Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Taylor's Tiger Tales: The 1999 Mississippi State Game

The Auburn Realist

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I got a late start on attending Auburn games, despite having been a lifelong Auburn fan. I attended my first game in 1993 and another in 1994, but not another game until 1999.

Not that it was my fault, really. It just wasn't a priority of my parents, especially since my sister and I played ball games every Saturday ALL year.

In 1999, I was a sophomore QB at Sparkman high. I got to know a guy on the team named Kevin. We couldn't be any more opposite, in appearance. I am 5'3", stocky, with curly brown hair. He, on the other hand, is 6' and a bunch, rail thin (at least then) with red hair. We did have one big and important thing in common: we loved Auburn football. We became fast friends, even though we were opposites in many ways and I was 2 years younger than he.

Over the course of the next year, we began making plans to attend a football game. He had been to a lot of BIG games already, including a couple of Iron Bowls and a huge win against Florida. I, on the other hand, had seen Eastern Carolina twice. I was dying to see a *real* game.

We pitched the idea to my dad, who bought into it. Dad found some tickets at the last minute, just 3, if I recall. But, at the last minute, Kevin informed me that his girlfriend wanted to come too. I recall that dad was NOT happy that we sprung this on him at the last minute, but he couldn't say much since Kevin was driving on his own.

Auburn had a rough 1998 season and had hired Tommy Tuberville,who would go on to be one of my favorite coaches. However, 1999 didn't start out so hot, as Auburn dropped games to Ole Miss and Tennessee leading up to this game. The offense, mostly the QB play, was incredibly suspect that year, and would continue for the most part, for the next few years. For the most part, it featured Ben Leard, who had racked up impressive numbers before getting injured, leading to the start of Klein,  that QB that no one can ever remember, plus appearances by Leard and Gabe Gross (who started the last few games, showed promise, then went to baseball). The running game was terrible, as Heath Evans, a fullback, led the way with 330 TOTAL rushing yards.

Both Kevin and I were working at Bruno's Grocery, so I recall that we decided to meet there early on that Saturday morning. Dad and I drove down in our car while Kevin followed in his truck. I recall that we went the scenic route, avoiding the interstate. I don't really recall why. I do recall getting stuck at a train crossing, which held us up for at least an hour in the pouring rain.

Eventually, we made our way to Auburn. We didn't have time to tailgate, though I don't recall that we ever did. Kevin managed to find a ticket for his girlfriend and we hoped no one would notice if she sat with us. We found our section, only to find out that we had bought tickets in the club section. That was QUITE the surprise! So, 3 teenagers and their chaperon were given all they could eat drinks, hotdogs, and cookies! It was heaven!

All except that we had the end seats to the club section, which was right next to the visitor section. And the guys sitting next to us were drunk and absolutely obnoxious. They heckled us all through the pregame activities. The cow bell left a ringing in my ears for days after. My dad is a very level headed guy, but I could tell they were starting to get to him.

The game itself was fairly boring. A scoreless 1st quarter. The second quarter featured a 64 yarder to Daniels from Klein. Damon Duval hit a field goal later in the quarter to put Auburn up 10-0 at halftime. the State crowd was pretty subdued between the score and the rain. We didn't mind. We were winning, and under a roof.

3 total field goals in the 3rd, 2 by Duval and one by Miss State kicker Westerfield made the start of the 4th 16-3. Neither team could do ANYTHING on offense. But, to us, Auburn was firmly in control of the 12th ranked Bulldogs. It was the last drive for State do put something together. And, even then, the chances of them rallying from 16-3 with 3 minutes to go was slim. It seemed that Tubby wanted to have the ball in Auburn's hands and he was willing to let State score to do it. That's the only way I could figure it happened, since an offense that had been held in check all game suddenly drove the length of the field and scored a TD with 2:38 left to make it 16-20.

We were really surprised, but we could all see the justification. At least we THOUGHT we did. Auburn wanted to get the ball back and run out the clock by picking up a few first downs.

Yet, State didn't attempt the onside kick and sent the ball deep. A few plays later and Auburn was backed up on their doorstep. Tuberville made one of the most controversial calls I think I have ever seen. He decided to take a safety with 47 seconds to play rather than take the chance that they could fumble, throw a pick, or have a punt blocked.

Pigg takes the free kick all the way to the Auburn 48 and the Dogs are already in business. Borrowing the words from SI:

"On the next play, Wyatt hit Terrell Grindle on a crossing pattern and the freshman from Hattiesburg scampered to the 11. After an incomplete pass, Wyatt had a receiver wide open in the back middle of the end zone but tailback Dicenzo Miller fell down. Moments later, Wyatt's pass over the middle went in between two defenders and was caught by Butler, setting off a wild celebration by the Bulldogs and their coaching staff. Coach Jackie Sherrill ripped off his headphones and jumped into his players' arms. Mississippi State's antics earned a 15-yard celebration penalty on the extra point, and instead of risking a blocked attempt and a possible defensive conversion, Sherrill had his team kneel on the ball."

At this point, the State fans who had been so quiet for so long suddenly became VERY loud. It's a good thing the sections were separated by a hundred foot drop or so.

Auburn still isn't out of it quite yet. A FG would win it, and Duval may be the best to have suited up for Auburn. But, Klein did what he had done so well. He tossed an INT. And that was it. Talk about going south in a hurry! We couldn't even catch our breath! 15 points in 2:38 ARE YOU FOR REAL!

We were stunned and shocked. Certainly, the game had been rather boring, especially since the underdog Tigers had owned the game for all but 3 minutes. If you didn't know which team was which, you might have though that Auburn was ranked 12th. It was very shocking for me, since Auburn had won all the other games that I had been to. That wasn't to say they were a great program, just that I was a kid with expectations of a win, even if the unranked Tigers were playing a very good State team. Throw in the reality of SEC fandom. Though I had been to a couple of games, there were never that many fans of the other team. This was the first time that a whole section and more were filled with the opposing team's fans.

 So, it's for many reasons that this game is a Classic to me. It's the first SEC game I ever attended. It was also the first loss I was ever a part of. I believe that going through those losses is what makes you a real fan. Certainly there are many losses that are more defining of my fandom than wins. Anyone can be a fan of a winning program. It's those that can go and support a team through losses that are the real fans.