After the heroic showing by their defense in a 12-10 loss to No. 2 LSU on Saturday, it’s time to wonder what could be if Auburn had a quarterback and an offensive coordinator.
Thanks to ineptitude from Kiehl Frazier and his zen master quarterback guru of a coordinator, Scot Loeffler, Auburn’s players left Pat Dye Stadium to applause from their student section on a night when the fans should have been rushing the field.
Throw in Quan Bray’s muffed punt at the worst possible time, and the Tigers walked off of Pat Dye Field just as most people predicted — 1-3.
But this game hardly went as predicted, thanks to a breakthrough performance by Auburn’s defense.
LSU started the game with two strong drives resulting in a fumble at the Auburn 2-yard line and a touchdown. After those first two drives, it looked like Auburn had a Tommy Tuberville-era defense again.
LSU had 14 possessions, and 10 ended in fumbles or punts. Brad Wing punted eight times … against Auburn.
An Auburn defense that couldn’t get off the field on third down for two years got off the field on 12 of 18 tries Saturday.
An LSU team that runs on everyone averaged a so-so 4.1 yards a rush.
An LSU team that likes to throw down field tried it twice, and both times Auburn’s secondary was there to knock it away.
Defensive end Corey Lemonier took advantage of LSU missing injured left tackle Chris Faulk and pressured quarterback Zach Mettenberger early, causing the fumble that set up Auburn’s lone touchdown.
From that point on, LSU rolled Mettenberger away from Lemonier’s side, and Auburn’s secondary covered that half of the field well … a fact that played in Auburn’s favor until LSU got Auburn on a throw-back on LSU’s last possession.
But that drive resulted in a missed field goal, so credit Auburn’s defense for keeping the Tigers in a game they were supposed to lose by 20 points.
Credit Auburn’s defense for by far its best game against a good team since the Tigers slowed Oregon the 2011 BCS final.
What a shame for Auburn that its defense had to overcome more than LSU.
Before the bashing of Frazier and Loeffler ensues, let’s touch on the few good things they did.
Frazier made two nice checkdown throws and a good-enough down-field throw to Emory Blake on the drive that led to Cody Parkey’s go-ahead field goal, a 40-yarder that put Auburn up 10-9 with 1:21 left in the second quarter.
Loeffler also installed freshman quarterback Jonathan Wallace in a wildcat role, and it worked against an LSU defense that hadn’t seen him.
When Auburn recovered a fumble in LSU territory, Loeffler hit a soft spot on the right side of LSU’s defense with speed runs by Tre Mason and Onterio McCalebb, the latter run going for Auburn’s lone touchdown.
Problem was, LSU adjusted, with the Tigers’ defensive line shading right every time they saw the wideout coming in motion from that side. Loeffler kept trying it.
But the worst call came on Auburn’s next-to-last drive. With Auburn down 12-10 and facing third down and long from its 43, Loeffler called an inside run.
Mason gained seven yards. Auburn needed 12.
The Tigers punted amid scattered boos from a previously stoked home crowd, and LSU took over with 4:17 to play. Auburn didn’t get the ball back until 39 seconds to play, at its own 20-yard line.
Auburn needed a miracle from Frazier at that point. Last week’s Hail Mary against Louisiana-Monroe notwithstand, he’s no miracle man.
The guy who sails balls over open receivers did again Saturday, with McCalebb streaking down the sideline open for a would-be touchdown.
The guy who throws balls up for grabs did again to tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen in the third quarter, and LSU’s Luke Muncie won the jump ball.
On Auburn’s last-gasp drive, Frazier threw against his body, across the field toward and wide of an open Blake, who had running room with a chance to get Auburn in field-goal range.
Fittingly, the game ended with LSU’s Tharold Simon flagging down Frazier’s high desperation throw.
Frazier hit on 13 of 22 passes for an anemic 97 yards and two interceptions. That makes seven interceptions and two touchdown passes in four starts this season.
Such numbers make home fans anxious, and Wallace’s effectiveness as a wildcat quarterback makes him the new most popular player on campus.
Let’s be clear. Auburn had more problems than Loeffler and Frazier.
The Tigers’ chance to shock the college football landscape also suffered from a false start at Auburn’s 3, which helped set up a safety on the next play. Then came Bray’s third-quarter muff.
Auburn had a chance to get the ball near midfield. This after a 52-yard Steven Clark punt plus two penalties backed LSU up to its 13.
Instead, LSU wound up with the ball at Auburn’s 48, setting up Drew Alleman’s decisive 30-yard field goal.
The kick at 5:26 of the third quarter proved decisive for lots of reasons, including Russell Shepard’s touchdown-saving tackle of McCalebb on the ensuing kickoff.
The kick with more than a quarter to play proved decisive mostly because Auburn no longer has Gus Malzahn calling plays. He’s at Arkansas State now, and Loeffler has his old job.
Loeffler’s well-hyped reputation for developing quarterbacks faces its biggest challenge yet in Frazier.
Auburn coach head Gene Chizik said don’t read too much in Wallace’s effective spot duty Saturday. Chizik also said Frazier is “on a journey.”
Too bad another tough day early in Frazier’s journey fell on the one day in recent memory when Auburn’s defense rose up.
Too bad for Auburn that Frazier’s journey marred the Tigers’s most competitive showing against an elite team since the Oregon game.
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.