Unforgettable (no matter how hard you try)

First thing I saw when I got on my computer early this morning was that today is the 5th anniversary of a most unusual football game, one I’ve tried hard to forget. Five years ago, Auburn defeated Mississippi State 3-2 in Starkville. I was there, unfortunately, working on deadline. I had 750 words to write in a column and also had to do a 300-word front page story. Try writing more than 1,000 words, on a really tight deadline, on a 3-2 football game. On second thought, don’t…

I do remember thinking once I finished: No matter how bad and boring my writing was, it could be no worse or more boring than the two offenses we watched that night.

Don’t know what will happen when State and Auburn play again Saturday. I just hope it’s not what follows.

The story

STARKVILLE – Not in 104 previous years of football had Mississippi State played a 3-2 football game. Not in 115 previous seasons had Auburn played one by the same score.

Both schools have now.

Auburn’s happy.

State’s not.

Tommy Tuberville, the Auburn coach, was relieved as well as happy.

“I am an old defensive coach so I was liking it a little bit, but I wish we had scored a few more points,” Tuberville said. “… That was a true defensive game.”

It harkened back to the days when Shug Jordan was coaching at Auburn and perhaps all the way back to when Allyn McKeen was winning close, low-scoring games at State.

“It’s all about defense when you go on the road,” Tuberville said. “Our guys came to play today. We gave up zero first downs and only 116 yards of total offense. You can win a lot of games that way. We played hard and we played with enthusiasm.”

When Tuberville said his team gave up zero first downs on 14 chances, he was talking about on third-down plays. What’s more, State went for it three times on fourth down, all unsuccessfully.

So, on 17 make-or-break offensive plays, State broke 17 times.

Auburn limited State to just 38 yards rushing, and State wasn’t much better through the air. Wesley Carroll completed 10 of 25 throws for only 78 yards. That’s three yards gained per passing attempt – and that won’t get it.

“Auburn just has so much team speed on defense,”Carroll said. “They really fly to the football.”

It was the first time Auburn had won a game scoring only three points since a 3-0 victory over Miami on Oct. 4, 1974.

The column

STARKVILLE -Mississippi State’s defense did everything it could possibly do help the Bulldogs knock off ninth-ranked Auburn here Saturday night.

Auburn’s placekicker did almost everything he could do to help State pull off the upset, hooking two very makeable field goals.

A huge, breakthrough, national attention-grabbing, Tommy Tuberville-frustrating State victory was there for the winning.

Final score: Auburn 3, Mississippi State 2. No, it wasn’t a pitching duel.

Give credit to Auburn’s ball-hawking, oh-so-fast defense, which held State to 116 total yards.

The Tigers “D” is about as good as it gets this side of the NFL. Give credit to Auburn cornerback Walter McFadden, who made a remarkable, game-saving interception, snatching the ball out of Brandon McRae’s waiting hands.

But …

And this is a big but.

No offense, Bulldogs, but no matter who you’re up against – Auburn, LSU or the New England Patriots – you’ve got to be more offensive than this.

And you have to make better decisions on fourth downs.

Through one quarter, State had two first downs and 44 yards. Through two quarters, State had three first downs and 65 yards.

Through three quarters, State had four first downs and 79 yards. (That’s 14 yards and one first down in the third quarter, if you’re keeping score, and I know you are.)

State’s defense gave up only three points and scored two. What more can you ask?

State fans who worried about the loss of defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson shouldn’t. The Bulldogs looked to be in fine hands Saturday against Auburn’s new (and improved?) spread offense with Charlie Harbison in charge.

The Bulldogs forced and recovered three Auburn fumbles.

Time after time, State’s defense would get the ball back, and then State’s offense couldn’t do anything with it.

“We had a chance to make plays on offense,” MSU coach Sylvester Croom said. “We had a couple one-on-one situations we should have taken advantage of. We’d have guys open and not make the throw, or we’d make the throw and we didn’t make the catch.”

Twice, State went for it on fourth down needing just to make one single yard for a first down, and twice the Bulldogs failed. Then, with about three and a half minutes and two timeouts remaining, State faced fourth down and 15 yards to go at its own 48.

My thinking: In this type of game, your defense gives you the best chance to win – especially the way Blake McAdams had been punting the ball.

Punt it and try to pin the Tigers back. Try to force another fumble.

Croom who makes a lot more money than I to make such decisions, thought differently.

“I didn’t know if we would have a chance to get the ball back,” Croom said. “I was very concerned that we might not get a chance, so we took a shot. We had a guy open, but we didn’t make the play.”

And still State got another chance.

After the offense turned the ball over to Auburn at its own 48 with 3 minutes, 40 seconds remaining, the defense got it right back two plays later when Cortez McRaney fell on Chris Todd’s fumble at State’s 34.

About that time, everybody had to be thinking: How many lives do these Dogs have?

And then, for the briefest of shining moments, State looked to have the big play it had been needing all game long.

McRae ran a stop-and-go route down the right sidelines. It appeared he had a step or two on McFadden, the Auburn corner. Wesley Carroll let loose with a high spiral down the sidelines.

Again, it looked as if McRae – B-Mac to his teammates and coaches – might catch it in stride and score the winning touchdown. And then McFadden leaped high in the air and snagged the ball right out of McRae’s waiting hands.

“I thought Brandon should have gone up and gotten the ball,” Croom would say.

“Nine times out of 10, B-Mac makes that play,” Carroll said. “But that play didn’t win or lose the game. We had plenty more chances.”

Perhaps not.

But it was as close to a game-deciding plays as there was.

Auburn made it.

State didn’t, and that’s how you lose a football game 3-2.

3 thoughts on “Unforgettable (no matter how hard you try)”

  1. I’m running way behind, as I usually am this time of year, and just ran across this. If you think you had it tough writing a 300-yard game story and a column on this 3-2 game, well, it could have been worse. It could have been the old Egg Bowl and you might have had to do a 300-word story on the first quarter. Or the second. Or the third. Or the fourth.

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