Deep Analysis: LSU Was So Close, and Yet So Far

AUBURN AL - OCTOBER 23: Quarterback Cameron Newton #2 of the Auburn Tigers rushes upfield against the LSU Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on October 23 2010 in Auburn Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Take a peek at the box score, and you'd think this game wasn't close. Auburn outgained LSU 526-243. Auburn outrushed LSU 440-115. Neither of LSU's quarterbacks managed even 50 yards passing. The turnovers were even at one apiece, so there wasn't any Les Miles magic going on. Auburn possessed the ball almost five minutes longer than LSU did, and at just 69 combined yards, penalties had a muted effect.

And yet this game was tied for a good deal of the fourth quarter, and the Bayou Bengals had chances to win. LSU's offensive line looked bad, its defense appeared to forget how to tackle, and Auburn's offense was running on all cylinders. How in the world was this game so close?

Location, location, location.

Or rather: field position, field position, field position.

Look at the drive chart. Auburn started at or inside its own 20 yard line seven times. The Plainsmen still got two touchdowns and a field goal attempt out of those possessions, which is pretty good for being backed up that far. But even with Cameron Newton pulling his one-man highlight show routine, it's still difficult to move the ball that far. Indeed, both touchdowns came on big plays (Newton's 49 yard run and Onterio McCalebb's 70 yard run), not from consistently moving the ball.

There's nothing to suggest in the game film that Auburn couldn't have matriculated the ball down the field in smaller pieces on those drives, but the degree of difficulty for doing so is much higher. Even an offense as potent as the one we saw in blue on Saturday has a tough time putting lots of 10+ play drives of 80 yards or more together against a good defense. Without controlling the field position as well, LSU might have gotten steamrolled.

And for as much as the defense made of that field position advantage, the offense squandered it. The visitors started drives within 60 yards of the end zone five times. They ended up with one touchdown on a trick play, an 18-yard "drive" that ended in a punt, and a trio of three-and-outs.

You may not pick your poison. Your poison's name is Nick Fairley.

For as dominant as Newton was for Auburn's offense, Fairley was at least as much on defense. It's rare to see a defensive tackle be that distruptive, but he was in LSU's backfield all day long. He even seemed to get better as the game went on, imposing his will throughout the second half. He almost single handedly stuffed LSU's second-to-last drive, as a four-yard tackle for loss and a nine-yard sack of his sandwiched an eight-yard pass completion. The good news for everyone else in the conference is that he's a junior and therefore NFL Draft eligible.

I mentioned above that LSU's offensive line didn't have a good day, and that's true. Even when Fairley rotated out, it still had trouble blocking the Auburn defensive front. However it practically melted when Fairley was in the game, as no blocking scheme seemed to work against him. 

I hope for his sake it was the injury.

Jarrett Lee's first drive went for only 14 yards, but it did go for eight plays to give LSU's defense a rest. On his next drive, he hit on two straight passes to complete six of his first seven attempts on the day. He appeared to injure his hand shortly after and had to come out. That was the end of Lee's effectiveness on the day.

Lee participated in three more drives the rest of the game. He completed just two of six passes, and all of the drives were three-and-outs. It didn't help that he had no time to throw, but he essentially did nothing the entire second half.

Not that Jordan Jefferson fared much better after intermission, but he was the more effective quarterback of the two. His running on bootlegs gave Auburn's defense fits, and the home team would have been in bigger trouble if Jefferson was a better passer. He led the longest Tiger drive of the second half (the five play drive I mentioned earler), and his presence on the field softened up Auburn's defense for Spencer Ware's surprise touchdown pass. I'm not trying to damn him with faint praise; he also led drives of 13, nine, and seven (after Lee's injury) plays that got deep into Tiger territory and led to 10 points in the first half. He was the better guy on the day.

Auburn's offense plays with a purpose now.

Think back. Way back. Like, over-a-month-ago way back. In the second week of the season, Auburn went to Starkville and gutted out a three-point win over Mississippi State. Here's what I said at the end of my analysis of that game:

The offense was good, but it seemed tentative at times, almost like it didn't know who the go-to guy is. Ben Tate was that player last year, but I couldn't tell if Auburn wanted Newton or Onterio McCalebb to be that guy this year.

Clearly those days are gone. They've been gone for several weeks now, but it has seldom been more apparent than on Saturday. Of Auburn's 62 plays, 44 of them (71%) were runs or passes by Newton. When the going gets tough, Auburn runs a quarterback draw.

Just as it was against Kentucky, when Auburn's drives stalled out, it was because of incomplete passes or because Newton didn't quite run far enough. On important downs, Gus Malzahn is putting nearly all his eggs in Newton's basket. Newton has 24 carries and 34 pass attempts on third down (58 total plays); Michael Dyer, McCalebb, and Mario Fannin have 10 third down carries combined.

The fact that it worked against LSU's defense, which is in the running for best in the conference, means that it can work against anyone. I'm not here to predict gloom and doom for the Plainsmen if Newton gets hurt; just about everyone's in trouble if their first string quarterback goes down. However if someone can figure out how to get Newton down on first contact, that team will beat Auburn. He is almost the whole game plan on offense.

Takeaways

You had to know, having watched the team this season, that LSU wasn't going undefeated. You certainly could do worse than to lose your first game to a better team that played the better game by only a touchdown on the road. There are much worse ways to drop your first one, I promise you.

As long as this loss wasn't some sort of symbolic dam bursting, LSU has an excellent chance of finishing up the year no worse than 10-2. The defense won't always look like the players greased up their hands before the game, and the lo-fi offense was nearly good enough to take down the conference's only remaining undefeated team. The Tigers get a potentially overconfident Alabama team (from shellacking a very down Tennessee team) that even in a blowout couldn't figure out how to run more often than pass (a play-calling mix that spelled doom in Columbia). Going on the road to Arkansas won't be easy, but it's winnable.

As for Auburn, the most impressive thing about the team is its physicality. One reason why LSU missed so many tackles is that no one on the offense is a delicate runner. Auburn's defense still has some issues to work out, but fortunately for these Tigers, LSU didn't have a quarterback who could exploit them. Put someone even as good as Mike Hartline on LSU's offense and that game is much, much different. Even so, the defense took every opportunity it could not just to tackle LSU's players, but to drill them. It's no surprise that when push came to shove, the team doing all the pushing and shoving won.

I'm not convinced that this Auburn team could win a national championship in most years, but in this parity-stricken season, I could see it happen. I could also see Auburn losing in three weeks to Georgia, a team that it matches up rather poorly with whose record might get it overlooked somewhat by the Tigers.

With that quarterback and that defense, anything really is possible.

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