LSU has found a way to knock out each of its first seven opponents this season, winning by an average of nearly four touchdowns. The No. 1-ranked Tigers have won each by at least 13 points.
There has been a point in each game, usually in the third quarter or early in the fourth, when LSU’s opponent has realized the game was over.
That hasn’t meant the beating was over, just that LSU had taken a lead it wasn’t going to relinquish, and maybe even broken the opponent’s spirit.
But this week’s opponent is last year’s BCS champion: Auburn, which has demonstrated during the past two seasons that the word “uncle” is not in its vocabulary.
Auburn and former quarterback Cam Newton came from behind nine times during their 14-0 run to last season’s championship, including four games in which they trailed by at least 10 points. This year’s team without Newton already has lost twice in seven games, but it also has won twice when trailing in the fourth quarter.
Utah State led 38-28 with less than three minutes to play before Auburn scored two touchdowns in the final 2:07 to win its season opener 42-38. South Carolina took a 13-9 lead into the fourth quarter and maintained it until Auburn scored the winning touchdown with 1:38 remaining.
“We call them the comeback team,” LSU wide receiver Russell Shepard said before practice Monday. “They did it all last year with Cam, and they’ve done it a lot this year. Every time we’ve played Auburn in the last few years, it’s come down to a very close game, and we look forward to it coming down to a close game this year. We’re ready to play them. We kind of owe them something.”
Six of the past seven games between these sets of Tigers have been decided by a touchdown or less, including Auburn’s 24-17 victory at home last season. The score was tied at 17-17 well into the fourth quarter, but it was Auburn that had the finishing kick.
“When we finish, we’re a great team,” Shepard said. “We were just as talented the last two years. We had the same guys we have now and older guys that are successful in the NFL. We finally found our niche and came together and started to play with a lot of passion.”
That passion has overwhelmed each opponent. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when LSU broke the spirit of Northwestern State, Kentucky or Florida as the Tigers were in command from the outset.
They took a 28-3 halftime lead on their way to beating the Demons 49-3. They smothered the Wildcats offense and methodically built a 28-0 lead after three quarters before prevailing 35-7. They bolted to a 24-3 halftime lead against the Gators and rolled to a 41-11 triumph.
The other four games each seemed to feature a spirit-breaking moment.
In the season opener against Oregon, LSU scored 17 points in a seven-minute stretch that ended less than a minute into the fourth quarter to take a commanding 34-10 lead.
Two weeks later, early in the fourth quarter at Mississippi State, Jarrett Lee threw a 19-yard pass to Rueben Randle for the only touchdown of the game to grab a 16-6 lead on the way to a 19-6 victory. When the Bulldogs intercepted Lee moments later, their last flicker of hope was doused by the defense when it pushed them back 5 yards before forcing a punt.
A week later, West Virginia scored two third-quarter touchdowns to get within six points. Then Morris Claiborne took the kickoff after the second one and ran 99 yards for a touchdown.
Saturday, LSU drove to a touchdown on the first possession of the second half to take a 24-7 lead over Tennessee.
“There are definitely those moments in a game where you can definitely tell (an opponent’s spirit has been broken),” Lee said. “But you’ve got to keep going at them.”
The Tigers have kept going at opponents until the clock has run out, mostly using a power running game to add a broken back to the broken spirit.
“It takes the life out of your opponent,” coach Les Miles said. “You secure victory. It puts our defense on the field for a minimal number of snaps in the back end of the game. We end our opponents’ chance of victory.”
Oregon saw Michael Ford run 16 yards for touchdown with 2:52 remaining to put the final touch on a 40-27 win. West Virginia saw fourth-quarter touchdown runs of 15 yards by Ford and 18 yards by Alfred Blue to complete a 47-21 triumph.
Then came the ultimate in the fourth quarter at Tennessee last Saturday: a 99-yard touchdown drive that didn’t include a single passing yard.
“That was pretty impressive,” Lee said. “We ran the ball real hard. Our guys did a great job of just executing those plays. I think that kind of told Tennessee that we’re not giving up. We’re going to take this thing. This is our game.”
It already was their game, but the Tigers added a 14-yard touchdown pass from Lee to Shepard with 1:35 left in a 38-7 rout. That finished the scoring well after the opponent was finished.
“We sense (a beaten foe),” running back Spencer Ware said. “When we get that feeling, that’s when you see the best come out of us.”