By JOEL COLEMAN
AUBURN, Ala. – Five years later, Manny Diaz finally got his payback on Auburn.
In 2010, during Diaz’s first stint as head coach Dan Mullen’s defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, Diaz orchestrated a Bulldog defense that came out on the losing end of a 17-14 score to quarterback Cam Newton and an eventual national champion Auburn team.
At Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday, Diaz flipped the script as the Bulldogs topped the Tigers 17-9.
“He was excited to come in and get this win,” Mullen said of Diaz. “He told me, he said ‘We’ll get a defensive win against Auburn.’ He said ‘It was (five) years too late. We thought we had one (five) years ago.’”
Diaz’s defense wasn’t untouchable over the course of the game. Auburn did outgain Mississippi State 389 yards to the Bulldogs’ 326. However, when it counted the most, Diaz’s unit was at its best.
Four times Auburn drove inside MSU’s 20-yard line. Twice, the Tigers came away empty handed. The other two times, all Auburn could muster was field goals from kicker Daniel Carlson.
The reasons for MSU’s red-zone resiliency are many. There’s the talent of the guys involved. There’s the schemes of Diaz himself. Yet Diaz points elsewhere when asked for the reason the Bulldog defense tightened inside the 20-yard line.
“To me, that all comes down to the backbone of this program,” Diaz said. “No matter who the defensive coordinator is, our red zone defense comes out of our weight room. I think (strength coach Rick Court) teaches those guys in terms of never flinching and never giving in. All you have to do as a defensive coordinator is just call defenses, but the attitude it takes to dominate in the red zone comes from our strength program.”
On the back of the red zone defense, MSU built itself a 17-6 advantage entering the fourth quarter. That’s when Diaz’s defense kicked things into another gear. Mississippi State sacked Auburn quarterback Sean White four times in the ballgame. Three of those times came in the final period.
“When you’re down and you’ve got to throw, they’re going to pin their ears back and come,” White said of the Bulldog pressure.
MSU linebacker Richie Brown, who had two sacks as part of his 13 total tackles and three tackles for loss, said the tone for the entire Bulldog defensive performance was set in practice over the course of the last week.
“The defense was ready to go,” Brown said. “We were straining to get to the ball. There were some small, nippy things that we can get fixed, but we were all straining to the ball and that’s what won us the game.”
Now Mississippi State hopes its defense can put up a similarly stingy performance this week against a typically high-powered Texas A&M offensive attack. The Bulldogs must wait six days to see if they can slow down the Aggies, but in the meantime, Diaz can bust out Saturday’s game film to show his team they are fully capable of keeping opposing offenses outside the goal line.
“Our defense, every time that we needed them, they came up big,” Mullen said. “There are a lot of talented players on that Auburn team and keeping them out of the end zone for the night was fantastic.”