Note: I much enjoyed speaking to the Starkville Quarterback Club Thursday night. I first spoke to the club in 1979, at the behest of the late great Bob Hartley, Mississippi State’s long-time sports information director and greatest ambassador. Hartley helped found the club in 1965. What follows is part of my presentation about my five most memorable Auburn-Mississippi State games …

Rick Cleveland
Rick Cleveland Credit: Melanie Thortis

This Saturday’s will be the 90th meeting between Auburn and Mississippi State. Auburn has won 61, State 26 and there have been two ties. The first time they played was Oct. 27, 1905, and they played in Columbus. I don’t know why. Auburn won 18-0.

State has won two straight and will be trying to have a streak of three or more straight over Auburn for only the third time in history.

More numbers: Dan Mullen is 3-4 against Auburn and 2-1 against Gus Malzahn. In games played at Starkville, Auburn leads with 12 victories, six defeats and one tie.

The last time the two played in Starkville, in my mind, has to rank as one of the most special victories in Bulldog football history. It was two years ago next Tuesday. State defeated Auburn 38 to 23 in the game that propelled the Bulldogs to the position of No. 1 team in the country.

Last time I spoke to y’all was two years ago just before the Southern Miss-Mississippi State game and part of my presentation was to give you the top five USM-Mississippi State games I had ever seen. Tonight, I’d like to tell you about the five most memorable State-Auburn games I’ve seen.

One is memorable for all the wrong reasons. On Sept. 13, 2008, at Scott Field, Auburn beat State 3 to 2 in a game only the defensive coordinator’s mother could love. And she would have to be blind. State got its only points when the Auburn center got called for holding in the end zone. Otherwise it was one-two-three-punt, one-two-three punt, one-two-three punt. Over and over and over again. I remember thinking on my way home to Jackson. That’s three hours I am never going to get back. That was after I wrote 800 words on a game that ended 3-2. Try it sometime.

My No. 1 Auburn-Mississippi State game of all time has to be the one played two years ago. State was ranked No. 3 in the nation, Auburn was ranked No. 2. State was coming off victories over No. 8 LSU and No. 6 Texas A & M and going for it’s third straight victory over a Top 10 team.

So many times over the years, State has gone into a huge game like that and things have not turned out well. That all changed. State went up 21 to nothing and then fought off a couple of Auburn rallies. Dak Prescott threw for 246 and ran for 121. Dan Mullen’s post-game speech to his team that day plays several times a day in the locker room at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. I remember writing a column after that game about all the Mississippi State fans I wished were still around to experience No. 1 in the country. No. 1 on that list was Bob Hartley, one of the founders of this club 51 years ago.

My second most memorable State-Auburn game has to be the 1980 game, which was played in Jackson. That was my second year at The Clarion-Ledger and Emory Bellard’s second year at State. I was the State beat guy. My job was to cover the Bulldogs, and we were still trying to figure those Bulldogs out. They had been good enough to beat Jim Kelly and Miami on the road. And they had been bad enough to lose to Southern Miss 42 to 14 on homecoming. I remember thinking that the Auburn game would be a pretty good measuring stick.

With John Bond leading the way, State won the game 24-21, and some of you may remember what happened the next two weeks. State beat Alabama 6 to 3, LSU 55 to 31 and Ole Miss 19-14. I remember writing that State had finally murdered Murderers’ Row.

No. 3 on my State-Auburn list would be the 1999 game. State, coached by Jackie Sherrill, was undefeated, ranked No. 14 and a slight favorite. Auburn, coached by first-year coach Tommy Tuberville, just moved over from Ole Miss, was 3 and 2 and had walloped LSU 41 to 7. This had to be one of the great comebacks of all-time for the Bulldogs. Not only did they trail 16 to nothing late in the third quarter, but Wayne Madkin was on the bench with a torn tendon in his index finger.

My good friend Matt Wyatt said Sherrill came up to him at halftime and told him Wayne couldn’t go and it was his game to win or lose. I can only imagine what Matt thought. “Gee, thanks, coach, we’re down 16 to nothing on the road, hostile crowd … they are beating our brains in … thanks a lot.” Matt had played high school in Prattville about an hour’s drive from Auburn. He had actually quarterbacked State to a 20 to nothing victory over Auburn his sophomore season.

The third quarter started slowly before Matt directed State on a long field goal drive late in the third. Scott Westerfield’s field goal cut it to 16-3. Then Matt hit C.J. Sirmones with a 16-yard scoring pass that made if 16-10 with under three minutes left. Then Tommy Tuberville out-smarted Tommy Tuberville and took a safety with 50 seconds to play that made it 16-12. Actually, it wasn’t bad strategy, to kick from the 20 instead of out of your own end zone. A six point or four point lead didn’t make much difference at that point.

What screwed up the strategy was this: Pig Prather returned the safety kick 41 yards and then Matt Wyatt hit Matt Butler with the winning touchdown pass with just 18 ticks left. You’ve never heard 81,000 people get that silent that quickly. Or 3,000 people in one corner of the end zone get so loud. That victory lifted State to 6 and 0 en route to 8 and 0.

What you might not remember is this. State got a 15-yard excessive celebration penalty. Instead of kicking the long extra point and risking a block and return, which would have tied the game, Sherrill decided to take a knee. Everyone was trying to find Matt to get him back on the field. But so many of his teammates had slapped him on the helmet during the really, really excessive celebration, he was out of it. Concussed. Couldn’t go. State got 15 yards for excessive celebration but could have gotten 15 more for almost killing their own quarterback. So another quarterback went in and took a knee and that was that.

For my final memorable Auburn-State game, I have to include an Auburn victory. And if you are talking about Auburn football, the conversation always has to include Bo Jackson, truly one of the greatest athletes I ever saw, period. Some of y’all may remember that Emory Bellard and Mississippi State pretty much had Bo’s number for his first three seasons. As a freshman, Bo got 59 yards against State. As a sophomore against State in 1983, he got just 33 yards. As a junior, Bo didn’t play because of an injury. But, boy, did he play against State in 1985, his Heisman Trophy season. Bo carried 26 times for 169 yards and two touchdowns in a hard-fought 21-9 victory. As was usually the case, Bo was a human highlight film.

Still in all, State held Bo under 300 yards in the three games he played against State. Not many teams could say that.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.