BATON ROUGE, La. — When the bottom fell out for LSU following its loss to Troy two weeks ago, a pair of assumptions looked pretty safe.
First, nobody was going to get carried off the field for the Tigers when they played Auburn on Saturday. But if someone actually was carried off in victory, you could be certain the player in question was not going to be a kicker.
After all, head coach Ed Orgeron had already publicly proclaimed that LSU doesn’t even have a kicker.
“We just don’t have a field-goal kicker,” Orgeron said during his radio show the week after the Troy loss. “We just don’t have one right now. I wish we had one on our roster, but I’m about to go recruit one, and I’m going to get the best one in the country.”
Turns out it’s a good thing Orgeron was off in his assessment.
Connor Culp hit the kick of his life — a 42-yarder with 2:36 remaining — to give LSU its first lead in a game it once trailed by 20 points.
“I didn’t really know where I was at,” Culp said. “Everything went black after that. Then about a minute after, I found some composure and went, ‘Oh. I really did that.'”
Culp followed with a 36-yarder with 38 seconds to go that gave LSU a 27-23 lead that put the game out of reach for Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson, who has nailed nine field goals against LSU the past two years.
As a reward for Culp’s efforts, he was placed on his teammates’ shoulders as the Tigers jubilantly sang the alma mater with students and the LSU band after the game.
“I’m definitely going to remember that for the rest of my life,” Culp said. “It’s just a great feeling.”
All-around special effort
Culp was just one piece in a special teams’ puzzle that has frustrated LSU all season but crystallized into something truly special when the Tigers needed it most.
Wide receiver DJ Chark is probably the most gifted athlete on this LSU team, but he has mostly struggled as the Tigers’ punt returner. Outside of a 65-yard touchdown against Chattanooga, Chark has seemed lost at times. He let kicks bounce that he should have picked up, fielded a couple inside the 10 he should have let go and averaged 5.7 yards per return aside from that touchdown.
Thick-headed critics (present company included) wondered if maybe the Tigers should give someone else a look. Orgeron insisted it was on the coaches to give Chark a chance to succeed.
Orgeron was right.
Chark’s 75-yard touchdown return 27 seconds into the fourth quarter was the spark that set Tiger Stadium ablaze and suddenly made LSU’s showdown at Alabama in three weeks meaningful again.
“He’s gaining confidence,” Orgeron said. “He was challenged to be the bell cow. We need a bell cow back there. We wanted him to be it. We’ve done a great job on special teams of coaching the finer points with Corey Raymond on the return team. You could see it happening.”
Special teams were the heartbeat behind the entire fourth quarter for LSU.
The Tigers started their go-ahead drive in Auburn territory after punter Josh Growden flipped the field on the previous possession. Growden, replaced as the primary punter by Zach Von Rosenberg, hit a perfect pooch punt that Russell Gage downed at the Auburn 3. Like Culp, he came through despite being publicly doubted.
From question mark to exclamation point
Going into the season, special teams were LSU’s biggest question mark. The mystery was only exacerbated by the fact Orgeron didn’t hire a special teams coordinator. It was an all-hands-on-deck operation with a graduate assistant as the in-game captain.
For the first half of the season, special teams looked like the phase of the game that would do the most harm to LSU’s SEC title aspirations. But against Auburn, that unit was the biggest factor keeping those once-dim prospects alive.
The Tigers are in control of their SEC West destiny. And they improbably have a kicker and his friends to thank.