On the way to an epic beatdown Saturday afternoon, 17th-ranked Auburn suffered a monumental collapse.
The Tigers led Mississippi State by 25 points late in the first half, thanks to a breakout performance of its oft-criticized receiving corps and the ability to stifle the Bulldogs offense.
Then everything changed just as the marching band prepared to take the field.
Mississippi State scored to close out the first half and opened the second half with another touchdown, showing a semblance of life. But that quickly turned into total dominance.
And quarterback Will Rogers, after a half of harassment, turned in a legendary performance as he engineered the greatest comeback in Bulldogs history.
The result: A stunning 43-34 State victory.
How did it happen? This may take a team of scholars years to dissect. But the short version is that State cleaned up things up front, biding time for Rogers, and found a rhythm that Auburn couldn’t interrupt.
Meanwhile, an unstoppable Auburn offense — one that scored on four straight possessions to open the game — struggled just to keep possession. After jumping to the huge lead, the Tigers missed two field goals and managed just three first downs in the second half until one final push to the end zone.
Amazingly, this wasn’t Mississippi State’s first miraculous in-game turnaround of the season.
Trailing Louisiana Tech 34-14 in the season opener, State rallied for a 35-34 victory.
But Louisiana Tech isn’t Auburn, which made Saturday’s performance even more remarkable.
While running back Dillon Johnson was effective with limited touches, State did it all through the air. Rogers led the Bulldogs to six straight touchdown drives (not counting a short series just before intermission), capping each with a successful throw into the end zone.
State led 36-28 midway through the third quarter when it looked like the Auburn defense would finally hold. The reason was pressure. On first down, Derick Hall sacked Rogers for a 6-yard loss. On the subsequent snap, T.D. Moultry slammed him down for another loss.
But Moultry, who made obvious helmet-to-helmet contact, was flagged for targeting, extending the drive.
Two plays later, Rogers found Malik Heath in the end zone for his sixth touchdown pass.
Rogers finished with 417 yards on 44 of 55 passing, thanks to a Hall of Fame second half (24 of 26 passing for 272 yards).
Equally as surprising was Auburn’s mysterious disappearing attack. In the first half, Nix was just as lethal — thanks, in part, to the best performance by his receivers this season.
Kobe Hudson went horizontal for a one-handed touchdown grab. Ja’Varrius Johnson went 57 yards vertically down the field for another on a lateral pass.
In fact, on Auburn’s first snap of the game, Nix found Shedrick Jackson open in the middle of the field and connected on a 49-yard bomb that set the tone.
But Nix played the second half with a noticeable limp. And Auburn’s offense limped along with him.
The Tigers had one final surge, going 65 yards to close the gap to nine with 3:43 remaining in the game. But with the opportunity to cut the deficit to one score, Bryan Harsin opted for a two-point gambit that failed with an interception.
Nix finished 27-of-41 passing for 377 yards and two touchdowns. He wisely spent the final minutes on the sideline, avoiding further insult to his apparent injury.
We’ve said all along that Auburn was progressing ahead of schedule.
But Saturday’s loss, unthinkable after a dominant first half, threatens to sour an entire season.
Doug Segrest, a former SEC beat reporter, is a freelance columnist.