Don't bury Auburn for losing. Praise LSU for winning, saving its season
It was the Auburn game last season that cost former LSU coach Les Miles his job. It was the Auburn game Saturday that maybe saved current LSU coach Ed Orgeron’s job.
In one of the more unexpected comebacks we’ve seen in the SEC in quite some time, LSU erased a 20-0 deficit in the second quarter to pull out a 27-23 thriller over No. 10 Auburn. In a battle of Tigers, it was the Bayou Bengals who showed incredible heart down the stretch.
No question about it, LSU had every reason to quit. Auburn was moving the ball up and down the field, be it with the legs of running back Kerryon Johnson or the arm of quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Its own offense couldn’t get anything going, not with Derrius Guice on the ground or with Danny Etling through the air. Death Valley appeared to be the furthest thing from deadly.
But Orgeron, who has already been outcoached a few times in 2017, pushed all the right buttons and delivered a monster victory.
When the day started, Auburn was one of maybe three legit contenders for the conference title and in the conversation for the College Football Playoff. LSU, on the other hand, was looking at a tough path to even get to bowl eligibility.
Instead, Auburn and LSU now have identical 5-2 records — LSU owns the head-to-head tiebreaker between these two programs, as well — and a single loss in league play. In other words, both teams still control their own destiny in the West since neither has played undefeated Alabama yet. The division race just got much more interesting.
For Auburn, it really was a stunning collapse. For a quarter and a half or so, this seemed like another blowout for coach Gus Malzahn and Co.
Johnson, who appeared to be fully healthy for the first time in a while, ran for 156 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries. Whether it was on read-option calls or out of the Wildcat formation, he left LSU defenders grasping at air with vicious jump cuts.
But the holes he managed to find in the first half weren’t there in the second, and Auburn didn’t score after intermission as a result. His partner in crime in the backfield, Kamryn Pettway, only produced 7 yards on 4 attempts and clearly isn’t 100 percent. Credit LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda for making some brilliant adjustments in the locker room.
Stidham also proved to be Jekyll-and-Hyde with his performance. The pinpoint passes he threw early where nowhere to be found late.
The transfer from Baylor had been red hot lately, but he did no better than 9-of-26 passing for 165 yards with 1 TD and 0 INTs on his first trip to Baton Rouge. There were no intermediate throws to be found. It was deep ball or bust more often than not.
On the other side of the ball, LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada struggled early to get the ball into the hands of the few playmakers he has at his disposal. Tailback Derrius Guice was rather ordinary with 20 rushes for 71 yards.
Canada managed to turn the tide with a 70-yard run by receiver Russell Gage (above) on a jet sweep — a staple of his movement-heavy scheme — that led to LSU’s first points. Gage would later score on a 14-yard corner route from Etling with a highlight-reel diving catch, plus he even made a couple of big plays on special teams.
Fellow wideout D.J. Chark was also a star with 5 catches for 150 yards and a 75-yard touchdown off a punt return.
Against an Auburn defense that had been terrifying so far this season, Etling probably played his best game in purple and gold. The one-time Purdue signal caller hit on 13-of-24 throws for 206 yards and didn’t commit a turnover.
Where Auburn goes from here is anyone’s guess. The SEC was supposed to already be a three-team race between Auburn, Alabama and Georgia. More than likely, Alabama will destroy Arkansas later tonight to remain unbeaten. Same for Georgia when it faces Missouri.
To repeat, with only one conference loss, Auburn does still control its own destiny in the West. Alabama has to visit Jordan-Hare Stadium on Thanksgiving weekend, too. Before its second-half collapse, this looked like a team with a big-armed quarterback, a devastating ground game and more than enough defense to compete with anybody.
Nevertheless, with two losses by mid-October and no home games for another four weeks, the College Football Playoff may be out of reach at this juncture.
Maybe Auburn can run the table the rest of the way, and if that includes a win over 11-0 Alabama in the Iron Bowl and 12-0 Georgia in the league title game, perhaps the committee will be impressed enough to put #WarEagle in the Final Four.
The odds of that happening are rather long, though. There’s something about Tiger Stadium that has befuddled Auburn this century — this is nine straight losses in the series away from home, with its last win coming in 1999. Not to mention the fact that LSU came into this one unranked and dealing with all kinds of Orgeron-related drama.
That being said, Auburn didn’t necessarily lose this game. LSU won it. There were no silly turnovers or special-teams gaffes.
It’s been said time and again, but the SEC is about as week-to-week as it gets. It wasn’t too long ago when everyone wondered if LSU had made a giant mistake in elevating Orgeron from interim coach to full-time coach post-Miles.
But after back-to-back triumphs over bitter rivals — first Florida on the road, then Auburn at home — Orgeron has saved LSU’s season and will still have a say in how the division shakes out in the end. Can this team challenge Alabama in three weeks? We’ll see. There’s more confidence on campus than there was a week or two ago, that’s for sure.
Auburn was the better team on the scoreboard for 57:24, but don’t bury those Tigers for losing. Praise the other Tigers for winning.