The Auburn offense understandably stole the show Saturday night, rocketing past Mississippi State with a 21-point first quarter en route to a 56-23 victory. But even though Auburn quarterback Bo Nix and his offensive counterparts were the stars, their teammates on defense and special teams did the dirty work to help them pull away.
Auburn hit the ground running against the Bulldogs with a huge assist from the defense, which forced consecutive three-and-outs to open the game and allowed Auburn to jump out to a 14-0 lead. The special teams chipped in in a big way as well, as Christian Tutt had a long punt return to give the Tigers a short field and Jordyn Peters fell on a fumbled kickoff to deliver two more first-quarter gut-punches.
“Our special teams and our defense gave the offense some short fields, and they capitalized with some touchdowns and really gave us some momentum there,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “We got them backed up and had a big punt return then scored on the first play. When you score on the first play, things are usually pretty good. Then we're able to have two more short fields, and we scored 21-0 before you looked up.
“That's a good feeling, especially at home when your crowd's rocking.”
Auburn’s defenders have harped on better starts to games, and last week’s win over Texas A&M marked the first time the Tigers did not surrender any points on an opening drive. The Tigers one-upped themselves against the Bulldogs, forcing a three-and-out that was highlighted by Jeremiah Dinson and Owen Pappoe sacking Nick Stevens on third down for a 16-yard loss.
Dinson and the other defenders only got a short breather thanks to Tutt’s 18-yard punt return followed by JaTarvious Whitlow’s 30-yard touchdown run on the Tigers’ first play from scrimmage. Still, the Tigers’ defense looked none the worse for wear.
Auburn held its ground defensively on the next drive, stuffing Kylin Hill – who entered as the SEC’s leading rusher – on second down for a four-yard loss before an incomplete pass led to another Bulldogs’ punt.
“I felt like we set the tone in the beginning, showing them that this is not fixing to be some stuff from last year,” said defensive end Marlon Davidson, referring to Mississippi State’s 23-9 win in 2018. “We're here. It's payback time. Let's win. I feel like we showed it today.”
The Tigers’ defense did its part through two drives. Then it was the special teams that stood up in a major way.
The Auburn offense scored its second touchdown after one minute and 24 seconds of game play, and it looked like the Tigers’ defense had the task of stopping Mississippi State once more after Bulldogs’ kick returner JaVonta Payton brought the ball out to around the 20-yard line. Replay, however, showed Zakoby McClain successfully stripped Payton, at which point Jordyn Peters recovered the football.
Although Payton was initially ruled down, Peters had no doubt he had given the Tigers the ball back.
“I was right there. I seen his knees and everything. I seen the ball just pop out, and I grabbed it before he even hit the ground,” Peters said. “The ref was like, 'No, he was down. He was down.' I was like, 'No, look at the replay. Look at the replay.' Then I ran to the sideline.”
“Once we hit them, I saw the ball pop out just like that. It's my second nature to grab the ball.”
Thanks to McClain and Peters’ efforts, the officials awarded Auburn possession on the Mississippi State 18-yard line. Two plays later, Anthony Schwartz was standing in the end zone after giving the Tigers a 21-0 lead with 8:59 still to go in the first quarter.
Peters explained that the Tigers treat playing on special teams just like defense, and the goal is either a touchback or a change of possession. He said linebackers coach Travis Williams treats special teams as an extension of the defense, which is in part why so many defenders play on the unit.
Auburn had to take a few shots from the Mississippi State offense after building the three-touchdown lead, particularly once Bulldogs backup quarterback Garrett Shrader entered the game. Still, the explosive plays from Mississippi State were too few and much too far between to close the gap on an Auburn squad that was firing on all cylinders.
The Auburn offense stole the show against the Bulldogs, and rightly so with a performance that included eight touchdowns and 578 yards of offense. The Tigers’ defense and special teams, however, proved just as pivotal in the early minutes of action that set the whole team up for a simply dominant SEC West win.
“We all knew what was on the line,” defensive tackle Derrick Brown said. “A lot of those guys on the team now came back for this reason. A lot of guys were there last year when they embarrassed us at their place.”