Starting lineup shakeup
AUBURN — Auburn started five new players Saturday in a 19-14 loss to Mississippi State, four on defense and one on offense.
Linebacker Chris Evans replaced injured outside linebacker Merrill Johnson, who suffered a bruised shoulder last week. Evans, a junior from Mobile, led the team with eight tackles in the game.
Senior Pat Lee moved from backing up Decatur High grad Jerraud Powers at the left cornerback spot and started in place of injured Jonathan Wilhite at right cornerback. Wilhite suffered a hamstring injury last week. Lee had three tackles and broke up three passes Saturday.
Senior Eric Brock started at free safety in place of Aairon Savage, who twisted in ankle against Kansas State. Brock had two tackles Saturday.
Although linebacker Tray Blackmon was listed as a starter before the game, he was replaced in the lineup by Courtney Harden. Blackmon has been hampered by a twisted ankle he suffered in the opener against Kansas State.
And finally — maybe the most intriguing change that has nothing to do with an injury — redshirt freshman Tim Hawthorne replaced receiver Prechae Rodriguez. Rodriguez dropped two touchdown passes in the Tigers’ overtime loss to South Florida last week. Hawthorne didn’t have a single catch Saturday.
Three is no charm
With Auburn just 16 yards away from the end zone early in the third quarter, running back Mario Fannin took a handoff from Burns and hit a wall up the middle. As he was pushed back, the ball slipped from this grasp and was recovered by Mississippi State.
Fannin fumbled twice in the loss to South Florida and didn’t receive another carry after the second fumble in that game. He also didn’t receive any more carries against Mississippi State after his fumble.
Tuberville was asked about Fannin’s future after the game.
“He is all we have,” he said. “They did a good job of ripping the ball out. It was a little different than the fumbles last week.”
‘F’ start for AU’s ‘D’
For the third straight game, Auburn’s defense started poorly, allowing Mississippi State 105 yards in the first quarter, including 87 on the ground.
It’s not the first time the Tigers’ defense has started at a snail’s pace. Auburn has allowed at least 100 yards of offense in the previous two games, including 146 yards to South Florida last week.
“They whipped us up front. That’s the bottom line,” defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said. “They got a hat on hat and they blocked us.”
Mississippi State alternated two running backs. Anthony Dixon ran for 103 yards on 29 carries, and Christian Ducre had 63 yards on 10 carries.
“They did a good job of running the football,” Muschamp said.
Tight end woes
Auburn threw once to each one of its three tight ends in the first 21/2 quarters. Each pass was dropped.
Cole Bennett served as the first victim of the butterfingers. Brandon Cox threw the pass, and the ball bounced off his fingertips and was caught in midair by Mississippi State defensive back Derek Pegues, who returned it 20 yards for a touchdown.
The second tight end miscue came from Gabe McKenzie, but his drop, unlike the other, occurred as he was hit hard across the middle of the field.
The third and final drop came from Tommy Trott. Trott bobbled the ball, tipping it up in the air before he and the ball hit the turf ... at different places and different times.
McKenzie rebounded from his gaffe, catching two passes in the second half for a total of 11 yards.
No breaks for Henig
Mississippi State starting quarterback Michael Henig, who’s from Montgomery, suffered a broken bone in his throwing hand during the Bulldogs’ first series. A junior, Henig broke his collar bone twice last season.
Henig’s family’s fur company — named Henig Furs — sits along Interstate 85, just east of Montgomery. Saturday morning, a large banner hung across the office building, reading “GO DAWGS!”
Henig’s only pass of the game was a 16-yard third-down strike to Aubrey Bell, giving the Bulldogs a first down on an opening series that ended in a 32-yard field goal.
Dunn’s done it again
Junior receiver Robert Dunn, who also acts as Auburn’s punt returner, had another good game Saturday. Dunn returned a punt in the second quarter for 26 yards, giving Auburn prime field position at its own 46-yard line. That drive ended in a 28-yard dash by running back Ben Tate for Auburn’s first touchdown.
Dunn had a 57-yard punt return in the season-opener against Kansas State that put the Tigers in prime scoring position.
New face on O-line
Offensive tackle King Dunlap was replaced late in the first quarter after giving up a sack that led to a Kodi Burns fumble. Dunlap, the only returning starter on the line, was replaced by junior Andrew McCain.
A junior, McCain emerged as the starting right tackle after spring drills but was beat out by true freshman Lee Ziemba. McCain saw his most playing time ever Saturday.
“I got in there and did fairly well,” McCain said.
McCain said Dunlap had an elbow injury and that is why he played.
Kicking it off
Zach Kutch kicked off for the Tigers. Starting place-kicker Wes Byrum is still recovering from an ankle injury he suffered in the opener three weeks ago.
Byrum has been kicking field goals, but he is unable to kick off with the twisted ankle.
Clubbing it up
Senior defensive tackle Pat Sims had four — count ’em, four — tackles for lost yardage against Mississippi State. The closest player on both teams to him had one tackle for loss.
Muschamp said Sims was playing with his hand wrapped like a “club” because he has “some bad fingers.”
“It seemed like he got penetration,” Muschamp said.
Taylor Hicks performs
Ex-Auburn student Taylor Hicks sang at halftime, while Auburn’s band played along. Hicks, the 2006 American Idol winner, enrolled in 1995 at Auburn, where he studied business and journalism for three years. A native of Birmingham, Hicks marched off the field pounding his fist into the air with the Auburn band as it played the school fight song.
Grading the Tigers
Decatur Daily Sports Writer Ross Dellenger grades Auburn’s performance in Saturday’s 19-14 loss to Mississippi State, giving the Tigers a letter grade from A+ to F in four categories.
Yep, same grade as last week. True freshman quarterback Kodi Burns added a major spark, and the running game is slowly coming along. But five turnovers again? Two of those came inside the Mississippi State 25-yard line.
It was quite surprising to see Mississippi State run like it did on a Tigers defense that’s supposed to be built to stop the run. The Bulldogs ran for 172 yards but threw for only 41.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-
For the first game this season, kicker Wes Byrum didn’t attempt a field goal, but he did hit two extra points. But the return teams — especially kickoff — improved from the opening two games. And Zach Kutch’s kickoffs hit inside the 5-yard line with regularity.
Until the Tigers find a consistent offense, they will keep struggling. The turnovers must stop, and the defense has to stop the run better than it did Saturday.
Best and worst
Best way to never get thrown to again ... ever: On Auburn’s second play from scrimmage, a Brandon Cox pass bounced off the fingertips of tight end Cole Bennett. The pass was intercepted and returned 20 yards for a first-quarter touchdown, putting Mississippi State up 10-0. Bennett had zero catches in the first two games.
Best way for a kicker to get hurt: Mario Fannin returned Mississippi State’s first kickoff 40 yards down the sideline. He had one man — MSU kicker Adam Carlson — left to beat until the end zone. Instead of side-stepping Carlson, Fannin up-ended the Bulldogs’ kicker, thrusting him into the sideline. Fannin stepped out of bounds, also.
Worst way to welcome your quarterback into his own stadium: Along with the usual cheers, quarterback Brandon Cox was greeted with a smattering of boos when his name was announced during the starting lineup. The winningest quarterback in the Southeastern Conference was already getting shunned, and the game had not started.
Worst way to keep your best point-producer on the sideline: It’s one thing if Auburn’s offense scored touchdowns to keep kicker Wes Byrum off the field. But it’s another thing when the Tigers throw away field goals by fumbling twice inside the 25-yard line. Byrum is 6-for-7 in field goals this season, ranging from 20 to 49 yards.
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