Three weeks ago, Auburn was a top 10 team with national title aspirations.
Two weeks ago, Auburn held on for dear life as it nearly blew a 17-point halftime lead against Louisville.
Last week, Auburn narrowly escaped FCS opponent Jacksonville State on its home turf, needing a fourth quarter touchdown to force overtime.
Saturday? Auburn’s season kept steadily spiraling away in a 45-21 blowout loss to LSU in Tiger Stadium. The road Tigers were trounced by an LSU team which was willing to lean on the prodigious legs of running back Leonard Fournette.
“They whipped us,” said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. “Bottom line is, we got our rear kicked.”
How does Auburn respond from such a thorough thrashing? Will it be enough to light the fire that a close call against Jacksonville State didn’t? Or will Auburn continue trending downward? Malzahn repeatedly assured that his team will find a way to get better, though the evidence doesn’t support his assertion.
It’s been a struggle on both sides of the ball for Auburn.
Quarterback Jeremy Johnson, a scapegoat for Auburn’s Week 1 and 2 struggles, turned in his worst game as Auburn’s starting quarterback, going 11-for-19 for 100 yards and a pair of turnovers.
“I’ve just got to get better,” Johnson said. “First road game for this team and I, a lot of adversity, but it ain’t going to do nothing but make us better.”
Johnson entered the game having thrown five interceptions already, and it appeared his early struggles were getting to him. Johnson alternated between playing with and without a glove on his throwing hand during the first three drives, and CBS sideline reporter Allie LaForce caught Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee making a final decision for Johnson.
According to LaForce, Lashlee flung the glove behind Auburn’s bench and told Johnson, “You don’t need the glove. It’s mental.”
Malzahn wasn’t worried about a glove after the game.
“Wear gloves, not wear gloves, the bottom line is, we didn’t score enough points and didn’t play good enough on offense,” Malzahn said. “Whether you wear gloves or not wear gloves, that’s way down the totem pole.”
As far as Johnson’s status as the starting quarterback, Malzahn said there “wasn’t too much discussion” about making a change during the LSU game, and he also said every position will be evaluated this week.
After all, Johnson didn’t get much help from his teammates. Auburn couldn’t get anything going on the ground either, with LSU bottling up running back Peyton Barber (120 yards per game entering Saturday) for 34 yards on just seven carries.
“It wasn’t just Jeremy; it was a total deal,” Malzahn said. “Any time you don’t play good offensively, there’s 11 guys out there. That first half, y’all saw it, was poor. We bounced back in the second half, our guys kept fighting, that was positive.
“We’ve got to get better, and we are going to get better.”
But Auburn still put up 21 points, which might be good enough to win a handful of Southeastern Conference games if it weren’t for a defense that gave up more than 400 yards (411) on the ground.
Not that it could’ve been helped. LSU frequently deployed Fournette, who looks to be a Heisman trophy front runner — and worse, he was motivated.
Earlier in the week, Auburn’s Johnathan Ford said stopping Fournette “shouldn’t be difficult.” All Fournette did was turn Auburn’s defenders into human ping pong balls as he smashed his way to a career-high 228 rushing yards – and that all came before he was lifted in the fourth quarter.
As the two teams flipped the field for the fourth quarter, Fournette had actually outgained Auburn 237-199.
Auburn’s defense came into the season with high hopes thanks to new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, but the early returns don’t look good. Auburn is now allowing 270 yards per game on the ground.
“Yeah, there’s a concern any time you give up that many yards on the ground,” linebacker Kris Frost said. “We had high expectations for ourselves as well, and we didn’t get the job done. But the train doesn’t stop. It’s a week-to-week grind.”
Auburn doesn’t have much time to figure out what’s going wrong. It’s at home for the next two weeks against Mississippi State and San Jose State before beginning a rough five-week stretch that features road games against Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas A&M and home games against Ole Miss and Georgia.
Malzahn was steadfast in his commitment to staying positive after the game, even as all the clues suggest he has little reason to do so.
“We’re going to get better,” Malzahn said. “We’re going to roll our sleeves up, and we’re going to get ready for next week.”