The quarterback no one expected to see sauntered through the end zone. Bo Nix, the junior who was benched a week earlier, looked at the visiting fans in the corner of Tiger Stadium. Auburn had not won here since the year before he was born, but it suddenly had its first lead with three minutes remaining Saturday night, and those fans cheered for him.
After the touchdown, LSU’s sputtering offense had one more chance to win the game trailing 24-19. But one of the problems that has plagued this team all season reappeared. On the first play of the drive, LSU tried to adjust the call as the play clock ticked under nine seconds.
Sophomore quarterback Max Johnson relayed the adjustment to his teammates. The clock kept ticking. Johnson shifted the protection as instructed. The clock approached zero. LSU had to take the second of its three timeouts to avoid a delay of game penalty.
“The play call was in late,” coach Ed Orgeron said. “Then we’re trying to change it at the line of scrimmage. We just weren’t very well organized.”
The crowd booed, and pretty soon the home fans had no reason to cheer anymore. LSU’s last drive ended in an interception. As Nix took the final knee and held onto the football, No. 22 Auburn won inside Tiger Stadium for the first time since 1999.
Tiger Stadium was back Saturday night.
This was a game LSU (3-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) could have won. It held a 13-0 lead in the second quarter. It led by nine late in the third. It had multiple chances to put the game away, but it kicked four field goals after reaching the red zone and couldn’t run the football. Then it struggled to bring down Nix, who slipped through sacks as he directed Auburn’s comeback.
“We couldn’t run the football,” Orgeron said. “We couldn’t block well up front. And we couldn’t tackle the quarterback.”
For so long, the team that ran the ball more effectively in this rivalry had won the game. That remained true Saturday night. Auburn out-gained LSU 178-29 on the ground, even though its running backs touched the ball six times in the first half. LSU, a program once built on running the football, averaged 1.2 yards per carry. Its running backs combined for 13 attempts.
“We came in with a running plan,” Johnson said, “but that really didn’t go as planned.”
Johnson tried to carry the offense. He threw for 235 yards in the first half and led three straight scoring drives to open the game. But two of those possessions ended with field goals inside the red zone. Unable to run, LSU’s offense struggled to finish drives after Auburn (4-1, 1-0 SEC) tightened its coverage.
The first offensive drive for LSU in Saturday night’s huge Southeastern Conference game with No. 22 Auburn was certainly unconventional.
Johnson didn’t play a perfect game. He missed throws, especially one Orgeron mentioned to freshman tight end Jack Bech that may have sealed the game in the fourth quarter. Running back Tyrion Davis-Price was also open in the flat on the play.
But Johnson might not have needed to do so much near the end if LSU had effectively run the ball, a problem that stems from its blocking along the offensive line.
LSU has now rushed for over 100 yards once this season. Even then, it averaged 3.4 yards per carry against McNeese State, an undersized FCS team.
“We’re trying to run the football,” Orgeron said. “Just every time we run the football, we get stuffed.”
The issue showed up most as Auburn chipped away at the lead. With LSU unable to sustain drives or score touchdowns in the red zone, Nix had plenty of time.
LSU's inability to run the ball finally caught up to the Tigers.
Nix had gone through the week unsure what his role would be. He was benched last weekend for former LSU quarterback T.J. Finley in a narrow win over Georgia State. Orgeron expected Finley to start. Auburn picked Nix. Finley played one drive.
“I came in this week with a different mindset, just wanted to be a competitor and went back to my foundation of what got me here,” Nix said. “It seemed to pay off throughout the week.”
Nix constantly scrambled away from pressure, avoiding sacks and extending plays. LSU struggled to tackle him, a problem that became obvious on Auburn’s first touchdown.
Auburn faced fourth-and-2 from LSU’s 26-yard line. Nix rolled to his right, evaded a tackle, juked away from another defender and ran across the field. He shook off a sack near the sideline, then stepped back to buy himself time and completed a 24-yard touchdown to tight end Tyler Fromm as LSU finally brought him down.
After LSU punted, Nix once again carved through LSU’s defense. On another fourth-down attempt, this time from LSU’s 48-yard line, Nix scrambled away from a sack and somehow completed a pass to pick up the first down. Auburn eventually kicked a field goal to bring itself within three points.
“We couldn’t tackle Bo Nix,” senior linebacker Damone Clark said. “That’s the biggest thing. We had him where we wanted him. We were doing the things we were supposed to do on first and second down, and we were able to have some fun on third down. We just didn’t come through. Way too many missed tackles.”
Nix continued to slip through tackle after tackle, exhausting LSU’s defense the longer it stayed on the field in the second half.
Still, LSU had chances to put Auburn away. Two second-half drives reached the red zone. Both ended in field goals from junior Cade York, who went a perfect 4 for 4.
LSU led 19-10 with three minutes left in the third quarter. Then Nix led a touchdown drive to cut LSU’s lead to two points. The score held. LSU’s defense forced two three-and-outs.
But the offense couldn’t sustain drives. Johnson attempted 17 passes in the fourth quarter. LSU called one running play. It punted on three straight possessions before Nix took over at his own 8-yard line with seven minutes left and directed an 11-play touchdown drive.
"We had to stop the run," Clark said. "That was the biggest thing going into this week. But the running attack wasn’t hurting us. It was Bo Nix scrambling out of the pocket."
Nix leaned over once the game ended, and his teammates patted him on the back. Some Auburn players ran across the field toward LSU's student section. LSU shuffled into the locker room, left to figure out how it can fix its issues with the most challenging portion of the schedule still to come.
Orgeron, who is now 8-7 since the national championship, was asked if the program is headed in the right direction.
“I take it one day at a time,” he said. “I don’t look at it like that. I take it one day at a time. Just get better one day at a time.”
As he spoke, Auburn’s band played inside that corner of Tiger Stadium reserved for visiting teams. Its cheerleaders shook blue and orange pom poms. Its fans celebrated a broken streak on LSU’s home field. And its school’s fight songs rang through the night, filling the silence LSU left behind.