LSU went into Auburn and earned a victory, and that's only the second time since 1998 that we've been able to say that. However, the general feeling among Tiger fans right now is one of "Uh-oh!" and that's certainly understandable considering the circumstances. I'm certainly concerned, but after watching the game a second time, I'm less concerned than I was on Saturday night and less concerned than most others seem to be.
LSU started this game out perfectly. The defense forced a quick three and out and the offense took the ball straight down the field on a nice looking drive. Even Mettenberger's fumble on the goal line did not prove costly. The defense converted it into a safety, and the offense got the ball right back. They finished the job the second time, scoring a touchdown and giving LSU a 9-0 advantage. Mettenberger started the game 5 for 5. LSU had a few nice runs, using different backs. And the defense was suffocating. After another Auburn punt, LSU got the ball again and was looking to add to their lead. At that point, another LSU score would have likely taken the air completely out of that place. Instead, Mettenberger fumbled the ball while being sacked. In three short plays, Auburn was in the end zone, the stadium became electric, and LSU fans everywhere buckled down and let out a collective "Oh shit! Here we go".
From that point forward, Auburn's defense, inspired by the crowd, played like they were possessed and LSU struggled to move the ball consistently. This LSU offense is accustomed to being able to run the football in short yardage situations. But suddenly, they couldn't. LSU tried to balance things out with the pass, but both the offensive line and the receivers had poor nights. LSU also committed a ton of penalties which either ruined good field position or contributed to killing drives. Auburn's defense made a number of very nice plays, but LSU certainly did their part in shooting themselves in the foot.
In the end, LSU's offense was able to do just enough to scrap out a short field goal drive and to put the team in position for another field goal late in the game. The defense, as expected, was great. It's nice to go to a place like Auburn, play poorly, and still come out of there with a victory.
This game reminded me a whole lot of LSU's victory in Starkville last year. If you recall, LSU's defense was dominating that night but the offense struggled at times. LSU was leading just 9-6 entering the fourth quarter, but they eventually wore down the Bulldogs and pulled away for a 19-6 victory. I decided to take another look at that game from last year, and the similarities were many:
LSU TOTAL YARDS
AU 2012 - 351
MSU 2011 - 361
LSU RUSHING YARDS
AU 2012 - 182
MSU 2011 - 159
OPPONENT TOTAL YARDS
AU 2012 - 183
MSU 2011 - 193
TACKLES FOR LOSS BY LSU DEFENSE
AU 2012 - 14
MSU 2011 - 16
Oddly enough, LSU threw 27 pass attempts in both games too. They completed 21 last year against State but just 15 against Auburn.
LSU was penalized nine times for 80 yards on Saturday. I went back to see when the last time LSU had racked up 80 yards or more. Guess when? The 2011 game against Mississippi State when they had nine penalties for 83 yards.
The big difference between these two games is the one fumble by Zach Mettenberger. That was the untimely turnover that the 2011 team seemingly NEVER made. With an offense in 2012 that's going to throw it a bit more, the risk for those things goes up a tad. Mississippi State had to earn their yards, which they couldn't, so they became a bit more desperate and turned it over often. I suspect the same would have happened to Auburn had that fumble never happened.
So what does the comparison to last year's game against State mean? Not much. But it does show that a team can go on the road early in the season, struggle a bit, and still accomplish some great things. This team was always going to be one that was fantastic on defense out of the gate but that would steadily improve on offense. The offensive line is an issue that concerns me quite a bit, but I do think we'll see the offense show consistent improvement.
- Here is my weekly praise for Anthony Johnson, who continues to play at a very high level. He added two more tackles for loss to the resume, including a sack. Late in the game, Auburn was down a field goal and faced a 2nd and 2 from LSU's 38 yard line. They run the ball and Freak stuffs it in the backfield for a loss. On 3rd and 5, Auburn fails to convert and they punt the football. Huge.
- At one point in the third quarter, LSU forced Auburn to punt from their own nine yard line. A 52 yard punt, a negative five yard return by Odell Beckham Jr. and two penalties put LSU all the way back to their own 13 yard line. Total disaster.
- On Zach Metternberger's costly fumble, Auburn only rushed three defenders on the play. LSU's play was designed for a quick throw. Josh Dworacyzk cut blocked Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier, which achieved its intent of getting Lemonier to the ground and opening a passing lane. However, Auburn dropped eight into coverage and when Mettenberger looked that way, he saw way more Auburn jerseys than he expected. Lemonier made a very athletic play, had already popped back up and got to Mett before he could run with it.
- Micah Eugene has quietly done a very nice job filling in for Tyrann Mathieu as a blitzer from the secondary. He's now the LSU team leader on the season with three sacks.
- LSU had a couple of potentially game saving tackles against Auburn's Onterio McCalebb. Russell Shepard did a phenomenal job of somehow getting to McCalebb on a kickoff return that looked like it was about to go the distance. Eric Reid also managed to grab McCalebb's jersey a second before he would have been off to the races on a run early in the third quarter.
- Freshman linebacker Deion Jones made a terrific play to tackle McCalebb for a loss. Jones has not played a ton but has showed off flashes of absolute brilliance at times. He's got a very bright future.
- LSU is really missing Chris Faulk. His injury has affected the team more than any other player lost, including Mathieu. I'm not sure that Josh Dworacyk is the answer at left tackle, but it seems that Les Miles is going to stick with him for the time being. Faulk's injury may be one of those things that LSU can't recover from.
TRACKING THE STATS
- For the first time this season, LSU did not win the field position battle. They didn't lose it either though. Both teams averaged a starting field position of their 27 yard line. That was a 13 yard per possession advantage in hidden yardage that LSU did not enjoy on Saturday night. For the season, LSU averages a start from their own 37 yard line while opponents average a start at their own 24.
- LSU enjoyed a pretty favorable rushing advantage of 182 to 86 (+96) against Auburn, even though that was not represented on the scoreboard. For the season, LSU is fifth nationally and first in the SEC in rushing differential at an average of +191 per game.
- LSU's passing efficiency differential dropped to +52.51. That number is good for 15th in the nation, but just sixth in the conference behind (in order) Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina.
- LSU missed two more scoring opportunities in the red zone with the fumble and missed field goal. They have now missed five this season, scoring 16 times in 21 trips to the red zone for 76%. In 2011, LSU missed on just four opportunities all season, converting 57 of 61 scoring opportunities in the red zone for 93%. Of LSU's 21 trips to the red zone, they have scored touchdowns 12 times (57%). Last year? They converted 44 of 61 trips into touchdowns (72%).