Auburn football's Bo Nix after loss to Mississippi State: 'I’m not quite sure what happened'

Bennett Durando
Montgomery Advertiser

AUBURN — Zakoby McClain, one of the senior leaders and tenacious representatives of an Auburn defense that had looked increasingly dominant for weeks, fell to his knees in the end zone as the final seconds disappeared.

He represented all of Auburn in this moment, too: disheartened, dismayed, in disbelief.

Those emotions were being processed by everyone in the locker room after the Tigers' 43-34 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday, a loss that felt impossible right around halftime when Auburn fans were already preparing to root against Texas A&M in the evening. Because this game was already over, because Auburn was crushing a pretty good Mississippi State team 28-3, because these Tigers looked formidable enough to challenge Alabama in a battle for the SEC West title — if other factors could only give them that chance.

In the end, they didn't give themselves that chance.

So McClain could only hold his head in his hands as the ecstatic Bulldogs streamed onto the field around him.

Auburn Tigers quarterback Bo Nix (10) walks off the field as Auburn Tigers take on Mississippi State Bulldogs at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021. Mississippi State Bulldogs defeated Auburn Tigers 43-34.

"Zakoby, he loves the game of football, and I think we have a lot of guys who love the game of football," Auburn edge rusher Derick Hall said. "That one hurt. Shed a few tears walking in (to the locker room), obviously."

Auburn (6-4, 3-3 SEC) has lost two consecutive games after being positioned to make a serious late-season run as one of the SEC's best teams. Even the 20-3 loss at Texas A&M didn't have to disrupt those goals too much. Throughout the first half against Mississippi State, it felt clear that Auburn had simply lost to a better team in the often-decisive trenches — now the Tigers were reveling in their own superiority again, cruising on offense and disrupting Mike Leach's air raid on defense.

It took 30 minutes of football to dismantle all that confidence, all that aspiration.

What happened?

"I’m not quite sure what happened there," quarterback Bo Nix said. "Just felt like the entire stadium — the life — just kind of mellowed out. The life of the stadium kind of relaxed there for a minute, and it was hard to get some momentum back."

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Everything went wrong, from the offense's ease moving the ball to the defense's ability to create any pressure. The Tigers sat back. They were content with their lead. They eventually looked like the overmatched team in the trenches, in open space, in matters of discipline. (Auburn's nine penalties gave Mississippi State 88 yards.)

"That’s just on us for relaxing," Nix said. "We just didn’t have the same intensity that we needed."

His counterpart, Mississippi State's Will Rogers, finished the game 34-for-37 with six touchdowns and no interceptions in the last three quarters. He passed for 415 yards in an offense that doesn't even pretend to do anything other than pass. It was an exacerbation of everything Auburn did wrong to allow other quarterbacks to excel this season, from Penn State's Sean Clifford to Georgia's Stetson Bennett.

What happened?

“I don't know why we didn't get as much pressure," coach Bryan Harsin said, "or why (Rogers) felt more comfortable in the second half than he did in the first half."

This is the first true dark spot on Harsin's résumé at Auburn, a moment that spoils the ambition of his first season. If the Tigers do what they're widely expected to do in their last two games — beat South Carolina, lose to Alabama — his debut ends 7-5 with a low- to mid-tier bowl game.

Winning the Iron Bowl would save Harsin from some of that sting ... but even then, isn't that exactly the kind of season that got Gus Malzahn fired? Even when he was able to knock off the Tide, there was always some other inexplicable loss that kept Auburn short of its ceiling.

A large part of this Auburn team's ceiling was thought to be associated with the talent of running back Tank Bigsby before the season. But at their worst, the Tigers have not been able to get him going in a steady way. That was the case Saturday: He ran 16 times for 41 yards (2.6 per carry), and Auburn only ran eight times as a team after halftime. 

What happened?

"I don't know," Harsin said. "I mean, there were some things (Mississippi State) did. They made adjustments. I don't know if it was one thing in particular that they did. Probably had to do more with us than anything."

Inexplicable is the word for this historic loss to Mississippi State. Auburn's coaches and players were shocked by it. Explanations eluded everyone.

They'll find answers about why they lost on film, but the question that will linger through the rest of the season, through the offseason and through the Harsin tenure is the most torturing one — the one about what could have been.

Which leaves McClain in the end zone, with two regular-season games left in his college career. That should serve as a reminder that there is still meaning for the players in these last two games. It was the locker room topic after the tears.

"The message was really holding everyone together," Hall said. "And not so much with coach Harsin, but just really player accountability. Just making sure everybody comes to work tomorrow and assesses this game in the right way."