Auburn, Mississippi State have new coaches since odd 3-2 meeting
By ANDY BITTER
AUBURN, Ala. — Josh Bynes didn’t quite know how to feel.
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Yes, Auburn had just beaten Mississippi State, eking out a bizarre 3-2 win in Starkville, Miss., last year, the Tigers’ defense standing tall time and time again after the offense repeatedly put it in unfavorable situations.
But something about that score was unsettling.
“It was kind of awkward,” the linebacker said. “A win is a win, but we were like: ‘Three to two?’”
What at the time was thought to be a hard-fought battle between two stalwart defenses in hindsight appears to be the natural result when two hapless offenses square off.
It marked the beginning of the end for two regimes, emblematic of Sylvester Croom’s offensively-challenged five years at Mississippi State and a precursor to Tony Franklin’s soon-to-be ouster from the Plains.
A year later and with Gene Chizik and Dan Mullen now leading the programs, Auburn and Mississippi State both feel confident about the direction of their respective offenses heading into their SEC opener tonight at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn (1-0) debuted Gus Malzhan’s fast-paced offense with a 37-13 drubbing of Louisiana Tech, a game in which the Tigers ran for 301 yards and finished with 556 overall, their most since 2005.
“I think it is important just to get more confidence in what we’re doing,” quarterback Chris Todd said. “There are a lot of things we can fix, but getting a win like we did and still having a lot of things to improve on is probably a good thing because we know we can get a lot better.”
Both Ben Tate (117 yards) and Onterio McCalebb (148 yards) topped the 100-yard mark on the ground, fulfilling Malzahn’s promise to emphasize the run, but there were other positive signs.
The Tigers had five possessions in the red zone and scored points on four of them (three touchdowns and a field goal), a promising step forward for a team that ranked dead last in the Football Championship Subdivision in red zone scoring last year.
Auburn also got stronger as the game progressed, out-scoring Louisiana Tech 24-3 in the second half. The Tigers blew four second-half leads last season.
“It feels good because we feel like this year we have more of an offense that can (make the other team) pay for us getting a stop,” linebacker Craig Stevens said. “We feel like if we get a couple three-and-outs, just because of their pace, they’re going to wear down the other defense and they’ll be able to make them pay by putting points up on the board.”
Meanwhile, Mississippi State (1-0) was just as successful. Showing off the offense Mullen brought with him from Florida, the Bulldogs clobbered Jackson State 45-7, the most points they had scored since putting up 51 against Jacksonville State in 2002, a stretch of 81 games.
Mullen’s scheme isn’t much different from Auburn’s, which emphasizes spreading the field, getting the ball to a variety of play-makers in space and letting them operate.
Auburn safeties coach Tommy Thigpen got a firsthand look at Mullen when the two were on Urban Meyer’s staff at Bowling Green from 2001-02.
“They’ve evolved quite a bit,” Thigpen said. “It’s very difficult to defend. There are a lot of moving parts, like our offense. It gives you a couple of challenges as far as the zone coverage. Do you stay in zone? They have ways to attack everything you’re in. It’s going to be a challenge because there are a lot of moving parts.”
Now it’s a matter of whether these offenses will work in the defensive-minded SEC, a physical league that had 11 defenses ranked in the top 40 nationally last season.
If nothing else, the stakes get a little higher.
“This is what it’s all about,” Auburn linebacker Adam Herring said. “It’s crank it up a notch, get it going. This is what you play here for, this kind of competition.”