By scott rabalais
September 28, 2012
I think a lot of these guys know we haven’t played our (most) complete game yet.” ZACH METTENBERGER, LSU quarterback
AUBURN, Ala. — The LSU Tigers didn’t impress anyone with their artistry Saturday night, making enough mistakes to cost themselves a spot in both national polls.
What LSU did show in a much-tenser-than-expected 12-10 victory over a struggling Auburn team was the kind of heart and determination that may serve the Tigers’ national championship hopes as the season wears on.
For now, though, all anyone will remember is the adversity LSU faced — self-inflicted and otherwise.
The Tigers committed nine penalties, including four yardage-consuming personal fouls, and got two critical fumbles from quarterback Zach Mettenberger to turn a game that was in LSU’s control to a wild and unpredictable ride to the very final play.
And yet LSU made enough big plays on defense, and even with its sputtering offense, to pull out a win in its first game this season away from Tiger Stadium.
“I made a couple of mistakes early on, but (the win) really showed the character of this team,” said Mettenberger, who was 15-of-27 passing for 169 yards and was sacked twice. “It got tough late, but we were able to come out of this one with the win.”
LSU’s narrow victory over Auburn, coupled with Oregon’s 49-0 rout of previously No. 22-ranked Arizona, led to a flip-flop in the rankings.
The Tigers (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) dropped to No. 3 in The Associated Press Top 25 and the USA Today coaches’ poll behind Alabama and Oregon, which had been ranked No. 3 behind LSU. The Tigers still received one No. 1 vote in both polls.
No LSU team had ever gone to Auburn as a bigger favorite — three touchdowns worth. LSU led the SEC in four of eight major statistical categories, while Auburn (1-3, 0-2 SEC) was last in four.
LSU flexed its dominance early on despite an early turnover.
Mettenberger fumbled at the Auburn 2 to end his team’s first drive, but two plays later LSU had a safety as defensive end Sam Montgomery brought down Auburn tailback Tre Mason in the end zone. LSU then took the Auburn free kick and drove 59 yards for a 1-yard Michael Ford touchdown run to go up 9-0 with 4:18 left in the first quarter.
Suddenly, the complexion of the game changed. After another three-and-out by Auburn, Mettenberger tried to spin free of Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier but fumbled, the ball recovered by defensive tackle Angelo Blackson at the LSU 26.
Three plays later, Auburn cut LSU’s lead to 9-7 on a 4-yard run by Onterio McCalebb, then took a 10-9 halftime lead on a 40-yard Cody Parkey field goal.
The second half was a defensive standoff. The only points turned out to be the winning 30-yard field goal by Drew Alleman with 5:26 left in the third. The score was set up when Quan Bray fumbled a Brad Wing punt, the ball recovered by Jarvis Landry at the Auburn 48. With 4:17 remaining, LSU took over at its 47.
Three plays later, Mettenberger made a clutch play. Rolling right on third-and-4 from the LSU 33, Mettenberger threw back left to tailback Spencer Ware, who eluded linebacker Jonathan Evans behind the line of scrimmage.
As Evans slipped to the turf, pounding his fists in frustration, Ware sped 33 yards to the Auburn 34. Alleman eventually missed 34-yard field goal try, but Auburn was left at its 20 with just 39 seconds remaining.
Auburn made one first down to its 34 but gained only three more yards in three plays. On fourth-and-7 with six seconds left, quarterback Kiehl Frazier floated a high pass over the middle that was picked off by cornerback Tharold Simon at the LSU 42 to end the game.
“We played a great team,” said Frazier, who 13 of 22 for 97 yards with two interceptions. “But we really left a lot of plays out there. We let them out there.”
In all, it was another dominant performance by LSU’s defense.
LSU held Auburn to 183 yards total offense (compared to 351 yards by LSU) and limited the home team to just 2 of 12 on third-down conversions.
“Defensively, I think we did really good the whole night,” linebacker Luke Muncie said. “It was just little mistakes, and overall, I think we played really good as a team on defense.”
Despite his team’s issues, Les Miles was pleased just to get out of Auburn with a win for the second time in four tries as LSU’s coach.
“Not perfect,” Miles said. “Work to do. But we’ll take a victory.”
LSU has one last chance to work on its mistakes before the schedule ratchets up significantly.
LSU returns home to play Towson, an FCS-level opponent which improved to 2-1 Saturday with a 46-17 win over St. Francis (Pa.).
After that, LSU’s next four games are at Florida, at home against South Carolina, at Texas A&M and at home against Alabama.
“I think a lot of these guys know we haven’t played our (most) complete game yet,” Mettenberger said. “I’ll show up ready to work (Sunday) and Monday and really work out the penalties and kinks, and just really tune everything up for Towson.”