STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The joyful noise crept underneath the opening under the locker room door late Thursday night. When it hit the open air, it burst forth and shattered the silence at Scott Field.
Just call/on me brother/when you need a hand./ We all need/some-body/to le-an on!
Inside the locker room, the Auburn Tigers Choir harmonized. Seventy players locked arms and channeled Bill Withers. Offensive players linked with defensive players. Coaches tested their pipes. They sang to celebrate their 17-14 survival at Mississippi State. Five days after the offense had carried Auburn to a season-opening win against Arkansas State, the defense had bailed out the offense to make the Tigers 1-0 in SEC play.
They thought it fortuitous that during their loosely organized choir practice Wednesday night, backup quarterback Barrett Trotter had suggested to running backs coach Curtis Luper -- the son of a pastor and the Tigers' unofficial choir director -- that the team take a break from gospel standards and sing something a little more familiar. So, before players repaired to their last set of meetings for the night, they sang Lean on Me. About 28 hours later, the Tigers sang Withers' classic again to commemorate a night that underscored how tightly bunched the SEC West teams not named Alabama are. In the critical moments, the most united team will emerge victorious.
"That's what we've got to do all year," Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley said. "We've got to lean on each other."
Saturday, Auburn's offense looked unstoppable. Quarterback Cam Newton had rushed for 171 yards and thrown for 186. Thursday, when the Tigers marched down the field in 3:38 to start the game, it seemed little had changed. Then Mississippi State's defense came to life. Suddenly, Newton -- all 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds of him -- didn't look so invincible. Sure, Newton escaped for a few big runs, but offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn had to call plays that minimized Newton's weaker points. Late in the first quarter, Malzahn let loose and ordered a deep shot. Newton threw it up for grabs, and Mississippi State safety Nickoe Whitley plucked it from the sky.
"We put the defense in some binds," said Newton, who threw for 136 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 70 yards. "I'm not going to lie."
The biggest bind came late in the fourth quarter. Auburn, playing without left tackle Lee Ziemba (second-quarter knee injury), rode freshman tailback Michael Dyer to the Mississippi State 17-yard line. But the Tigers would get no closer to the end zone. The drive stalled, and Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox blocked an Auburn field goal attempt with 2:19 remaining.
Now the offense really had to lean on the defense.
Auburn's offensive linemen understood perfectly the problem their Mississippi State counterparts faced Thursday. It was Fairley, the 6-5, 298-pound junior who finished the night with five tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries, a fumble recovery and the interception that set up Auburn's second touchdown.
As Fairley worked, the o-linemen from the Loveliest Village on the Plains could do nothing but stand on the sideline and yell. They screamed for Fairley, the guy they always complain about in practice because he knows the plays and jumps the snap count. Fairley didn't know Mississippi State's plays, but he blasted into the backfield all the same. When he dragged down Bulldogs quarterback Chris Relf for a loss of five yards to force third-and-14, the Tigers on the sideline tensed, ready to explode in celebration.
Then Relf, who had converted a fourth down three plays earlier, fired over the middle for Arceto Clark. The ball bounced to the ground, but a flag landed shortly after. Cornerback T'Sharvan Bell had been called for pass interference. First down.
On the sideline, the offense sank. Those Tigers knew they had squandered opportunities to score. They prepared for overtime. In the backs of their minds, they worried Mississippi State might plow down the field and put the Tigers in an 0-1 SEC hole. But Fairley kept fighting toward Relf. Bell and Etheridge locked down their receivers. Bynes brought pressure from unexpected places. Relf threw four consecutive incomplete passes. When the fourth hit the ground, the sideline exploded. Receivers coach Trooper Taylor waved his towel and offered chest bumps to returning defensive players. Etheridge ran toward the cheerleaders. He picked up a sign that read "DEFENSE" and waved it at the crowd.
"It was a great something to build on," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "We said before this game that if we win this game or lose this game, it doesn't necessarily determine the outcome of the season. It only lets you have a great idea of where you are and where you need to move forward."
As the cowbells at Scott Field finally fell silent, the Tigers jogged up a ramp and into their locker room. After Chizik finished talking, the choir assembled.
Lean on me/when you're not strong/I'll be your friend/I'll help you car-ry on./Boy/it won't be long/til I'm going to need/some-body/to le-an on.
"That's our theme song," receiver Darvin Adams said.