Offense and defense make strides; Tigers tear up LSU

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Photo contributed by AU Athletics/Todd Van Emst

By Wil Crews
sportscrews@opelikaobserver.com

The Auburn defense had its first dominant game of the season, and Bo Nix and company looked near flawless behind a surging offensive line in the Tigers’ 48-11 win over LSU on Halloween.

“Yeah, you know I think we played our best game,” Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn said in his post-game press conference. “They’re defending champs. They played really well the last two weeks, and to dismantle them like we did, I think it says a lot about our overall team.”

The dismantling that Malzahn is referencing was spurred from Kevin Steele’s defensive unit. The Tigers from the Plains recorded four sacks, two interceptions and one defensive touchdown on a scoop-and-score fumble recovery. Additionally, the offensive line kept the prominent LSU defensive line from getting to Nix and paved the way for 206 rushing yards and 506 yards in total. It was the Tigers’ fourth straight game with over 200 rushing yards. “I’m real proud of our offensive line for running the football 200-plus yards against a national champion,” Malzahn said.

Saturday’s 506 yards were the most Auburn has gained all season and a signal of the most complete offensive performance that fans have seen under first year offensive coordinator Chad Morris. “Chad and his staff has done a great job just staying to it,” Malzahn said. A 99-yard touchdown drive to end the half and a 75-yarder to open the third quarter effectively sealed the win for the Tigers. Nix played his best game of the season – maybe of his career – throwing for 300 yards and three touchdowns and adding 81 yards and touchdown on the ground. He found his favorite target Seth Williams four times for 71 yards, freshman receiver Ze’vian Capers for his first career touchdown and freshman tight end J.J. Pegues for a season-high three receptions for 29 yards. Tank Bigsby had a pedestrian day by his standards, but the true freshman ballistic-baller scored two rushing touchdowns for the second straight week. The Auburn offensive line lost Brandon Council – their most versatile blocker – for the season last week, but Keiondre Jones performed admirably in his stead. “To give up zero sacks says a lot about our offensive line,” Malzahn said. “They really answered the bell today.”

On the other side of the ball, an Auburn defensive line that has been desperately searching for individual playmakers was led on Saturday by sophomore Derick Hall. The buck defensive end recorded his first two sacks of the season and flashed the golden combination of speed and power that been exemplified by so many pass rushers under Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s leadership. Auburn dominated third down – something the defense has struggled with all season – holding LSU to a 5-17 conversion mark, and the Tigers smothered LSU at the line of scrimmage all game, reflected by the nine different players who recorded at least 0.5 tackles for loss. For an LSU team that had run for 265 and 180 yards in their last two respective games, Auburn shut down the Tigers, holding them to just 32 yards on the ground. “I told our guys… We need to stop the run, make them one dimensional, get after the rookie quarterback and take some shots,” Malzahn said. “Really, that was the game plan in a nutshell.”

While the defensive line came at LSU with the brutality of a classic cult slasher film, the secondary quietly solidified their claim as the best unit on the young defense. LSU freshman quarterback T.J. Finley was intercepted twice, and the Auburn defensive backs held preseason Third-Team All-SEC wide receiver Terrance Marshall to four catches for 28 yards (well below his 6.75 catches for 128 yards per game average coming into the game). Safety Christian Tutt opportunistically scooped up an LSU fumble forced by Hall and ran through man on his way into the end zone. Big Kat Byrant went another game without sacking the quarterback, but he did make an athletic interception on a ballooning tipped ball after defensive tackle Dequan Newkirk broke up Finley’s pass at the line of scrimmage. Nehemiah Pritchett got the other interception – the first of his career – and to no one’s surprise, Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe were once again Auburn’s No. 1 and No. 2 tacklers. Heck, even kicker Anders Carlson got in on the dominant defensive display, making a touchdown-saving diving tackle on an LSU kick return. 

Finally, the best moment of the entire day had to be when Nix was finally able to connect with the fastest man in college football and Auburn’s No. 2 wide receiver Anthony Schwartz on a 91-yard touchdown pass. The connection between Nix and his No. 1 option Seth Williams has never really been in question but the exploitation of the LSU secondary at the hands of Schwartz was a cathartic moment that Auburn fans have been expecting – and waiting for – for too long.

Whew. If that sounded like a roll call it’s because a bunch of Auburn players made even more good plays. After struggling in the first half of the season, both sides of the ball seem to be clicking at the right time. We’ve seen this team grow and face adversity,” Malzahn said. “Here at Auburn, sometimes you face more adversity than at other places. We did that. We overcame it.”

Now, Auburn is doing that thing again – getting hot in the middle of the season and potentially shaping into a real SEC contender. Was it because LSU effectively conceded the game after pulling a freshman quarterback who already had two turnovers? Or was it because the Tigers found the missing links to this jigsaw puzzle of a season?

Fans will have to wait at least two weeks to find out. The Tigers will ride the high of victory into a bye week before they travel to face the 1-4 Mississippi State Bulldogs on Nov. 14. 

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