AUBURN, Ala. – The game between the No. 16 Mississippi State Bulldogs and the defending national champion Auburn Tigers came down to one play Saturday.
It was MSU quarterback Chris Relf's call.
The Bulldogs had the football on the 1-yard line, trailing 41-34, and only 10 seconds remaining, which meant if they ran, it would be the final play of the game and if they went to the air, they could possibly have two plays.
MSU coach Dan Mullen gave Relf two plays to pick from during a timeout and the senior signal caller chose the run play.
"He made the call on the last play," said Mullen. "Chris said he felt great about the run call."
Relf ran to his left going towards the end zone and was stopped short by Auburn's Ryan Smith, giving the homestanding Tigers a 41-34 victory.
The play was reviewed but the ruling on the field was confirmed. Smith had only one tackle in the game but it was the biggest one for Auburn and head coach Gene Chizik couldn't have been more proud.
"He was able to stand up and make a play at the end and for me as the head coach, it makes me like a proud father," said Chizik. "It is just awesome to see a young guy come through at the end of the game ultimately for the win, so I am very proud of Ryan."
In what is probably the biggest tackle of his career so far, Smith was patting himself on the back.
"I was just trying to make a play for the team and come up big for the Auburn family," said Smith.
About Smith's tackle, Mullen said "The kid made a heck of an open field tackle. That was the difference."
Relf was confident in his play call but just came up short.
"I made the call and the ball was in my hands," said Relf. "It's a game of inches and I didn't come up with the big inch."
If the Bulldogs would have gotten into the end zone, Mullen said they would have went for two, but they didn't get that chance as they came up just an inch short.
"We have got to find a way to get that final inch," said Mullen. "That's what is separating us from being a great team."
The final play was magnified, but there were some other key moments during the game.
The first came late in the third quarter when Auburn was faced with a fourth and one. Michael Dyer ran straight ahead out of the wildcat formation, but after the ball was spotted, it was too close for the officials to call. They called for the chains, but the officials struggled to see if it was a first down. After the head referee got a closer look, he signaled for the first down.
Senior MSU safety Charles Mitchell was on the field and saw it differently than the official.
"They didn't get it, but they gave it to them," said Mitchell. "They gave us some plays too and that's the game. We got to keep playing it."
The social media website twitter blew up after the play with pictures of the measurement. After the game the Southeastern Conference released a statement about the call.
"When the officiating crew put the first down stake in its final position, the nose of the football was touching the stake making it a first down," according to the statement.
Mullen thinks the officials made the right call.
"We got the best officials in the country," said Mullen. "I trust that they know what they are doing. Obviously we're going to think they (Auburn) didn't get it and they're going to think they did. They found a way to get that 1/8th of a final inch and we didn't."
Four plays later, the Tigers scored a touchdown to go up 41-27 early in the fourth quarter.
Fast forward to the end of the fourth, and the second key play of the game is found.
With 2:52 left in the game, the Bulldogs started a drive at their own 33. After driving down to the 8-yard line, Vick Ballard ran to the right side and made a dove towards the end zone.
State fans began to cheer thinking that Ballard had scored a touchdown to pull the Bulldogs within one point, but the official marked Ballard down at the 1-yard line. With first and goal at the 1, MSU had 18 seconds to get into the end zone before the game ended with Relf being stopped at the goal line.
Despite coming up an inch short, Mullen doesn't blame his players for the tough loss.
"It's 100 percent and completely on me, and I need to get our team better prepared," said Mullen. "I think our kids played hard. They never quit but we have to find a way to take that final inch."
Trying find that final inch came to be by the Bulldogs spotting the Tigers 14 points in the first quarter, due to missed tackles and a pick six.
MSU was able to bounce back and took the lead by scoring 14 unanswered points by the end of the first quarter on a 40-yard LaDarius Perkins run and a 15-yard pass from Relf to Brandon Heavens.
MSU's defense got in on the scoring the second quarter when Johnthan Banks scored from 27 yards out after intercepting a Barrett Trotter pass.
The pick six gave the Bulldogs a 21-14 lead, but then the Tigers scored 14 unanswered points when Trotter connected with Emory Blake, who had 108 receiving yards, from 46 yards out, and a 2-yard run by Michael Dyer.
MSU had only one drive in the second quarter the resulted in points, largely in part to starting left tackle James Carmon going down with a leg injury, putting red shirt freshman Blaine Clausell in the game. With 40 seconds left before halftime when Derek DePasquale hit a 27-yard field goal.
Auburn answered with a field goal of their own with 5 seconds remaining before the break. At halftime, State trailed 31-24.
The Bulldogs matched scores with the Tigers in the second half and dropped their SEC opener and fell to 1-1 overall.
"It's devastating because we didn't play as well as we could have," said Mullen. "I give (Auburn) credit, they played really well today."
State will have to put this loss behind them as they host LSU on Thursday night.
"We played the defending national champions and now we are going to play – in my mind – the number one team in the nation," said Mullen. "That's life in the Southeastern Conference. Psychologically, we are just going to buckle up and go play hard."