ENROUTE FROM STARKVILLE TO OXFORD — About this time two years ago eventual national champion Auburn escaped Starkville with a narrow victory over Mississippi State.
The difference, I wrote then: Cam Newton. Had State successfully recruited Newton, State would have won that game going away. The difference was so obvious and it was the man behind the center.
Today, at Scott Field, the tables turned. State’s Tyler Russell, poised, precise and so, so much better than his Auburn counterpart, was, in a word, the difference.
Russell completed 20 of 29 throws for 222 yards and three touchdowns. He was not intercepted. He stood tall in the pocket, took some monstrous hits and delivered time after time after time. He looked like the Meridian High quarterback who knocked off South Panola four years ago in the state championship game.
The final score — 28-10 — gives little indication of the whipping State put on Auburn this day before a bell-ringing crowd of more than 56,000. Auburn crossed the goalline only once and that on a 100-yard return of the second half kickoff. Otherwise, the Bulldogs limited Auburn to an anemic running game that looked like a juggernaut compared to when the Tigers tried to pass.
Early on, State dared the Tigers to pass, often crowding the box with eight defenders. Auburn ran nonetheless showing absolutely no confidence in Kiehl Frazier’s throwing. Later, we saw why. Frazier completed more passes to State — than Auburn — in the first half. At half, Auburn had -2 yards passing and Frazier had a negative-45 passer’s rating. For the game Frazier completed 13 of 22 for 125 yards. He threw three interceptions.
Give State’s defense credit for much of that. State’s All-Everything corner Johnathan Banks got two of those interceptions. State’s aggressive pass rush was a factor, as well.
Then again, Frazier isn’t going to remind anyone of Newton — or Tyler Russell for that matter. Get this: At halftime, Banks had caught more of Frazier’s passes than Frazier’s teammates had.
Russell’s passing was complemented by a running game that boasted four backs at better than five yards a carry.
But that’s the deal. If Auburn played pass, State ran. If Auburn stacked the box, Russell made them pay. Auburn, one-dimensional if that, simply could not do the same.
And therein was the difference.
There’s little overstating how much the victory meant to State. Finally, the Bulldogs beat a Western Division team besides Ole Miss. Finally, they beat Auburn. Finally, they started the SEC season 1-0.
This was the game I had circled on State’s schedule as make-or-break. The Bulldogs made.