By JOEL COLEMAN
AUBURN, Ala. – Mississippi State’s defense has been listening to the sermons defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has been preaching.
Time and time again, Auburn drove into the red zone against Mississippi State on Saturday night. Each time they came away with little or nothing as the Bulldogs topped the Tigers 17-9 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“Coach Diaz emphasizes to us not to let the ball get into our end zone,” Mississippi State defensive lineman Chris Jones said. “We go over that every day. That’s the key point in practice – never let the ball in the end zone, no matter where it’s at.”
Mississippi State (3-1, 1-1) didn’t allow Auburn (2-2, 0-2) to cross its goal line all night long. On four different occasions, Auburn got inside the MSU 20-yard line. Those four trips resulted in just six points on a pair of Daniel Carlson field goals.
“I thought we just strained and gave great effort,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. “I thought our defense played hard.
“I thought our kids strained and (Diaz) did a great job getting guys in position to go make plays. Even after we’d give up a big play, we put guys in position to go make plays on the field and the effort our guys played with was fantastic.”
Fittingly, it was a defensive play in the red zone that set the tone for the game. In his first-ever collegiate series, Auburn quarterback Sean White began the contest by driving the Tigers to the Bulldog 34-yard line. White then aired a pass toward the sideline that went through the hands of MSU cornerback Will Redmond and into the hands of Tigers receiver Marcus Davis for a 22-yard gain to the 12. Three plays later, Redmond made amends, intercepting a White pass at the 2-yard line and returning it 19 yards.
That started a 10-play, 79-yard scoring drive for the Bulldogs that was capped by Dak Prescott’s 32-yard touchdown pass to Gabe Myles for a 7-0 MSU lead.
“Both teams knew it was important to start fast,” Diaz said. “Whoever got the first big break in this game was going to have the advantage and then our offense took the ball and went right down and scored.”
Prescott’s arm did more damage in the second quarter. Again starting at his own 21-yard line, Prescott took MSU down the field and into the end zone again, this time scoring on a 17-yard pass to De’Runnya Wilson.
“It was a great catch,” Prescott said of Wilson’s touchdown reception. “It wasn’t a good throw at all. He came back inside and went up and got it over the top of (the defender). It was just a great job.”
Prescott finished the evening completing 29 of his 41 passes for 270 yards and the two touchdowns.
Still, he may have been outshined by his defense.
Immediately after Prescott’s touchdown pass to Wilson, Auburn drove the ball down the field to the Mississippi State 1-yard line on the ensuing drive. Two plays later, the Tigers had been held out of the end zone once more and missed their field goal try.
In the second half, Auburn would finally come away with points on a pair of red zone trips. On consecutive offensive series, the Tigers got field goals from Carlson, first a 30-yarder, then a 25-yarder to pull within eight points at 14-6.
MSU’s Westin Graves answered with a 44-yard field goal of his own late in the third quarter to stretch the Bulldog advantage to 17-6.
Graves has now made all five of his field goal attempts this season.
From there, the score held until Carlson drilled a 51-yard field goal with 2:17 remaining, but Auburn’s ensuing onside kick went out of bounds, essentially securing MSU’s win.
The victory marked the first time the Bulldogs have won games in consecutive years over Auburn since winning four in a row from 1997 through 2000. It was also Mississippi State’s first road victory over Auburn since 2007.
More importantly, the Bulldogs have evened their conference record in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference Western Division ahead of a road trip to Texas A&M next week.
“We have a lot of confidence right now,” Wilson said. “We don’t want to peak, but we know what kind of team we have.”