AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn running back Ben Tate spent the first quarter on the bench Saturday against Mississippi State in what was described as a coach’s decision.
Tate, a senior who tops the team’s depth chart at tailback and ran for 118 yards in the season opener against Louisiana Tech last week, returned on the Tigers’ first drive of the second quarter. He broke a run for 17 yards and finished the first half with six carries for 42 yards.
Freshman Onterio McCalebb started in Tate’s place and had 10 carries for 81 yards in the first half, including a career-long run that went for 43 yards and a touchdown on an option pitch in the second quarter.
Smith returns, starts
Running back Eric Smith not only returned to action Saturday; he made his first career start. The sophomore, who re-joined the team last Monday after a 2 1/2-week absence following his Aug. 21 arrest for third-degree assault, started in the H-back role.
He swung out wide on the first play of the game to try to spring wide receiver Kodi Burns on a screen play but ended up tripping Burns when he was only 2 yards downfield.
On a kickoff late in the first quarter, Smith was the first player to reach the returner, putting a solid hit on Mississippi State’s Leon Berry before a group of Auburn players tackled him at the 17-yard line.
Two miscues by Auburn’s punt unit led to 10 first-half points for Mississippi State.
Midway through the second quarter, Clinton Durst shanked a 27-yard punt tha made it to only midfield. The Bulldogs capitalized, getting a 26-yard run by quarterback Chris Relf to set up Sean Brauchle’s 29-yard field goal. That cut Auburn’s lead to 14-10.
After stopping the Tigers on the ensuing possession, MSU overwhelmed Auburn’s personal protector punt formation.
Patrick Hanrahan got past the blockers and stuffed Durst’s punt just as it left his foot. Robert Elliott picked it up and rumbled 10 yards for the score, giving the Bulldogs their first lead of the game at 17-14 with 4:44 left before halftime.
Defensive end Antonio Coleman’s returned his first career interception 20 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.
It was the senior’s second career touchdown. In the 2007 season opener, Coleman returned a fumble 34 yards for a score in a win against Kansas State on his 21st birthday.
Junior college transfer Eltoro Freeman got his first action this season after missing the opener with a hamstring injury. He and sophomore Adam Herring, who started for a second straight week, alternated series at weak-side linebacker. Freeman was in on four tackles in the first half.
Elsewhere on defense, Mike Blanc started instead of Nick Fairley at defensive tackle.
The junior was limited in the opener but returned to a prominent role with a cast on his left hand Saturday. He made two tackles near the goal line late in the first quarter before Mississippi State punched in a touchdown on fourth down.
Reserve utility lineman Zach Clayton, who had been sidelined late in the preseason and during the first week with an undisclosed injury, also played.
Auburn used Mario Fannin and Demond Washington as dual punt returners Saturday, though neither had a chance to do much in the first half.
Fannin, who had problems last week in his first game as the punt returner, muffing one and misplaying another, cleanly fielded two punts in the first quarter, calling for a fair catch both times.
Washington, who wore No. 14 instead of 32 because of Smith’s return, made a fair catch on MSU’s third punt. He muffed a punt in the third quarter but was able to recover it.
Spirit, Auburn’s eagle mascot, had red, white and blue streamers hanging behind him during the pre-game flight to honor the memory of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. … WR Tim Hawthorne (foot), S Mike McNeil (leg), LB Spencer Pybus (unknown) and DE Nosa Eguae (right foot) weren’t in uniform but stood on the sidelines during the game. … DE Antoine Carter, WR Philip Pierre-Louis, DL Cam Henderson and CB D’Antoine Hood (high-ankle sprain) were not on the sideline. … S Drew Cole had to be carted off the field after injuring his ankle on Auburn’s second kickoff.