LSU’s fast start, slow finish is enough to tame Auburn

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING --  LSU running back Jeremy Hill vaults past the tackle of Auburn defensive back Ryan Smith during the first half Saturday at Tiger Stadium.
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU running back Jeremy Hill vaults past the tackle of Auburn defensive back Ryan Smith during the first half Saturday at Tiger Stadium.

It’s not supposed to rain in Tiger Stadium, but the unwelcome arrival of persistent, legend-busting precipitation Saturday couldn’t slow No. 6 LSU’s roll through the first third of the season.

The Tigers bolted to an early three-touchdown lead for the third consecutive game and went on to beat Auburn 35-21 in their Southeastern Conference opener.

The competition figures to be more challenging when LSU (4-0, 1-0 SEC) plays at No. 9 Georgia next Saturday, but the Tigers’ victory against Auburn (3-1, 1-1) was roughly as decisive as their three preconference victories.

But like previous double-digit wins against TCU, UAB and Kent State, this one left coach Les Miles and his staff with a good number of blemishes to work on during the coming days.

“We have to finish the game,” he said. “Any time you play a conference opponent from the Western Division — certainly Auburn — it’s going to take a complete game. We took such a strong lead initially, but I just didn’t like how we finished.”

First, the positive trends that continued for LSU:

Jeremy Hill had his second consecutive 100-yard game, rushing for a career-high 184 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries. His three touchdowns matched the career high he established against Ole Miss last season, and his yardage total was the highest for an LSU runner since Alley Broussard gained a school record 250 against Ole Miss in 2004.

Zach Mettenberger withstood the strongest pass rush he has seen this season as well as his first interception to complete 14 of 22 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown.

“I’m disappointed because I know how good we can be,” he said. “I know the potential of this offense, and I want us to do better.”

LSU zipped to a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter, then bogged down offensively before getting back on track in the third quarter.

The defense put together its first multi-takeaway game of the season. Lamin Barrow’s fumble recovery and Craig Loston’s interception contributed to the early lead, and Jalen Mills’ fourth-quarter interception helped keep Auburn at arm’s length.

Jarvis Landry, who had his second 100-yard receiving game of the season, found the end zone for the sixth consecutive game dating to last season. He had seven catches for 118 yards, including a 32-yard scoring pass.

Though Auburn got a 132-yard, two-touchdown effort from Tre Mason, the defense never let the margin get to less than two touchdowns after the early blitz.

But the defense did endure lapses reminiscent of those it had after building comfortable early leads against UAB and Kent State.

Auburn had 94- and 88-yard scoring drives in the second half, the longest allowed by LSU this season.

But it was Mettenberger’s first turnover of the season that gave Auburn a lift after beginning the second half in a 21-0 hole.

Jermaine Whitehead snagged a Mettenberger throw intended for Landry at the 50 on the first play of the third quarter. Seven plays later, Mason ran 2 yards for a touchdown to get Auburn within 21-7.

LSU came right back: A 14-yard run by Hill and Mettenberger’s 45-yard pass to tight end Travis Dickson led to Hill’s 6-yard touchdown run.

Auburn drove 94 yards and pulled within 28-14 when Mason ran 2 yards for a touchdown.

LSU was unfazed as Mettenberger hit Landry for a 32-yard touchdown on third-and-8 on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Then came the 88-yard drive. Cameron Artis-Payne ran 12 yards for a touchown that completed the scoring with 6:33 remaining.

“I think it was obvious in the beginning of the game (that) we did not respond very well to the elements and the crowd,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We found ourselves in a hole.”

The statistics suggested a game more competitive than this one really was, but they also demonstrated how sloppy LSU got even after the rain had mostly subsided in the second half.

Auburn, which ran 85 plays, had more first downs than LSU (21-16). LSU rushed for 228 yards but allowed 213; it gained 457 total yards but yielded 437.

“Our defense certainly can play better,” Miles said. “You want to have a nice, orderly finish. That’s not what I consider orderly.”

The rainy weather was a factor early on.

After Hill sprinted 49 yards for a touchdown, Auburn punter Steven Clark couldn’t handle the wet ball on a snap, and he was tackled at his 10 by Duke Riley and Corey Thompson. Hill ran into the end zone on the next play for a 14-0 lead.

The lead grew to 21-0 early in the second quarter after Hill ran 54 yards to set up J.C. Copeland’s 1-yard touchdown run.

“At the beginning of the game, we wanted to take care of the football and get our footing squared away,” Miles said. “We were going to run the football, and we did and took an early lead. It got interesting after that.”