BATON ROUGE, La. — The scoreboard looked different, but a lot of what happened to Auburn football at LSU on Saturday night felt so familiar.
Auburn couldn’t move the ball after a hot start against LSU, and its defense didn’t execute to its high standards on key drives in a 27-23 loss for Auburn in Baton Rouge. Auburn blew a 20-0 lead — the first for a top-10 team against an unranked opponent in the last four seasons.
Sun Belt Conference team Troy went into Death Valley two weeks ago and was able to hold off a comeback from LSU. Auburn, a big-money program that recruits at a much higher level, did not. A lot of that falls at the feet of Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who is under heavy pressure again after seeing his four-game winning streak crumble on the road. Malzahn’s Tigers made the same mistakes once again in a hostile road environment.
As always, the SEC Country Sunday morning position-by-position Auburn report card is graded with a simple rubric. A-plus is a legendary performance, C is average, and F is a complete failure. Hint: One of these units got an F, and it brought down the rest of the team with it.
Jarrett Stidham’s day wasn’t as bad as the game against Clemson in Week 2, but it was close. After completing 6 of his first 8 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown, he only connected on 3 of the remaining 18 for 30 yards. That ended a 4-game run that included incredible efficiency from the Auburn starter.
Stidham had a few dimes, including his scoring pass to Will Hastings and a big conversion to Darius Slayton early. His receivers also let him down with drops and failing to get open on key plays. The play-calling did him no favors, either. But he also threw more than a few risky passes, and his execution could’ve been much better in a game that got away from Auburn’s offense after the first quarter.
Running backs: C-minus
Kerryon Johnson looked like he was on pace for another huge day after he rushed for more than 100 yards in the first half. But as the game wore on, Johnson wasn’t nearly as effective — he didn’t have a run longer than 6 yards after halftime. Kamryn Pettway returned to get 4 carries for just 7 yards, even though Malzahn said after the game he was healthy.
The lack of rotation and poor play-calling went a long way in making it a bad night for the running game. Kam Martin, Malik Miller and Devan Barrett were once again shut out from getting a single carry. At least one of them could’ve been a breath of fresh air, and the running back unit needed it when LSU made the necessary adjustments.
Wide receiver: D-minus
When Slayton opened the second quarter with a nice grab, it looked like Auburn’s receivers were going to be in store for a great day. Hastings got open with a trademark double-move for his touchdown in the first quarter. Good blocking on the edge sprung another long tunnel screen for Ryan Davis. But that success didn’t last.
Auburn’s receivers were marked down for just two official drops against LSU. However, it felt like they had more catchable chances than that. Slayton only had 1 catch on a whopping 9 targets. Auburn felt like it needed just a couple of big plays from its receivers to hang onto a win Saturday. After four straight weeks of making them, they fell well short in Death Valley.
Offensive line: D
Although it was down a starter in left guard Mike Horton, Auburn’s offensive line dominated the matchup up front for a good chunk of the first half. Another injury, to center Casey Dunn, knocked Auburn off its offensive groove. Even when Dunn returned later in the second quarter, it wasn’t the same.
LSU finished with 7 tackles for loss, which was more than it had in any game against teams not named Chattanooga or Syracuse. Prince Tega Wanogho, who was back in the starting lineup at left tackle, got beat on several plays, including the game-ending sack from Arden Key. Auburn cracked under the pressure of a legitimate pass rush, which made the progress of the last few weeks look like a mirage.
Defensive line: B-minus
After a quiet game against Ole Miss, Auburn’s defensive line made a little more noise against LSU. Jeff Holland came through with a pair of sacks, and tackles Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell had 6 tackles each. But Brown, along with defensive end Marlon Davidson, went down with minor injuries during the game.
Auburn got decent pressure up front on LSU quarterback Danny Etling by using its defensive line. Although the Tigers let him squirt away from sacks several times, the unit didn’t have a bad game. It might not have been to its high standards, but most of the mistakes came in the second and third levels.
Without Tre’ Williams for yet another week, Auburn’s linebackers came through with plenty of tackles. Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams led with 7 — and Davis recorded a sack in the contest. Montavious Atkinson added 6 in a spot start, and Richard McBryde also pitched in a big play behind the line of scrimmage.
The linebackers were caught out of position a few times on LSU’s bigger plays. But after halftime, LSU only had 1 carry of 10-plus yards. Missed tackles and less-than-stellar fits are bound to happen, especially against a team with the speed and shifting strategy of LSU. This unit still has some cleaning up to do after seven games.
Defensive backs: D
Etling didn’t quite pick apart the Auburn secondary, but he put up some huge plays against it. LSU had 4 completions that went between 29 and 39 yards, including a pair on third down. DJ Chark dominated his matchup several times, going for 150 of LSU’s 206 yards on only 5 catches.
This unit, which had double-digit pass breakups against Mississippi State, only had 1 against LSU. The host Tigers’ receivers consistently found space, especially on third downs. Etling was 7-for-12 passing on those money downs. Auburn’s secondary forced and recovered the only turnover of the game, but even that came after an explosive play. Between that passing success and some ugly tackling on jet sweeps, this was a day to forget for the Auburn defensive backs.
Special teams: D
The good here: Daniel Carlson knocked down all three of his field goal attempts. Auburn didn’t make a mistake in its return game, either. But a few bad moments outweigh the rest for this special teams unit.
Chark went the distance on a 75-yard punt return touchdown that pulled LSU to within 2 points of Auburn. The coverage team fell victim to some bad angles, and Chark took advantage. Punter Aidan Marshall’s next chance to punt — one that came on fourth-and-1 from the 50 — was a shank. That short punt gave LSU a perfect chance to dominate the field position battle in the fourth quarter, which it did in a comeback victory.
Breaking down Auburn’s game by just its player performances, the results aren’t great as a whole. But they were made even worse by the coaching.
Auburn fell victim to ultra-conservative offensive play-calling in the second half, whether Malzahn wants to admit it or not. While the defense did better after halftime, the offensive coaching brings everything down here.
LSU made adjustments. Auburn did not, and that’s been a problem for Malzahn in games like these. Put that together with below-average execution and bizarre choices such as the lack of a running back rotation, 16 straight first-down runs and static play calls, and Auburn perfectly followed the recipe for a blown 20-point lead.