A case could be made Thursday night’s game was won before the crystal ball dropped on New Year’s Eve 2009.
On Dec. 31, Cameron Newton made a decision to sign with Auburn instead of re-joining his former offensive coordinator at Florida, Dan Mullen at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs then essentially went 0-for-2 when after they failed to sign the nation’s best junior-college quarterback, they failed to figure out how to stop him in a 17-14 victory for Auburn.
“We had every opportunity to win this game,” Mullen said. “Every time we hit the high note, we didn’t make the plays – we thudded.”
In his first trip back to Starkville since holding a cowbell during the 2009 Egg Bowl, Newton had an impressive Southeastern Conference debut with 206 total yards (136 passing and 70 rushing) and two touchdowns. The Blinn College transfer from College Park, Geo., burned the MSU attack blitz by his consistent ability to avoid the rush and turn a likely sack into a positive carry.“We started on fire and we played efficiently as an offense,” Newton said. “We put the defense in binds at times but our defense stepped up and held it down for us.”
Newton even showed some skills as a receiver as he took a floater pass after a handoff to Kodi Burns and rumbled 22 yards after the catch.
Auburn, who has now won 22 of the last 29 meetings with MSU, gladly took advantage of two Bulldogs’ turnovers throughout the game and turned each of them into instant points during the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
“It doesn’t matter what stadium you go, you are going to have to win games like this,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said.
Among the constant booing from the 54,806 in attendance Thursday night, Newton led a 68-yard opening drive in eight plays that ended in a 39-yard wide receiver screen pass down the left sideline for the game’s first touchdown quieting the partisan Starkville crowd.
“The atmosphere was electric and it was a top-notch exciting experience,” Newton said. “That’s what I expected coming in to play in the SEC.”
That possession was highlighted by a fourth-and-one play-action rollout call near midfield by Tigers offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn that Newton converted.
“We gave up the big play in situations that we should not give it up,” Mullen said. “In the end, they made more plays than we did.”
After a MSU drive that started around midfield but lost 13 yards, Auburn punt returner Quindarius Carr was unable to hang onto the football after a jarring hit to give the Bulldogs possession at the Tigers 20-yard-line.
Three plays later, Relf attempted to break the plane on a option sweep but lost the football but the fumble was recovered by redshirt freshman left guard Gabe Jackson for what the Liberty native called after the game his first-ever credited touchdown to tie the score at 7-7.
After leading the Bulldogs offense to four touchdown passes in his collegiate debut, MSU quarterback Tyler Russell’s first possession ended when junior defensive tackle Nick Failey snatched a pass out of the air for an interception near midfield.
Newton and his right-arm answered in the second quarter when he stayed in the pocket during an MSU blitz on third-and-13 to find a wide-open receiver in junior Darvin Adams for the score to put the 21st-ranked Tigers (2-0) back up 14-7.
This was after the 6-foot-6, 240-pound signal caller rolled over MSU defenders on a pair of designed run plays that totaled 24 yards.
On the ensuing possession, Mississippi State (1-1) gave the ball away again as the exchange between Relf and center J.C. Brignone was fumbled allowing Failey to find the football for the second time in the first half. That giveaway would cost the Bulldogs three points after Auburn kicker Wes Byrum nailed a 34-yard field goal.
“The opportunity was there for us to win but we did not grab it,” Mullen said. “We need to do that for this program to turn the corner and we are going to do that.”
Mississippi State attempted to jumpstart the momentum in the second half with a 12-play, 63-yard drive that resulted in a one-yard touchdown for junior tailback Vick Ballard. The short plunge was the third of the 2010 season for the former junior college All-American.
The Bulldogs attempted to seize on the momentum by going for and recovering an onside kick but three incompletions made it a short-lived emotional swing.
Mississippi State will look for its first SEC victory in a place where visitors don’t normally leave happy as the Bulldogs travel to Baton Rouge, La., to face LSU on Sept. 18.
“I guarantee you that the people in Baton Rouge are not going to feel sorry for us this week,” Mullen said. “If you are going to play the toughest schedule in the country, you better learn to deal with some adversity.”