AUBURN, Ala. -- All week, Auburn’s football players heard how their winning streak would end. They heard that they weren’t physical enough or tough enough to stop Mississippi State and it’s red-hot offense.
Yet when the game was over -- for a second time -- Saturday, the Tigers were pounding their chests as Jordan-Hare Stadium erupted at the sight of the 41-34 win. And those same Bulldogs, who were meaner and tougher, were left battered and beaten on the Plains.
“We beat a good football team today. It’s that simple,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “It’s really good to see a group of young guys figure out different ways to win.
“There are a lot of young guys right now that are learning what it takes to continue to fight every down and have a chance to win in this league. That was a fight out there today. That was a brawl out there today. It was hot, it was physical, both sides were tired. It really became like one of those old heavyweight fights and it’s the last man standing.”
This team is young and inexperienced, but it’s also resilient and it knows how to play for four quarters. More importantly, it finds ways to win.
Only Auburn could rush for a measly 78 yards in the first game against what should have been an overmatched Utah State team and then rebound to put up 235 rushing yards against Mississippi State.
Only Auburn could fly out to an early 14-0 lead, only to watch the Bulldogs score 21 straight, yet find a way to lead by seven at the half.
Only Auburn could have a player in backup safety Ryan Smith, who has had more attention given to his off-field trouble than his actual football career, come through with literally a goal-line stand as time expired against the ultimate bruising quarterback in Mississippi State’s Chris Relf.
The Tigers have won a nation-leading 17 consecutive games -- 10 by eight points or less. These cardiac cats don’t care how they win as long as they win.
“We’d prefer to win football games a lot differently than we are, but I’m going to tell you, there’s something to be said for knowing that you can fight down until the end and it doesn’t look good and still be able to win a game,” Chizik said.
The Tigers did it by playing Mississippi State’s game. They had a run-first attitude and double last week’s number by the middle of the third quarter. Sophomore Michael Dyer, who had just 57 yards a week ago, had almost all of that on one carry (52) and finished the day with a game-high 150 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries.
Sidekick Onterio McCalebb had 68 on the day.
Chizik and his players said there were no adjustments made in practice -- no wrinkles added. The goal was to get tough(er) and put a strong emphasis on the run.
The offensive line, which battled through injuries this week, switched parts around, but mainly it intensified its attitude. This group felt insulted by talk of it not being physical enough to deal with Mississippi State’s line.
“We were disrespected, but we came out with little chips on our shoulders and it helped out,” center Reese Dismukes said.
“There’s a lot of people who doubt us out there, but there’s no doubt on this team. We come out each week and we prepare to win.”
Defensively, this group was laughed at. Utah State registered 448 yards (227 rushing) last week and the Tigers needed a perfect onside kick to win. This week, you could feel the anxiety growing in the stands as the Bulldogs marched behind their running game. Mississippi State gained 333 rushing yards (135 from Relf and 106 from running back Vick Ballard), but when they needed a final one, Auburn stood tall.
Actually, Smith, who stopped Relf on the quarterback keeper, went low and after a review, the Tigers went from disregarded to 2-0.
Does this team need improvements? You betcha. But for now, the Tigers have the record they want.
The disdain will no doubt continue, but it will only serve as more motivation.
“That’s just how it goes,” Dyer said, “but we play Auburn football every Saturday.
“Our team thinks about it every day and night how people don’t count us in this year, and that’s fine. We just take that and we run with it and we fight for Auburn.”