BATON ROUGE, La. — It could have been worse.
That's one of the few positives Auburn could take from Saturday night's 35-21 loss to LSU at Tiger Stadium. The visitors fell behind by three touchdowns as it went into the locker room at halftime. But Auburn was able to come up with a fumble (forced and recovered by senior corner Ryan White) in the red zone at the end of the first quarter to prevent what likely would have been at least one more score, be it a touchdown or a field goal. In fact, after LSU fullback J.C. Copeland's 1-yard touchdown run at the 12:34 mark of the second quarter, the visitors held the sixth-ranked team in the country scoreless for the next 20 minutes.
Then again, it's not as if the defense is without blame. Seemingly every time LSU running back Jeremy Hill touched the ball in the first half, he was breaking off a 40-yard play. The one time he didn't, he only had to go 10 yards on a one-play scoring drive. After eight carries, the sophomore already had a career-high rushing total, with 140 yards and two touchdowns.
The offense wasn't exactly setting the world on fire with its play in the first 30 minutes, either. Time and again, Nick Marshall couldn't connect with open receivers, whether it was due to an overthrow, a dropped pass or a potential pass-catcher slipping on the wet field. It didn't help matters that head coach Gus Malzahn puzzling tried to shoehorn Kiehl Frazier in as a "wildcat" quarterback on a few occasions; the decision itself wasn't as perplexing as the timing. On its second drive of the contest, and with Marshall still trying to get into a groove passing the ball, it was Frazier who took the field on first down, staying in for one play and keeping the ball himself, losing a yard.
Both the offense and defense eventually settled down — and I suppose some will take solace in the fact Auburn outscored LSU 21-14 after halftime — but as the old cliche goes, by then, it was too little, too late.
A team can't get down three touchdowns on the road to a squad as talented as LSU and expect to come from behind for a victory.
Auburn learned that Saturday, and we'll see if it pays dividends in its next game on Oct. 5, when it will host an Ole Miss team that will likely be ranked in the top 25 regardless of the result of its game next week against Alabama.
With some postgame analysis out of the way, it's time for some grades.
Yes, Auburn tallied 437 yards of total offense, but 21 points isn't much to show for it. If grades were handed out individually, Tre Mason and Sammie Coates would end with A's. Every other player would be fortunate to even get a passing grade, though.
A C- might be generous, but I think it's fair.
The good news: It allowed only 14 points in the second half and erased LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger's zero in the interception column, as Jermaine Whitehead pilfered a pass on the first play of scrimmage in the third quarter.
The bad news: LSU's offensive line opened holes big enough to run an 18-wheeler through in the first two quarters, and Hill made the unit look like a junior varsity squad scrimmaging against an upperclassman stud.
Expect defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to once again hammer away at the "trash plays" Auburn allowed when he meets with media members Sunday night.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
For the first time this season, special teams made a mistake — and it couldn't have been more costly for Auburn. On the visitors' second drive, it was forced to punt. Senior punter Steven Clark wasn't able to get a hold on the ball and LSU recovered at the 10-yard line. One play later, Hill had his second touchdown of the game. Aside from Clark's glaring error, special teams was an afterthought. Cody Parkey converted all three of his extra-points, but didn't attempt a field goal. Quan Bray had a paltry five yards on five punt returns, while Mason ran back a kickoff just once, which gained 14 yards. It was the second consecutive week Mason was a non-factor in the return game, with Mississippi State's Devon Bell and LSU's James Hairston's booming kicks leading to touchbacks nearly every time the ball left their foot.
People can point to how the team "didn't give up" and how it "fought" and that the effort was a "sign of progress" compared to last year. However, that doesn't change the fact it was a humbling loss, with the first half showing how far Auburn still has to go before it can begin to compete with the top teams in the Southeastern Conference, and by extension, the top teams in the nation.