With three nonconference games behind them, the time for experimentation was over for LSU’s defense when the Tigers opened their Southeastern Conference schedule Saturday night.
After mixing and matching lots of players in wins against TCU, UAB and Kent State, LSU coach Les Miles and defensive coordinator John Chavis zeroed in on a shorter rotation across the board.
The results were exactly what they wanted — for the first half, anyway.
LSU’s defense held Auburn to 49 total yards and had two takeaways in the first 171/2 minutes, while its own offense piled up 217 yards and 21 points in a 35-21 victory in rainy Tiger Stadium.
Chavis’ defense, which had three takeaways in the first three games, came up with a fumble and an interception in just more than a quarter — keeping Auburn’s up-tempo offense under control early while the LSU offense did its job in seizing a 21-0 lead.
LSU eventually added another interception in the final 31/2 minutes to match its takeaway total of the first three games.
“Coach (Chavis) was saying this week that we needed fumbles, we needed interceptions — any kind of turnovers,” said linebacker D.J. Welter, who had 11 tackles.
The LSU defense also had a fourth-down stop midway through the second period and special teams got into the act, too, setting up a Jeremy Hill touchdown when Auburn punter Steven Clark mishandled a snap.
LSU, which started Danielle Hunter at right end, used starting linebackers Lamin Barrow, Welter and Tahj Jones more than in the first three games because they were in their 4-3 base defense most of the first half.
It was also the second consecutive start for freshman cornerback Tre’Davious White, and safety Craig Loston was back in the lineup after missing last week’s game with an injury.
“We felt like we were playing fast and physical,” Welter said. “We felt like a couple of big plays we made helped us out.”
Indeed, they settled in nicely after Auburn mounted a scoring threat on its first possession. After two first downs, it was at the LSU 41 facing fourth-and-1 when quarterback Nick Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne botched a handoff.
“That felt good,” said Barrow, who recovered the bobble and also had 11 tackles. “Chief (Chavis) stressed that to us before the game: LSU is known for its takeaways. So this is something we can build on.”
That Auburn turnover quickly led to an LSU score. Hill burst through a gaping hole for the first of his three touchdowns on a 49-yard run with 11:16 to play in the opening quarter.
Hill’s 10-yard TD on the first play after Clark fumbled the punt snap gave LSU a 14-0 advantage with 9:56 remaining in the first period.
That only served to stoke the LSU defenders as they had a key stop on Auburn’s next series when cornerback Jalen Mills and Loston combined to stop Artis-Payne on third-and-1 for a second straight three-and-out.
Later, after LSU stretched the lead to 21-0, Loston intercepted a badly overthrown pass by Marshall — capping a 15-play stretch for Auburn that netted just 17 total yards.
By that time, LSU held a 217-49 edge in total offense.
LSU did have some hiccups in the second half as they gave up a pair of 2-yard touchdown runs to Tre Mason, who rushed for 132 yards, and a late 12-yard scoring run by Artis-Payne.
Marshall had completions of 52, 42 and 31 yards in the second half to wide receiver Sammie Coates, who caught four balls for 139 yards.
Auburn eventually finished with 437 total yards on 85 snaps — with 333 yards coming in the second half.
Mills came up with the final takeaway of the night for LSU when he intercepted Marshall with 3:15 left in the game.
“We came out and were very dominant in the beginning and played LSU football,” defensive end Jordan Allen said. “That’s something we’ve got to be able to do the rest of the game and maintain that.”