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Auburn defensive end Derick Hall (29) loses his helmet as LSU quarterback Max Johnson (14) slips the tackle on a keeper in the first half, Saturday, October 2, 2021, at Tiger Stadium.

Tiger Stadium was back Saturday night.

LSU’s once-vaunted running game was not.

LSU’s inability to run the ball, and its inability to stop Auburn quarterback Bo “Crazy Legs” Nix from running wild on the pass and the run left LSU a loser to Auburn at home for the first time in a generation.

LSU bent and bent and bent until it finally broke, Auburn getting the game-winning 1-yard touchdown plunge from Jarquez Hunter with 3:11 remaining. Fitting that Auburn, which got a very competent 178 yards rushing to compliment 255 through the air, would win it on the ground while LSU’s running game ground to a halt.

That’s not entirely accurate. You have to get going to grind to a halt and LSU never did. The Tigers’ running game, woefully inadequate every week this season, netted just 33 yards on 25 carries.

The loss spoiled a big comeback party for the great atmosphere that long ruled in Tiger Stadium until the coronavirus pandemic and its collateral damage muted things last season and in the first two home games of 2021. A damp week of rain that spilled over onto Saturday’s pregame frivolities and the damp squib of LSU’s season-opening loss at UCLA threatened to leave Death Valley a shell of its famous, infamous, rock-concert-volume-gone-to-11 self. The folks staying home because they don’t want to submit to LSU’s COVID-19 requirements (vaccination or testing, the only school in the Southeastern Conference we’re told doing this) certainly left some empty seats in their places, too.

A passing shower raked Tiger Stadium about a half hour before kickoff, threatening to put an even further damper on the evening. But by the time the game started, Death Valley was as haunted and loud as it has been since Joe Burrow ran out in that Burreaux jersey and then buried Texas A&M in the 2019 home finale. No, it was hardly full full, but what the old girl was nonetheless was a feast for the senses.

LSU needed every bit of that full-throated support to subdue Auburn, but in the end it wasn’t enough. Traveling almost exclusively by air, LSU couldn’t beat Auburn here for the 11th straight time, falling for the first time since 1999, before almost all of Auburn’s players were born. The loss dropped LSU to 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the SEC in the midst of this grueling middle of its schedule.

The good news ahead for LSU: the three SEC teams that still must visit Tiger Stadium this season — Florida, Arkansas and Texas A&M — all lost Saturday. And none looked particularly good doing it. The immediate bad news: LSU next heads back onto the road to face 5-0 Kentucky, which stunned Florida 20-13 Saturday and looks like it has its best team since beating No. 1 LSU in Lexington in triple overtime in 2007.

That’s next week’s problem. LSU had more pressing issues here Saturday night, namely how to stop bleeding to death in the red zone and finding a way to bring down Auburn quarterback Bo Nix.

LSU had all the momentum early, even after a bad shotgun snap sent Max Johnson chasing after the ball at the Auburn 31. But he came back on the next play and threw a “How’d he catch that?” touchdown pass to Kayshon Boutte in the end zone with Auburn safety Zion Puckett draped all over him. It was quite a show by Boutte and Johnson, who managed to go 6-for-6 for 122 yards on LSU’s 91-yard first drive because of the big bad snap.

Ominously, as it turned out, scoring touchdowns would prove elusive to LSU the rest of the night. So was getting the ball to Boutte, LSU's best receiver, who only had one reception for 10 yards in the second half. 

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LSU would piece together a 13-0 lead as its offense bogged down deep and Cade York started doing Cade York things and began drilling field goals. But the offense drifted back into burning time outs and burning down the play clock time and again as LSU offensive coordinator Jake Peetz frustratingly searched for the perfect play.

“We just have to hurry up,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said, and not for the first time. “We just have to call the play and run with it. Sometimes we try to change plays and change protections and there’s no excuse for that.”

Johnson certainly wasn’t making any excuses. Actually, he was not shy to name the problem.

“One play is called based on the coverage and then we get a different play,” Johnson said. “We’re getting it with five seconds or so and then I have to try to change protection. We’re burning time outs because of that.”

Auburn coach Bryan Harsin inserted former LSU starter and last week’s game-winning hero TJ Finley at quarterback, but his brief stint of relief proved ineffective.

Back to Nix. It was maybe even a desperation move. And Nix, well, the best way I can describe it is what they said in “Spaceballs” when the spaceship jumped to Ludicrous Speed.

Nix went to plaid.

He started juking and dancing, darting and diving, squirting around the field like the proverbial melon seed. Part Johnny Manziel, who won a Heisman Trophy but didn’t win a game for Texas A&M against LSU, part Fran Tarkenton (they share the same No. 10), Nix single-handedly brought Auburn back. He scrambled all over the field before hitting Tyler Fromm on a 24-yard scoring pass when it looked like LSU had him about three times, cutting his team’s deficit to 13-7. He led Auburn to a field goal on its next drive to make 13-10 at halftime and made LSU look relieved that’s all it was.

Were it not for a botched snap that short-circuited an Anders Carlson field-goal try in the first half and a blocked field goal by LSU’s designated field-goal blocker Jay Ward (he did the same thing at Arkansas last year), Auburn might have beaten LSU by even more. Carlson is an excellent kicker, but York looks like LSU’s best ever. And his made 51-yarder for a 19-10 LSU lead with 3:26 left in the third was huge.

Not huge enough, as it turned out. Auburn put the clamps on LSU’s one-dimensional offense and won the game with a 14-0 fourth-quarter rally to pull out the victory a week after nearly losing at home to lowly Georgia State.

LSU now finds itself in a lowly state with a defense that is improved over last year but badly handicapped offense that can’t hope to carry the day in the brutal SEC week after week.

One has to wonder if when LSU comes back home against Florida in two weeks, will Tiger Stadium be rocking again or will the home folks have turned on the old coliseum’s namesake team.

Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com

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