Tom Dienhart Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
AUBURN, Ala. - It's about how you finish.
Just ask Auburn coach Gene Chizik. He harps on it all the time. And he truly believes it. So do his assistants and players. Saturday, the proof was on the field - again.
Clinging to a 41-34 lead with 10 seconds left, an Auburn defense that had been battered and bullied braced for one last charge by Mississippi State.
That's when Auburn's Ryan Smith finished. Smith, a 208-pound safety, dumped 240-pound Bulldogs quarterback Chris Relf about an inch from the end zone, allowing the last few seconds to drip off the clock and Auburn to finish off another wild win.
"Just coming down to the last play and fighting, scratching and clawing for every inch you have in a heavyweight fight," Chizik said. "Fifteen rounds, last man standing - that's what you have to do to be able to win these games."
Auburn is the defending national champion and has a nation's-best 17-game winning skein. The Tigers certainly aren't dead, even though many observers were shoveling dirt onto Auburn after last week's narrow season-opening victory over Utah State last week. There was a lot of criticism:
Auburn can't stop the run.
Auburn can't stop the pass.
Auburn can't tackle.
Auburn can't get off the field on third down.
Auburn can't replace Nick Fairley.
Auburn can't replace Cam Newton.
The ugliness of the numbers from that game were difficult to ignore - 227 yards rushing allowed; 448 yards of offense yielded; zero turnovers produced. And that was done by a true freshman quarterback. But Auburn found a way to finish - and win. Just like Saturday.
"They are a young team," Chizik said. "They want to be good. Are we a great football team right now? No, not even close. But the identity of the team is starting to form week by week because they will fight."
Despite last week's win, the Tigers fell out of The Associated Press top 25. Another slap in the face was that oddsmakers made Mississippi State a six-point favorite.
There was a lot of preseason fawning over SEC West rivals Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Mississippi State. That's OK. It's only early September, the leaves still are on the trees and grass still has to be mowed regularly. Time is on Auburn's side.
"We are off to a good start, but we definitely aren't satisfied with the way we are playing," Auburn wide receiver Emory Blake said.
Chizik isn't, either, but his team is 2-0 and he likes how his players have responded in tough situations.
"They will not look at the scoreboard," he said, "and that's been one of the trademarks that we've really tried to instill in these guys - that we are not looking at the scoreboard until is says 0:00 because everything else in-between does not matter. I think they are buying into that."
The only aspect of the team in midseason form is backward-hat wearing/towel-waving assistant Trooper Taylor. The rest of the squad still has a lot of work to do, especially on defense. The unit was trampled for a second week in a row. Mississippi State rushed for 333 yards and finished with 531 yards of total offense, running 97 plays to Auburn's 59.
When Mississippi State took possession on its 33 with 2:52 left in the game, trailing by seven points and with two timeouts left, it looked like Auburn would have no answer. The defense keep bending and bending before finally making a play, before finally finishing with the big tackle of Relf.
"We knew they were going to try and run it" Smith said. "I was just trying to make a play for the team and come up big for the Auburn family.
"That was a big win for us, winning the first SEC game."
This one was similar to last week's game, when Auburn scored two touchdowns in the final 2:07 to steal the win. The Tigers found a way to make big plays down the stretch. The Tigers finished.
Last week's victory was the fourth fourth-quarter rally and the fifth comeback when trailing at halftime under Chizik. In 2010, Auburn overcame double-digit deficits against Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. In 2009, Auburn overcame a double-digit hole to beat West Virginia. In the 14 seasons (1995-2008) before Chizik, Auburn was 4-44 from when trailing by at least 10 points.
Saturday, the offense shows signs of the explosiveness and big-play ability it enjoyed last season. Auburn ran for 235 yards on just 36 carries (6.5 ypc), with Michael Dyer leading the way with 150 yards and two scores.
"We really wanted to come our and establish the running game," quarterback Barrett Trotter said. "I think we did a lot of things better this week than we did last week."
Trotter showed savvy and poise in the pocket, delivering several big passes in going 16-of-23 for 146 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, which was returned for a touchdown.
"I think that we are still trying to figure out, really, as a whole what the identity of our team is," Chizik said.
Coaches will tell you that wins like this over Mississippi State and Utah State have a way of galvanizing a team, giving it an edge and a belief in itself as it gets deeper into the season.
The Tigers play at Clemson next week, then heads home to play a woeful Florida Atlantic team on Sept. 24. Then the lifting becomes even heavier: at South Carolina, at Arkansas, vs. Florida.
"We prefer to win football games a lot differently than we are," Chizik said. "But I am going to tell you there is something to be said for knowing that you can fight down to the end when it doesn't look good and still be able to win a game.
"Because, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how you do it. It just matters that you do it."