Rapid Reaction: Fitzgerald, Bulldogs hold off Auburn
With two of the nation’s top scoring defenses going at each other, points were expected to come at a premium on Saturday when No. 8 Auburn visited Mississippi State at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville. And they did; in an old-fashioned SEC defensive battle, Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald made the difference in the Bulldogs’ 23-9 victory over the Tigers.
Auburn came into the game tied with Kentucky for the SEC lead in scoring defense, allowing just 12.6 points per game, which also ranked third nationally. Mississippi State ranked fifth in the SEC and eighth in the nation, allowing an average of just 13.4 points per game.
Fitzgerald broke the conference’s all-time rushing record for quarterbacks, eclipsing Tim Tebow’s mark of 2,947 yards, midway through the fourth quarter on a drive that could have put the game out of reach. But Auburn’s Marlon Davidson blocked a field goal attempt.
No matter, Fitzgerald scored the game’s only touchdowns. He put the game out of reach with a 21-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter after reaching the end zone on the last play of the second quarter, a 1-yard run that was reviewed and upheld, giving the Bulldogs a 13-3 lead at halftime. Fitzgerald drove Mississippi State 36 yards on eight plays after long snapper Joel Baldwin recovered a fumbled punt.
Auburn appeared to score its first touchdown late in the third quarter when JaTarvious Whitlow raced 41 yards to the goal line. But as he extended the ball into the end zone, Bulldogs DB Mark McLaurin forced a fumble and teammate Kobe Jones recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
The teams traded field goals to open the second half. Fitzgerald drove the Bulldogs 60 yards on 13 plays, eating up the first 8:03 of the third quarter, before Jace Christmann’s 32-yard field goal gave MSU a 16-3 lead.
Auburn reciprocated with QB Jarrett Stidham hitting Ryan Davis on a 42-yard pass that set up an Anders Carlson 38-yard field goal, cutting the Bulldogs’ lead to 16-6. Then the Tigers made it a one-score game with 11:24 to play in the fourth quarter on a 24-yard field goal by Carlson, capping a 10-play, 52-yard drive.
Auburn grabbed the early lead after Jeremiah Dinson intercepted a Fitzgerald pass and returned it to the Bulldogs’ 39. But the Tigers could not pick up a first down and had to settle for a Carlson 47-yard field goal and Auburn led, 3-0, with 7:30 left in the first quarter.
The Bulldogs answered with a field goal of their own on the following possession, driving 9 plays, 67 yards – all on the ground, including a 29-yard run by Fitzgerald – before bogging down at the Tigers’ 8-yard line and Christmann booted a 25-yard field goal to knot it up at 3-3.
Auburn thought it had an answer, driving 42 yards in 11 plays. But a 50-yard field goal attempt by Carlson sailed well wide, and the score remained tied early in the second quarter.
But Christmann didn’t miss his field goal of equal length as the Bulldogs drove 39 yards in seven plays to take the lead. Fitzgerald put his kicker in range with a 23-yard pass to Osirus Mitchell, before Kylin Hill ran 10 yards on the next play.
Christmann’s 47-yard field goal boot hit the upright and slid in, giving the Bulldogs a 6-3 edge with 10:13 to play in the first half.
The Tigers missed a golden opportunity to score the game’s first touchdown when a third-down pass from Stidham to a wide open Darius Slayton was overthrown. Slayton was all alone as a result of a trick play in which Stidham lined up as a flanker and took a pitch on an end around before throwing beyond the Tigers’ wide receiver, who had broken open well behind the Bulldogs’ secondary.