Quarterback Nick Marshall was the hero as Auburn matched last year’s win total and broke an almost two-year drought in the SEC with a 24-20 victory over Mississippi State on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Marshall (Wilcox County High) passed for 339 yards and two touchdowns, including the winning score to C.J. Uzomah (North Gwinnett) with 11 seconds left, to send the orange ocean into delirium and continue to erase the memories of last year’s miserable three-win season.
It was the Tigers’ first conference win since knocking off Ole Miss on Oct. 29, 2011, when Gus Malzahn, now Auburn’s coach, was the offensive coordinator.
“We talked before the game that it would come down to the end, and I said, ‘Guys, we’ve got to find a way to win,’” he said.
That they did when Marshall completed his 23rd pass in 34 attempts on a double-move by Uzomah, who caught the 11-yard pass in the corner of the end zone between two Mississippi State defenders. Malzahn said the double-move was something they discussed on the bus before the game as they worked through different situations.
“The final play was great because I took what the defense gave me,” said Marshall, familiar to Georgia fans because he was a defensive back on the team in 2011 before being dismissed for an undisclosed violation.
It’s a good thing Marshall found Uzomah, because Malzahn hinted that he probably wouldn’t have elected to attempt a game-tying 28-yard field goal. He didn’t say why, but it does make it hard to believe that he never discussed with his team their 10-game losing streak in the SEC entering Saturday’s game.
“We didn’t talk about that one time,” he said. “We’ve talked about it’s a new start, new beginning, new day and the guys bought into that.”
That new day started with Marshall. Trailing 20-17, standing at his 12-yard line with 1:56 left, he went to work.
First, Marshall ran for 6 yards. He then completed five consecutive passes, four of the five to freshman Marcus Davis, to lead the Tigers to Mississippi State’s 27-yard line.
Two incomplete passes left Marshall and the Tigers facing third-and-10 at the 25-yard line with 29 seconds left.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said his team didn’t want to put too much pressure on Marshall because of his running ability. The reasoning was sound, but the decision backfired.
Marshall dropped back, and then saw a hole opening on the left side of his line. He took off, getting 11 yards just as he was knocked out of bounds to stop the clock with 21 seconds left.
Running back Tre Mason rushed for 3 yards to the 11-yard line to set up the game-winning play.
“We struggled on offense a little bit, but when it came down to it, he drove us down the field,” said Uzomah, who caught three passes for 48 yards.
Mississippi State wasted an impressive effort from quarterback Dak Prescott, who led all rushers with 133 yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns. He also completed 15 of his 28 attempts for 213 yards. Prescott started in place of the concussed Tyler Russell, who missed his second consecutive game.
It was Prescott who put Auburn on the ropes when he picked up 3 yards to Mississippi State’s 32 on a gutsy fourth-and-1 play with just a few minutes remaining.
The Bulldogs then faced fourth-and-2 at the 40, but Mullen elected to punt, where his coverage team pinned Auburn at the 12 with 1:56 left to set up the game-winning drive.
The Bulldogs have lost seven of their past nine games after starting the 2012 season with seven consecutive wins. They will host Troy next week. Auburn will play at LSU.
“We did not finish,” Mullen said. “I mean it is a pretty simple deal. We had the opportunity to finish on offense and did not do it. We had the opportunity to finish on defense and did not do it. That is coaching. That is on me.”