja'Varrius Johnson went in motion to the boundary, turned back and was available to Nix on the field side as part of a triple run-pass option. Nix held on instead of handing off to the right, tucked as though to keep it then fired horizontally to Johnson, who had two downfield receiver blocks. He accelerated through a small hole for a 57-yard touchdown run.
On a fourth-and-1 inside the Mississippi State 10, Auburn showed a jumbo package with two running backs and three tight ends. The play was a crafty sweep to senior Shaun Shivers, who converted to the outside. The Tigers scored two plays later on another mark of the new offense: tight ends in the pass game.
Most importantly: Running back Tank Bigsby punched through Mississippi State's defense in the first half, especially in the red zone. Then Bobo stopped handing him the ball. In the first half, Auburn ran 19 times for an average of 6.3 yards. In the second half: eight rushes, 1.8 yards per carry.