AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn won, then lost, then officially won a Week 4 showdown against LSU it desperately needed to snap a long home losing skid to quality competition and ease some pressure off head coach Gus Malzahn.
The Tigers’ 18-13 upset of No. 18 LSU was a second away from disaster as Danny Etling’s touchdown pass as time expired was later ruled as snapped after time expired. It looked in many ways like a classic Tiger Bowl with all the low scoring and last-second drama, but it didn’t have the same luster as past clashes.
But it’s not like Auburn is going to mind that too much. Its defense finally got its just reward for a great performance by corralling a frustrated and somewhat banged-up LSU offense in a victory, and its special teams did enough to bail out a slightly improved offense.
With that test behind Auburn, let’s hand out some Sunday grades for each unit. Remember, as always, the grading scale here is A+ being a legendary performance, C being average and F being a complete failure.
Sean White looked more comfortable as Auburn’s starting quarterback in Week 4, putting together his best efficiency rating (148.7) against a Power 5 team in his young college career. White went 19 of 26 through the air for 234 yards and converted 10 first downs with his arm.
White had a few of his usual misfires, and a couple of receiver drops hurt him early. But Rhett Lashlee gave him more opportunities to throw the ball downfield, and he delivered. He had two 20-plus yard passes and a pair of 36-yard completions. Backup John Franklin III came in for one play and carried the ball for 4 yards.
Running Backs: C
The rushing attack was underwhelming, but that might have had more to do with the offensive line than the running backs. The Tigers rushed for 154 yards on 49 carries, which is a weak 3.1 yards per rush. Only 2 carries by a running back went for 10 or more yards.
However, Kerryon Johnson had a strong game with 161 yards of total offense, and he had to take over in the second half as Kamryn Pettway dealt with being what Malzahn described as “banged up.” Johnson was a valuable weapon in the passing game and ran with real power for a player his size. It was an average night for a unit that didn’t get much help up front.
Wide Receivers: C+
Senior Tony Stevens was the go-to guy again for Auburn through the air with 7 targets and 58 yards. While Johnson led the team in receiving, Ryan Davis had a team-high 5 catches, including a pair of first-down conversions in the fourth quarter. Stevens and Darius Slayton each made catches on explosive pass plays for White, who was in a better rhythm offensively.
Drops were a bit of a concern, especially in the early going, and Auburn wasn’t able to spring many big runs on the edges with its perimeter blocking. The receivers came through in big spots, but they’ve had better performances this season, even in defeat.
Offensive Line: D+
The good news: Auburn only allowed 4 negative plays against LSU, which is a fraction of the 32 it allowed in the first three games of the season. The bad news: Protection continued to be a major issue on obvious passing downs. Arden Key had a pair of huge plays in the backfield, including one in which he forced a fumble on White.
The running game lacked its usual punch up front as the Tigers averaged just a little more than 3 yards per carry. That’s not what one would expect from the SEC’s leading rushing attack. There’s still quite a lot of room for improvement from Auburn’s front five as it heads deeper into the heart of its 2016 schedule.
Defensive Line: A-
Welcome to the stat sheet, Carl Lawson. The junior defensive end picked up a pair of big-time sacks against LSU, including one that forced the visitors to burn their final timeout before the last-second shenanigans.
Auburn’s defensive line as a whole did a better job of getting to the quarterback and wrapping him up, as senior defensive tackle Montravius Adams had 2 tackles for loss while true freshman end Marlon Davidson helped him out on a few plays. Jeff Holland recorded 2 quarterback hurries and landed on a fumble in the fourth quarter. Containment of opposing quarterbacks still looms large, but it was a strong performance from Auburn’s deep front four.
Outside of Tre’ Williams’ ejection for targeting in the first half and a few missed opportunities on LSU’s few long plays of the game, Auburn’s linebacking corps played well against an offense that ran all over it last season. Darrell Williams had the best game of his career, and T.J. Neal overcame a slow start to record his first two tackles.
Auburn played a lot more traditional 4-3 against the pro-style attack of LSU, and it held up even with losing Williams in the second quarter. Sophomore Deshaun Davis patrolled the field well and served as a leader in the rotation at the position. This unit continues to impress.
Defensive Backs: A
LSU only completed 15 passes for 118 yards, and its biggest pass of the game went to a tight end that was covered by a linebacker. Danny Etling had only 5 first-down passes, and his longest to a receiver went for 13 yards. That should tell you a lot about the way Auburn’s secondary played for the majority of the night.
Auburn’s defensive backs recorded 3 pass breakups and didn’t allow LSU’s rushing attack to make many highlight-reel plays in the third level, unlike the 2015 matchup. They allowed what would’ve been a game-winning touchdown on the assumed final play of the game, but replay review showed the snap didn’t get off in time. On the plays that stood, Auburn’s secondary was top-notch.
Special Teams: A+
Daniel Carlson scored all of Auburn’s points and out-dueled Colby Delahoussaye in a long-range showdown during the first half. He hasn’t missed a kick yet this season, and he combined with Kevin Phillips to make sure LSU’s dangerous return men didn’t get a chance to make big plays.
Auburn kicked off 7 times and punted 3 times. LSU return stats: pic.twitter.com/BY1PhsHw7P
— Jerry Hinnen (@JerryHinnen) September 25, 2016
Rudy Ford and Kerryon Johnson had a pair of decent kick returns to round out the night for the special teams, which continues to play at an elite level next to an offense that needs all the help it can get in order to record victories. Fans will remember Carlson and Co.’s heroics in the “6 Kicks” game for quite a while.
Malzahn handed the reins to Rhett Lashlee, and the offensive play-calling performance was better. It didn’t have a high bar to clear after the first three weeks of the season, but the Tigers moved the ball better between the 20s than they had in a while against a Power 5 opponent. Lackluster execution in spots will only make things worse for an offense that is working out its strategic bugs.
Defensively, blitzes were timely and rotations served the Tigers well as they held their SEC West rivals to fewer than 350 yards of total offense. By comparison, Auburn allowed 411 rushing yards against LSU in Tiger Stadium a season ago. Adding that to a legendary special teams performance, Malzahn’s team finally got to close out a home SEC win for the first time since 2014. And that “W” is the most important letter right now for this program.