What went wrong in Auburn football's second-half collapse vs. Mississippi State?

Bennett Durando
Montgomery Advertiser

AUBURN — Two weeks after peaking at No. 14 in the USA TODAY coaches poll and No. 13 by the Associated Press, Auburn football is nowhere to be found.

The Tigers' 43-34 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday put a massive dent in coach Bryan Harsin's first season, a dent made harder to ignore by the fact that Auburn (6-4, 3-3 SEC) led 28-3 late in the first half. The Tigers had won four of their past five against Mississippi State (6-4, 4-3) and 28 of 37 home matchups in series history.

"My question: What happened" — @lukelucas

Not even the team seemed to know or comprehend. When I review  Mississippi State's suddenly unstoppable offense in the third quarter — that's when the game really started to get away — Auburn's lack of commitment to pressuring quarterback Will Rogers stood out. Mississippi State's Air Raid offense is designed to beat blitzes with quick, short-yardage concepts, so Derek Mason's defensive game plan prioritized dropping extra men into coverage.

But that wasn't stopping the Bulldogs: Take the fourth-and-4 on the final drive of the first half, when Auburn rushed three and dropped eight but Rogers still found a hole in the zone over the middle between safeties Zion Puckett and Smoke Monday. (Imagine how different the game would be if Mississippi State didn't convert that.)

Auburn has prided itself on Mason's brilliance with in-game adjustments, but as Rogers continued to have all day, the pressure remained the same. Here's the key stat to me: The Bulldogs had just three pass plays of 15 or more yards in the first half. Then they had seven in the third quarter. Again, for an offense that isn't built to produce many big passing plays down the field, Mississippi State's ability to create so many explosive plays against seven or eight men in coverage is a red flag for Auburn. 

REPORT CARD:Did Auburn football get on F on its pop quiz against Mississippi State?

OBSERVATIONS:Auburn football's meltdown was historic in 43-34 loss to Mississippi State

Mason didn't often adjust and dedicate more toward disrupting Rogers. On Mississippi State's second and third touchdowns of the second half, Auburn rushed three. The most promising sequence of the half was when Auburn's pressure created consecutive sacks (the second of which turned into the controversial targeting call on T.D. Moultry). 

Miscommunications continued to allow Mississippi State receivers to puncture holes in the coverage, and Auburn gave Rogers time to find those holes. The Tigers got slashed  by the air raid route tree when they tried man defense.

A brief note on Auburn's offense: I wrote before the game that repetition in the run game is the key to beating Mississippi State's defense. Arkansas and Alabama both ran more than 40 times and had success. Auburn had 27 carries in the game and stopped running as the game got close. Tank Bigsby carried six times for minus-6 yards in the second half. Sure enough, that closed the doors on Auburn's pass game, which was 12-for-24 after halftime.

Auburn's player and play of the game

A bright spot was Auburn's receiver play taking a big step; two receivers had 100 yards for the first time this season. The Tigers' player of the game goes to Ja'Varrius Johnson, who had 102 receiving yards on four catches and turned on the jets for a 57-yard touchdown run while pursued by five defenders.

Auburn's play of the game would be on highlight reels for a long time if the game's result had been different: Kobe Hudson's 15-yard, one-handed touchdown catch.

Biggest question going forward

Quarterback Bo Nix rolled his ankle in the second half, which affected him "I think a lot," he said after the game. Will he be OK to play against South Carolina? Auburn substituted T.J. Finley at quarterback for a late fourth-quarter drive with the Tigers trailing Mississippi State by 9.

"Just got a little nicked and injured for a minute," Nix said. "Not quite sure obviously moving forward — going to get that looked at, but it was just all right and I was able to obviously continue to play a few more drives. But when you’re down by two scores, it’s probably better to have a guy, in that situation, who can really move around and not be hindered with anything."