Guerry Clegg

As the pressure mounted, Auburn just came apart against LSU

LSU wide receiver Derrick Dillon (19) escapes the attempted tackle of Auburn defensive back Jeremiah Dinson (20) and runs for a touchdown during the second half of their game Saturday in Auburn.
LSU wide receiver Derrick Dillon (19) escapes the attempted tackle of Auburn defensive back Jeremiah Dinson (20) and runs for a touchdown during the second half of their game Saturday in Auburn. AP

The box score of Auburn’s 22-21 loss will show that LSU’s winning points came as time expired, Cole Tracy’s 42-yard field goal providing the difference.

In truth, this game began unravelling in the third quarter.

A quick synopsis of Auburn’s short-comings Saturday:

Costly penalties — two for offensive holding, two for defensive pass interference.

An interception of Jarrett Stidham by Greedy Williams. It didn’t cost Auburn points, but it did cost the Tigers a valuable possession as they were trying to work a 21-13 lead.

And a running game that lacked the muscle and the resolve to hold a two-score lead at home.

“Any time it’s a close game, you’ve got to make the plays to win the game. We didn’t,” said Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. “You got to give those guys credit. They did.”

So here we are again. A season that began with so much promise and hope now threatens to fall back into mediocrity. We still don’t know what to make of LSU, but the fact is Auburn still faces four teams that might be stronger and deeper. Only one of those — Texas A&M — is at home. The Tigers still have to travel to Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama.

Daunting?

That’s an understatement. But things didn’t exactly look rosy last season after the Tigers blew a 20-0 lead at LSU and lost. They still won the SEC West and came within one game (presumably) of earning a bid to the College Football Playoff.

So maybe they can do it again.

“Same thing that happened last year,” Stidham said. “Our leaders are going to have to get together and just talk to the team. Something like this can’t happen again. We had the entire game in front of us, and we just kind of let it go, for whatever reason. That’s the good thing about this team. We’ve got great leaders. We’ve got to find a way to bounce back, for sure.”

Auburn sputtered in the first quarter, falling behind 10-0, and it could have been 13-0 but for a missed field goal attempt by Tracy.

But when Auburn scored touchdowns on three of four possessions — two in the second quarter and one in the third — to take a 21-10, it look like the Tigers had the game under control. But then Auburn’s offense went missing again. The Tigers’ last five possessions of the day went like this:

Three plays, punt.

Five plays, interception.

Seven plays, missed field goal.

Five plays, punt.

Three plays, punt.

Auburn’s lack of a physical running game is obvious. The Tigers ran the ball 11 times over those final five possessions. Six of those runs produced three or fewer yards. A pair of nine-yard runs and one of six yards came one draw plays when LSU was defending against the pass.

Save for JaTarvious Whitlow’s 19-yard run that looked like it might jump-start the offense, the running game was shut down.

“We just didn’t do our part,” Stidham said. “We did our part some of the time. It should have been all of the time. We’ve got one of the better defenses in the country. Offensively, we’ve just got to help them out a little more. We’ve got to do whatever it is to fix it. We’re going to get it done. I don’t have any doubt about that.” Fixing the running game might be easier said than done. There’s no Kerryon Johnson or Kam Pettway standing on the sidelines.

“Just execute better up front,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got young running backs that need some more carries to see the blocking schemes. I think it’s a little bit of everything. We were a little banged up up front, too. They gutted it out. We’ll improve the running game.”

Whitlow appears to have the strength to be a productive back. His winning touchdown run against Washington was a thing of pure determination. Whitlow had a solid day against LSU, grinding out 104 yards on 22 carries.

But Whitlow needs help. The rest of the team produced 26 yards rushing.

“Our goal was to rush for 200 yards. We didn’t get that done. We’ve got to run the football better. I think that is obvious. With all that being said, we still had an opportunity to win the game.”

They will get their chance Saturday at home against Arkansas, followed by another home game against Southern Miss. Then the gauntlet begins with a trip to Starkville.

“We’ve got great people on this team, great leaders,” Stidham said. “We’re going to find a way to bounce back for sure.”

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