Guerry Clegg

Gus Malzahn can breathe easier after dramatic win

How much crazier can things get between Auburn and LSU?

Say this much for Auburn’s 18-13 win Saturday night. For all of the weird moments in this rivalry, none of the previous meetings could top what just happened at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Not the Earthquake Game nor the Barn Burner nor the Pick Six. After all, those games — as crazy as they were — had only one ending.

This one had two thrilling finishes. The first ending seemed unusually cruel, with LSU seeming to win on a touchdown pass on the game’s final play.

But it was the second ending that counts. On the play before, LSU was called for illegal shift with one second left. Referee Hubert Owens had announced that the clock would start on his motion.

Owens signaled for the clock to start and the ball was snapped. LSU quarterback Danny Etling rolled to his right and bought enough time for receiver D.J. Clark to get open in the back right corner of the end zone. Clark caught the ball and touched his toes down inside the sideline right in front of the visitors’ section. LSU stormed off the sidelines thinking it had escaped with a victory.

But Auburn coach Gus Malzahn insisted that he wasn’t worried. He watched the clock as the ball was snapped.

“I was pretty confident that time had already expired. I knew it went to zero. It was just a matter of going up to the booth and confirming it.”

The replay confirmed Malzahn’s confidence. The clock had hit 0:00 before the ball was snapped.

“Sometimes it’s the way you win that really makes a long-lasting impression on your team,” Malzahn said. “Our guys fought. It’s good to win one when the pressure’s on and you’ve got to find a way.”

This was as much of a must-win game as Malzahn has ever faced at Auburn. There’s already speculation about his job security. That may or may not turn out to be the case, but it seems like we should let the season play out first before we start playing with a man’s livelihood.

The loss to Texas A&M the week before just made it more difficult.

“It’s been a tough week. It’s just a tribute to the leadership of our players I’ve been talking about for a long time. Our coaches, same way. It’s really good to win a game like this in a close game that’s hard fought. There’s a lot of adversity, a lot of ups and downs.”

It really comes down to the surprising struggles of Auburn’s offense going back to last season.

Shortly before kickoff, word got out about a surprising move. Malzahn was handing over play-calling duties to his offensive coordinator, Rhett Lashlee.

“I can focus on being a head coach,” Malzahn said.

Malzahn has reiterated that the Tigers’ offense is a work in progress. Sometimes progress is slow. And, sure, Auburn’s offense Saturday was hardly a thing of beauty. Let’s be honest. The Tigers’ defense deserves a healthy portion of the credit in Saturday night’s victory over LSU.

But no defense can win without at least some help from the offense. And the Auburn offense provided just enough assistance to win the game — perhaps save the season.

Oh, and it helps to have one of the best kickers in all of college football. Daniel Carlson tied a school record with six field goals. He also neutralized LSU’s return game by repeatedly driving his kickoffs deep into the end zone.

“He’s the best kicker in college football,” Malzahn said. “I think he confirmed that tonight.”

The first-half progress made by the offense was incremental but promising nonetheless. Auburn’s first two series came up a yard short, the first time when an open receiver dropped a first-down pass. The second series was stopped when Kyle Davis was tackled just short of the first down mark.

Then the Tigers scored on their next three possessions, albeit all field goals. Each time, though, they got closer and closer to punching it into the end zone.

The second field goal came after Auburn reached the LSU before Sean White was sacked. On their next drive, the Tigers reached the 12 on a screen pass to Marcus Davis. But White couldn’t connect with Tony Stevens on a third-down pass.

Auburn got even closer to the end zone but came up empty when Kerryon Johnson was stopped inches short on fourth-and-goal.

The near-misses carried over into the second half. White found Stevens wide open down the left sideline for what would have been a certain touchdown. But the ball fell through Stevens’ hand.

Even so, the Tigers kept grinding on offense. White passed for 234 yards and Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway combined for 154 yards rushing. But statistics don’t tell the full story. They churned out 18 first downs, mostly because White hit some key passes and Johnson refused to go down without a fight.

This season is far from over. In fact, it may have just been reborn.

Guerry Clegg: sports@ledger-enquirer.com, @guerryclegg

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