LSU/Auburn … Similar Game – Not the Same Feeling

Lyn Scarbrough

September 21, 2015 at 12:21 pm.

Sep 19, 2015; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) leaps over the goal line for a touchdown against the Auburn Tigers during the third quarter of a game at Tiger Stadium. Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 19, 2015; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) leaps over the goal line for a touchdown against the Auburn Tigers during the third quarter of a game at Tiger Stadium. Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

If you thought the game in Tiger Stadium on Saturday afternoon between LSU and Auburn looked familiar, there’s a reason.

It did.

Go back two seasons.

In 2013, undefeated LSU jumped up early on undefeated Auburn. The visiting Tigers showed no offense, had turnovers, couldn’t slow LSU’s running game (Jeremy Hill had 154 first half rushing yards, finishing with 184 and three touchdowns) and trailed at intermission, 21-0.

This past Saturday, Leonard Fournette did the damage, opening the game with a 71-yard run, before ending with 228 yards and three scores. Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson provided the turnovers and the halftime lead was 24-0. So for the record, LSU has led by a combined 45-0 at halftime the last two times this series has been played in Baton Rouge.

At that point two years ago, the visitors came back with 21 second half points, improved offensively, but still lost by double digits. However, fans left the stadium thinking that the team had turned a corner.

That team went on to defeat every other opponent, including Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama, before steamrolling Missouri in the SEC Championship Game. It came within 13 seconds of winning its second national championship in four seasons. LSU went in the other direction, losing to Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama before defeating Iowa in the Outback Bowl.

This past Saturday, the visitors again came back with 21 second half points, improved offensively, and lost by double digits, but you didn’t leave the stadium with that feeling this time.

If the Gus Bus turned a corner in Baton Rouge this year, it was in the wrong direction on a one-way street. This team looks nothing like the championship team it was predicted to be by the SEC media. Unless things change … drastically and quickly … it’s not a sure thing that this team will even win six games and play in a postseason bowl at all.

LSU, on the other hand, is one of the four best teams in the conference based on game performance so far, joining Texas A&M, Georgia and Ole Miss. (Notice, no team from the state of Alabama is in that quartet.)

This could end up being one of the most disappointing and underachieving teams in Auburn history.

For LSU, it could be one of the most unexpected contending seasons in the past decade. Based on its most recent performance, that group of Tigers doesn’t have much on which to work before it heads into Saturday’s game against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.

Problem areas for the Tiger group from east Alabama heading into its game with Mississippi State are many and major, some not hard to spot. You won’t win much if you can’t hit your receivers, you can’t make a big play, you can’t tackle. You get the idea.

Start with the quarterback position since that’s where so much was expected, so much was heralded and so little has been delivered.

You have to feel for Jeremy Johnson. He is a superb athlete and he’s been patient waiting for his time to lead the Auburn team. But, what has happened can’t be sugar coated. Johnson hasn’t consistently hit receivers, often badly overthrowing or underthrowing. The result has been six critical interceptions, most thrown directly to a defender. He hasn’t been able to read defenses or pose a consistent running threat. He’s fumbled the ball and handled it loosely. If he’s inspiring confidence from his teammates or Tiger fans or anybody for that matter, it’s hard to see and would be even harder to understand.

Should Sean White, one of the nation’s top high school quarterbacks two seasons ago, start against the Bulldogs? If Johnson starts and there’s not first quarter results, should White be brought in early? Should freshman Jason Smith, the talented dual-threat prep and junior college quarterback, be moved to the position, even for the Wildcat option?

What change is needed? Not sure, but obviously, something different must happen.

How about big plays, a trademark of Rhett Lashlee and Gus Malzahn offenses? They haven’t existed. I’m not sure that Auburn has recovered yet from the 56-yard scoring bomb from Johnson to Smith that was wiped out by a holding call in the Louisville game. That would have run the score to 31-3 and the rout would have been on. Instead, after that penalty – and the accompanying 15-yard poor sportsmanship call – made it 1st-and-35, it became a close game and Auburn has never looked the same.

How about the defense? You remember, the one that was going to show such drastic improvement. The one that was going to increase pressure on the quarterback and hit like a ton of bricks. Apparently, David Copperfield has joined the Tigers’ defensive coaching staff because that much anticipated defense has disappeared … if it ever showed up at all. Since star defensive end Carl Lawson was injured in the first quarter of the Louisville game, that defense has been AWOL. It would have seemed impossible, but this defense may be playing worse that the 2014 unit. For sure, it is getting worse game-by-game.

As concerning as on-field results have been, the appearance of effort … or lack thereof …
is at least equally concerning. On Saturday, potential blockers, tacklers and receivers sometimes looked as if they just didn’t want to make the effort.

The 2013 team never quit against LSU or against other teams during the season. Remember those historic come-from-behind wins at the end of the year, paving the road to Pasadena? On Saturday in Tiger Stadium, that excitement, that determination, that never-say-die attitude … appeared to have died.

“The first half our offense was awful and really didn’t give our defense any kind of spark or hope,” coach Malzahn said after the game.

Awful. No spark. No reason for hope. That pretty much summed it up.

Is the season already over for the preseason SEC favorites just three weeks into September? Not at all. Every goal is still attainable.

A win over Mississippi State and its Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Dak Prescott could go a long way toward turning the wrong-way Gus Bus around. A realistic evaluation of both teams at this stage doesn’t point in that direction, but the Tigers have been installed as an early four-point favorite.

Win this one, take care of San Jose State the following week, and then there is a Saturday with no game before playing in Lexington on Thursday night. A win there is definitely possible before heading the next week to Fayetteville, where the hometown Razorbacks are likely to be 1-5 when Auburn comes to town. The Hogs will be desperate for a win … over anybody.

Win those (and have the 6-1 record that they would represent) and the next three Saturdays (Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia, with two of those at Jordan-Hare) don’t look impossible. Lose a couple of those and it’s hard to foresee a season with six wins. That anticipated trip back to Arizona for another national championship game could be replaced with a holiday season at home.

It’s still not a lost cause. Remember 2013. This is exactly what happened then.

But, the feeling this time is not the same, and for Auburn to come close to repeating 2013, it has to get that feeling again.

Even though it’s early in the season, the game against Mississippi State is probably the most important one for Auburn since the title game against Florida State. The Tigers need to get that 2013 feeling back and time is quickly running out for that to happen.

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LSU/Auburn … Similar Game – Not the Same Feeling.