Tiger Stadium Saturday Night: One Game, Two Stories

Lyn Scarbrough

September 23, 2013 at 11:24 am.

Jeremy Hill's rushing performance helped LSU to a big win over Auburn. (Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports)

BATON ROUGE – They say there are two sides to every story. For sure, that was the story on the field in rainy, windy Tiger Stadium on Saturday night where LSU turned the game into a near runaway before Auburn turned it into a near nail-biter. The multitude of fans that left the arena at halftime missed what turned out to be a good ball game.

There is a lot to say about both teams, good and bad, with more similarities than might at first meet the eye.

The LSU Side – Don’t sell ‘em short

This LSU team might be for real.

Based on my preseason opinion, that comes as a surprise. After losing a record number of underclassmen to the NFL Draft, plus not having confidence in quarterback Zack Mettenberger, I thought this could be a disappointing year for the Tigers … and it still could be. You could have predicted the 4-0 start, but there are still away games at Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama, and home games against Florida and Texas A&M. There could still be five losses – but I strongly doubt it.

At times on Saturday night, LSU looked like a legit title contender. The Tigers did a lot of things that championship teams do.

They took command early, and when Auburn gift-wrapped scoring opportunities in the first five minutes of the game, they took advantage of the generosity, turning a recovered fumble and dropped punt snap into touchdowns. They realized Auburn’s weakness in the defensive middle and exploited it with Jeremy Hill, the exploding battering ram, romping for 152 first half yards.

They answered every punch in the face with a counterpunch that knocked out any momentum Auburn was trying to gain. When the visiting Tigers scored, threatening to make it close, LSU replied with a score of its own to remind everybody who was in charge.

They had an efficient, disciplined sideline. When they got the big lead, the Tigers didn’t act blindly overconfident. When Auburn started the comeback, they didn’t act overly worried. In business-like fashion, they re-established control, never leading by fewer than 14 points.

There are a lot of positives. The Tigers have four running backs that stack up with any quartet on any team anywhere. It’s hard to find two receivers better than Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, Jr., and Mettenberger is an accurate passer and effective field general. The former Georgia quarterback’s homecoming to Athens on Saturday is an intriguing sidebar to one of the most important early SEC games of the year.

On the negative side, LSU’s young defense isn’t there yet. After a dominating first quarter, Tiger defenders were torched for much of the game, giving up three touchdowns, including drives of 94 yards and 88 yards. Auburn has good athletes, but so do Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss … and those guys won’t be playing in Baton Rouge. And, don’t forget Johnny Football.

At 4-0, LSU fans have to be pleased. The game in Athens won’t be easy, but 5-0 isn’t out of the question. If that happens, don’t sell ‘em short.

The Auburn Side – It’s not 2012 anymore

Auburn is looking at the 2012 season in the rear view mirror and the image is getting farther and farther in the distance. That became obvious in the fourth quarter of the win over Mississippi State. If there was still any doubt, that went away in the second half of the game in Baton Rouge.

With every chance to fold their tents, the Tigers didn’t do it.

Last season, Auburn’s defense wouldn’t have adjusted to LSU’s offensive game plan. There’s no way the offense would have scored three times and gained over 300 yards in the second half. It would have been another 49-0 … or worse.

The Tigers showed a lot of positives.

They had a balanced offense – 213 yards rushing, 224 yards passing – after the initial shock of the first 5:04 of the game. Tre Mason, with 132 yards and two scores, was effective running inside. Quarterback Nick Marshall led two long second-half touchdown drives after overthrowing several receivers in the first half.

They didn’t quit. After LSU took what appeared to be an insurmountable 21-point lead, Auburn had the composure to get back in it. The hurry-up offense worked impressively.

They had an efficient, disciplined sideline. When the deficit was big early, there were no signs of dissension or resignation. Coaches kept the players focused. Players executed the coaches’ plan. Possible embarrassment gave way to respectability.

For the second consecutive game, the defense got stronger in the second half against an SEC Western Division opponent. After stopping Mississippi State on seven consecutive third down attempts a week earlier, Auburn’s defense allowed LSU just one first down in it last three possessions. Offensively, Auburn had 85 plays, 437 yards of total offense, and rushed for 70 yards more than the average given up by LSU.

On the negative side, the Tigers started with mistakes on both sides of the ball. They were victimized by crucial turnovers that led to points. The defense showed little ability to stop LSU’s inside running game or defend passes across the middle. Those things need to be fixed … emphatically and fast.

Still, at 3-1, Auburn fans should be encouraged. A win over Ole Miss may be a tall order, especially if the Rebels upset Alabama this weekend, but it’s not impossible. At 4-1, bowl eligibility is virtually certain, and wins on the road over Arkansas and/or Tennessee could bring a higher level postseason match-up than most fans thought possible before the season.

If that happens, last season will look even smaller in the rear view mirror.

It’s not 2012 anymore.