It seems a bit difficult to properly put last night’s game into words – all of it – but such is the task charged today.
Mississippi State lost to Auburn 24-20, and where do we start? Had the last 30 seconds gone differently we would be talking about the coming out party for Dak Prescott. After all, MSU held the lead as the clock wound down to the final seconds, less than a minute left in the game with seemingly in firm command.
The Bulldogs’ secondary allowed 339 passing yards, though the much-hyped Auburn rush attack only managed 120 yards of its own.
Odd as it sounds, Auburn only scored two touchdowns, while MSU sniffed paydirt three times.
For the overwhelming majority of the game, MSU looked like the better team. They played like the better team. But it’s not boxing. It’s not skating or gymnastics. There are no judges. Just a machine. A scoreboard, with no thoughts, emotions or eyes of its own, a hunk of metal and light deciding a winner without bias and beyond reproach.
When the game ended, the scoreboard said the home team won, despite the efforts of Dan Mullen’s team. Someone has to lose and just as often as not, it seems the wrong team bears that burden.
And it’s a tough burden to share among those in the locker room.
“We didn’t finish,” a frustrated Mullen told reporters.
Not earth-shattering, but true. For as great as MSU looked most of the game, the offense couldn’t get one more score, nor could the defense prevent a second touchdown when it mattered the most.
That’s why it hurts the players and coaches and fans.
Were the score unknown, MSU would have a lot to be happy about, much encouragement to be taken in their first SEC game.
They won the turnover battle 3-0. Prescott, in his second start of his career, accounted for 346 yards and two touchdowns, without a single turnover.
Nine different players rushed the ball. The offensive line paved the way for five yards per carry by those rushers, while never allowing a sack of their quarterback.
MSU’s defense racked up three sacks, two forced fumbles, four tackles for loss, two interceptions and a quarterback hurry, while sophomore linebacker Benardrick McKinney led all players with nine tackles.
But then, weird things happened. Auburn’s quarterback Nick Marshall completed a 37-yard pass to himself in what almost could have been a pick-six for MSU. The Bulldogs got two late-game turnovers and couldn’t turn either into points. Finally, much to Mullen’s chagrin, MSU finished 5 of 15 on third down, despite being a perfect 100 percent (2 for 2) on fourth down.
It’s frustrating for all involved far or near, without question.
But in the disappointment outside MSU’s locker room, the shocked faces within and heavy hearts underneath every set of pads, it wasn’t the end.
Cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend walked out of the locker room with his bag on his shoulder and a face nearly devoid of emotion after having spent it all the last five hours.
From across the gate by the buses there came a squeal and a blur of motion and bouncing hair as Townsend’s daughter sprinted to her dad and jumped into his arms, wrapping her own around his neck and burying her face in his chest.
Daddy couldn’t help but smile as he hugged his daughter. She was just happy to see him, not quite old enough to track the gravity of what happened, but aware enough to know game days are a big deal.
As Townsend walked toward his wife with his daughter in his arms, his son walked up and wrapped an arm around his dad, older and more aware but still barely standing higher than his father’s waist. Loss or not, that warmth melted his frozen countenance.
On the bus back to Starkville, a member of the athletic department started a conversation with me.
“You know what the best thing about love is, Bob? When I get home, my wife is going to be waiting on me with a hug and a smile. Always, win or lose.”
Closer to the buses after the game, Tyler Russell smiled as a little girl, and a big fan, took her picture with him.
Somewhere between Jordan-Hare Stadium and the Seal Family Football Complex, LaDarius Perkins tweeted “Better days ahead. #hailstate.” Dillon Day added on, “No doubt. Stay strong everyone, thanks for the support.”
They’re frustrated, and they know everyone else is, too. But that support, the love, whether it be from family, friends or just those who unconditionally cherish the Maroon and White, is what allows them to keep going, to take the good, learn from the bad and return to work the next day, preparing for the next opponent.
Dak Prescott late Saturday night/Sunday morning: “Back in Starkville and realized there’s no town I’d rather be in! Thanks for the support and love. We WILL bounce back #NoDoubt #HailState”
Now, for some additional thoughts and observations. I won’t hit on some of the previous people and numbers mentioned, but a few more deserve noting.
- We didn’t say a thing about right guard Ben Beckwith all night and that’s about the best compliment you can give an offensive lineman. Like Prescott, he got his first start last week due to injury and played his first SEC start beautifully. The interior of MSU’s line might quietly be the most impressive part of the night, paving the way for a lot of big runs and protecting Prescott.
- It may have just been a function of the coverage, but I think it’s fair to say Prescott likes junior receiver Robert Johnson. He led the game with 84 yard on four catches, having a big game we’ve been waiting to see from him.
- It was also good to see sophomore Joe Morrow get four catches of his own, totaling 40 yards. He’s been making more plays with each successive game.
- Mullen expressed regret after the game that he didn’t get Perkins more carries (eight for 36 yards) and there is some truth to that, though MSU’s stable of runners is quite deep, even without a mobile quarterback.
- On that note, Mullen also said he’d rather not have as many runs for Prescott, the QB getting 22 last night. Though he certainly did well with them, racking up 133 yards and a pair of touchdowns, averaging 6.0 yards per carry.
- Defensively, I did find it interesting (in a good way) to see sophomore Ryan Brown get the start at defensive end. He’s part of what we saw a lot of last night: length. Between he, Preston Smith, Denico Autry, Matt Wells, Taveze Calhoun and a few others, MSU has a lot of long arms on defense, great for knocking down passes and reaching inside to extract balls from rushers.
- Three guys who stood out to me for one reason or another: Deontae Skinner (first career sack), A.J. Jefferson (great job creating pressure) and Richie Brown, who had one of the more impressive sacks I’ve seen, throwing Marshall to the ground with what looked like a considerable amount of passion and anger.
- The negative for the defense was a lot of busted coverage. I imagine we’ll hear the term “missed assignments” when they talk about it. Whether it was players slipping, missing or just getting burned, Auburn had a few too many receivers running alone in the deep parts of the field. It was the first we’ve seen of that all year and usual starting corner Jamerson Love was a little limited, it seemed, due to injury, so whether or not this is a long-term concern remains up for debate, though I won’t worry unless we see it again.
- On the plus side: hello, Nickoe Whitley. Two interceptions? If I’m not mistaken, he’s now tied for the lead among active players in interceptions per game.
- Also, has Taveze Calhoun become MSU’s best cornerback? The third-year sophomore has dealt with injuries and never got talked about much in offseasons past because of it, but now that he’s a starter he keeps making plays and is reliable in coverage.
- On special teams, punter Baker Swedenburg continues to be one of MSU’s best players, 46.6 yards per kick last night, including a 52-yarder.
- Mullen talked a bit about sophomore place kicker Devon Bell on the teleconference, who had touchbacks on three out of four kicks last night. His field goal kicking from short distance has been inconsistent, which Mullen credits to his powerful leg, saying he kicks everything like it’s a 50-yarder. Bell is an extremely talented kicker and the issues don’t seem beyond repair.