Sept. 13, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. - It's safe to say that no Auburn player has a happier memory of Mississippi State than senior safety Ryan Smith. It was against Mississippi State that Smith made probably the biggest play of his career, and it came on the last snap he played against Mississippi State.
With Auburn leading 41-34 at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Sept. 10, 2011, Mississippi State drove to a first down at the 1-yard line. Eighteen seconds remained in the fourth quarter. Auburn defenders, on the verge of exhaustion, had been on the field for 95 snaps. It seemed inevitable that the Bulldogs would score and either send the game to overtime or go for a two-point conversion and victory.
On first down, Jake Holland and Neiko Thorpe tackled tailback Vick Ballard for a 1-yard loss. Mississippi State took its final timeout with 10 seconds left. The game had come down to one play.
Big and fast quarterback Chris Relf took the snap and ran to his left. He had the option of pitching to Ballard, but he thought he saw an opening, turned upfield and drove for the goal line. Running across the formation, Smith hit Relf hard. Relf went down literally inches short of the goal line. Time ran out and Auburn won.
Smith was in Starkville for Auburn's 28-10 loss last season, but he did not play. He hasn't played against Mississippi State since that hit.
"I was just trying to make a play for the team and come up big for the Auburn family," Smith said when it was over.
Mississippi State had 31 first down and 531 yards of offense that day, but because Smith was there at the end, it was Auburn that celebrated.
"It meant a lot to me," Smith said. "God has helped me through a lot of stuff and held my hand through a lot of stuff. I just battled back and I'm glad to be back."
Smith has had still more obstacles to overcome since that day. He earned the starting job last season and played every snap of a season-opening 26-19 loss to Clemson. Demetruce McNeal started the next week at Mississippi State, and Smith was essentially a forgotten man for the rest of the season.
What did he do? He continued to work. He earned his degree, graduating last month. And that day was as big as any on the field.
"It was a day I've been waiting for and working for," Smith said. "Being the first one in my family to graduate is a big deal."
Smith, from Cordova, played on special teams as a true freshman. But after the halfway point of the season, he vanished from sight, apparently having run afoul of team rules. In 2011, not much was heard from him after the big hit against Mississippi State. Last season, he played in just four games.
All that is behind him now. Smith is a vital part of Auburn's defense, whether he's in the starting lineup or he's not. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson says he has been valuable in Auburn's 2-0 start.
"He really is like a starter," Johnson said. "No difference, really. I think he's done a great job."
At end of a week in which college football scandals have been in the headlines, Smith tells the other side of the college football story. He persevered through the hard times, refused to quit when everything seemed to be going against him, and earned a degree that will be his for all his life.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: