September 15, 2013 1:40:07 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. -- Finish.
It's a word Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen used after his team lost two weeks ago in Houston to then-No. 13 Oklahoma State. He repeated the same word Saturday night after the Bulldogs' 24-20 loss at Auburn.
"We had the opportunity to finish the game on offense, opportunities to win the coach on defense and we simply didn't do it," Mullen said. "That's coaching. That's on me and all of our assistant coaches to make our kids prepared to finish a game. We did not do that."
For 59 minutes and 50 seconds, Mullen and the entire MSU sideline had thought they'd put themselves in a position to win. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall and wide receiver C.J. Uzomah had other ideas. When Uzomah got his right foot down for a 10-yard touchdown strike with 10 seconds remaining in the game, Auburn completed a comeback victory in front of 85,817 fans for the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
"I told the defense on the final drive for them to not worry about anything, just get us one more stop and I'll put us in the end zone," Marshall said.
Marshall, in his first SEC start and third career start at quarterback, ended the game with 339 passing yards and two touchdown throws.
More importantly in the eyes of Mullen, Auburn finished. Maybe even more importantly it was evidence Mullen's team did the opposite of finish.
Under Mullen, MSU walked into Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday with a 29-0 record when leading after three quarters of play. They had finished 29 in a row. Thanks to a 88-yard drive in the final minute and 46 seconds of the game, that record is no longer perfect. In the 30th attempt with a fourth quarter lead, MSU didn't finish.
"A lot of these games against Mississippi State have come down to the end and I said 'guys we need to find a way to win' and I'm very proud they did that," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
For the 13th time in 14 years, MSU has lost a conference opener and the Bulldogs haven't won the SEC opener on the road since 1996. Mullen walks away from Auburn Saturday night still without a win against Malzahn on the other side going back to their days as assistant coaches in the SEC.
Mullen said after the loss, his fourth to Auburn in five years since taking the MSU job in 2009, he was stressing to his offense in the fourth quarter they needed one more touchdown. He told his team they wouldn't be able to win the game by the 17-14 score at the time. They needed to finish and didn't.
"Maybe they work harder than we do in practice and maybe it's supposed to happen that way," MSU junior wide receiver Jameon Lewis said. "They just found a way to make the plays at the end. We didn't finish."
With third down conversions being a issue for the first two weeks of the season, MSU moved the chains with sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott almost effortlessly. The Bulldogs (1-2) were 5 of 8 in third down situations in the first half. They converted short yardage situations with Prescott running up the middle against Auburn's out of position linebackers. MSU weren't forgiving on long yardage situations by finding taller and more physical receivers on the perimeter. Prescott was quickly immune to the crowd in his first ever conference start.
In the final 30 minutes, MSU failed to pick up a single third down in seven attempts and gave Auburn numerous chances to steal the game. Time and time again, MSU gave Auburn a chance to finish the game. Eventually the home team took full advantage.
"The defense played hard the whole game but I keep coming back to the fact we didn't finish like we should," MSU sophomore linebacker Bernardrick McKinney said. "We've got to make changes in order to stop teams from winning games on us in the second half."
In a act of semi-desperation, Mullen even went for it on fourth down twice inside in their own territory to hopefully end the game with a final drive on offense.
"We have a young defense and I wanted to put in the hands of my veteran offensive line and big quarterback to finish," Mullen said. "Like everything else tonight, we didn't finish."
Eventually the MSU defense brought pressure and forced Marshall into three and out drives that limited the tempo of the spread offense brought by Malzahn. A 2-yard touchdown run by Prescott gave MSU its first lead of the game with over 27 minutes left to play. In that amount of time, MSU would have the ball five more times and eventually would punt
Despite winning time of possession in the final quarter by two to one margin, MSU gained just 78 yards in a stall tactic that was almost asking for the clock to continue running. Five chances to finish and five failures to put the game away for MSU.
"We didn't make the players as players or the calls as coaches to put our kids in the right situations to win the game," Mullen said. "We had plenty of opportunities and played hard but we didn't do enough."
The final two minutes and specifically the final Auburn play ending with 10 seconds left epitomized Mullen's frustration.
could be summarized in two words: Auburn finished.
Or four words: Mississippi State didn't finish.
"I guarantee everybody who played in that game can pick out one moment that could've done something that could've changed the outcome of the game," Mullen said.