The buzz was palpable from the opening kickoff. This Auburn-Mississippi State game was a bit different, not because of the revenge story line that dominated the conversation in the days leading up to Saturday night’s game (Auburn lost to the Bulldogs 23-9 last year), but because this was a big opportunity, in prime time, for the Tigers to make another statement by beating a solid opponent.
The seventh-ranked Tigers (5-0, 2-0 SEC) had already given the rest of the college football landscape enough reasons to pay attention to it. To say the Tigers had not proved themselves worthy of a top-10 ranking by beating Oregon and Texas A&M would be disingenuous. But the Tigers showed something else over the course of their 56-23 win over Mississippi State (3-2, 1-1 SEC): that this team can be seriously deadly when it gets rolling.
And the Gus Bus’ wheels were churning at record speed inside Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night.
Running back JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow scored a 30-yard touchdown on the Tigers’ first offensive snap. As he neared the pylon, a Bulldog defender knocked into the sophomore, sending him sliding out of bounds -- and straight into Mississippi State’s animal mascot, Bully, an actual English bulldog.
“I thought the dog was about to bite him,” receiver Seth Williams said. “I saw him hit the dog and was like, ‘Oh, snap.’ I ran over there. I was fixin’ to square up with the dog. But it was all good.”
Bully is OK, don’t worry. The same can’t be said about the team he represents.
“It would’ve been real easy to let up,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “It would have been real easy to maybe look forward to the next game. But our guys didn’t do that, and they played their best football game as a team, to date, tonight.”
The Bulldogs, at one point, had more delay of game penalties than yards, and by a long shot (two penalties, minus-16 yards of offense). The Tigers defense came out dialed in, holding Bulldogs starting quarterback Tommy Stevens to seven passing yards.
Auburn scored touchdowns on six of their seven first-half drives. Williams eclipsed 120 receiving yards before halftime, and Nix opened the third quarter by throwing a 30-yard score to the sophomore, which put the Tigers up by 40 points.
40 points. Against a conference opponent, not even five minutes into the third quarter. The Tigers hit the 500-yard total offense mark before the fourth quarter.
“It shows that we can hit on all cylinders,” Tigers receiver Sal Cannella said. “You can’t run the ball without passing the ball, you can’t pass the ball without running the ball.”
The crowd grew louder. Mississippi State, led by new quarterback Garrett Shrader, had the ball on the goal line, ready to punch it in for a score and cut into Auburn’s already sizable lead. The game probably would have been closer had Shrader started, as he was by far the best of the two Bulldog quarterbacks against the Tigers.
Shrader took the snap and darted to the right of his offensive line, his eyes set on the end zone opposite to the Tigers student section. He lept into the air, then suffered a jarring hit at the hands of several Tigers defenders. The ball popped out, a mad scramble ensued, and safety Jeremiah Dinson dove onto the loose ball.
Auburn defenders sprinted toward their sideline, arms outstretched. Some yelled in excitement. One defender in particular, defensive end Derick Hall, ripped his helmet off in jubilation, running full-speed to a raucous Tigers bench. That drew a flag, but not many of the 87,000-plus spectators, nor the coaches and players on the Auburn sideline, seemed to care much.
The Tigers defense was dialed in.
Auburn outgained the Bulldogs by more than 200 yards and forced two turnovers. Mississippi State did not break the 20-point mark until there was under one minute left in the game.
There were still a few mistakes to clean up, namely in the ball security department, but the fumbles were really the only negative for the Tigers on the night.
“The defense did an outstanding job,” Malzahn said. “We were able to play our twos and threes starting in the late third quarter, which is pretty unique for a league game. They are a solid team. I’m impressed with them. Every time we play, it’s always physical. Last year, they were more physical than us. This year, we flipped the switch on them and won both lines of scrimmage.”
Of course, it only gets more difficult from here. The Tigers head to Florida next week for the first game of a three-game road trip that concludes October 26 at LSU. But if the Tigers’ trouncing of Mississippi State proves anything, it’s that the Tigers will be a real force in the SEC.