It didn’t take Gus Malzahn long to get to the heart of his team’s epic collapse Saturday afternoon.
A stagnant Auburn offense and a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown by LSU's DJ Chark on the second play of the fourth quarter were what stuck out to Malzahn in a 27-23 setback in Tiger Stadium.
No. 10 Auburn shocked LSU with a 17-point onslaught in the first quarter, then added a field goal just a little more than two minutes into the second period for a commanding 20-0 lead.
Malzahn’s team eventually led 23-7 before LSU scored 20 unanswered points for the improbable victory.
“Obviously, it was a tough loss,” Malzahn said. “We started out quick, and it was what we thought would be a key to the game. I was real pleased with our tempo offensively and real pleased with our defense.”
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But that’s when LSU came alive on a muggy afternoon.
With a pair of touchdowns and two clutch field goals by Connor Culp in the final two-plus quarters, LSU beat Auburn for the ninth consecutive time in Tiger Stadium dating to the 2001 season.
“Really, at halftime, we felt good,” said Malzahn, whose team took a 23-14 lead to the locker room at halftime. “Coming out in the second half, I thought third downs were really the key.”
Auburn, which piled up 290 total yards in the first half on 38 snaps, netted just 64 yards on 32 plays in the final two quarters. A big problem was third down, where Malzahn’s team converted just once in eight attempts.
“We had only one third-down conversion in the second half and the biggest play of the game was the punt return,” he said. “We have been good covering punts up to that point, but the kid got it to the sideline, and they got a couple of blocks.
“That was obviously a key, or one of the big keys, of the game.”
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LSU’s defense did a number on Auburn’s up-tempo offense in the second half, allowing just 2.0 yards per snap.
Running back Kerryon Johnson rumbled for 123 yards and a 4-yard touchdown on 21 first-half carries, but was held to 33 yards on 10 attempts after halftime.
Quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who was 7 of 13 for 159 yards with a 49-yard TD to Will Hastings and another big completion of 52 yards in the first half, was just 2 of 13 for 6 yards in the second half with two sacks.
“They started making momentum plays,” Johnson said. “They had a punt return here, a pass deflection there … they had it all going for them and we just couldn’t recover.”
It really turned bad when Chark sped down the sideline in front of the Auburn bench for his touchdown that cut Auburn’s 23-14 lead to two points. Culp’s two field goals in the final 2:36 gave LSU the win.
“I felt like they outplayed us,” Johnson said. “Like I said, they had the momentum going and had the energy going. They just kind of wanted it more than us, and we didn’t recover.”
In addition to being shut out and moving the chains on one of eight third-down conversion attempts in the second half, Auburn had just four first downs in the final two quarters — one coming on an LSU penalty.
“Honestly, they didn’t do much different,” Stidham said of the second half. “We just didn’t execute as well as we did in the first half. I come out looking for adjustments, but they didn’t do anything crazy. We just didn’t execute as well.”
Move over, Earthquake Game. Bury all those Auburn pick sixes in 1994 next to the ashes of The Barn that burned down two years later.