By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Two weeks ago, LSU was a 3-2 team with a loss to Troy and without a field goal kicker.
In SEC football, 14 days is an eternity. Everything can change. Now the Tigers have a clutch kicker, a two-game SEC winning streak, and – don’t look now – a controlling stake in the SEC West title run.
After falling behind 20-0 on Saturday, LSU (5-2, 2-1 SEC) used a 75-yard punt return touchdown, a pair of fourth-quarter field goals, and lockdown second-half defense to knock off Auburn 27-23 on Saturday afternoon in Baton Rouge.
D.J. Chark, who fumbled in the first quarter as Auburn built its lead, raced 75 yards off a punt to pull the hosting Tigers within two in the fourth quarter, and Connor Culp knocked home sub-two minute kicks from 42 and 36 yards – the game-winner and lead-padder, respectively – for LSU’s largest SEC comeback win since 1977 and its largest SEC comeback in Tiger Stadium since at least 1949.
Chark more than recovered from the fumble to enjoy a career day, tallying a career-high 150 receiving yards and 233 all-purpose yards. His team trailing 23-14 as the fourth quarter began, Chark settled under Aidan Marshall’s punt with one play on his mind, and it wasn’t the fumble.
“I just knew it was a long game,” said Chark. “If I let that take me out of the game, I wouldn’t be a leader. I was waiting for my next time to make a big play. I forgot all about it.”
The play in his mind was, instead, his previous punt return, when he was tripped up after eight yards by Jamel Dean in the second quarter. Two quarters later, Chark knew he was going to score…when, exactly?
“When he kicked it,” he said. “Early in the game, I got tripped up by one guy, and I told the punt return team that wasn’t going to happen again. I felt like the team needed a big play, I was able to get around, and my punt return team made some great blocks and pushed me into the end zone.”
“We were going to get a touchdown drive,” said quarterback Danny Etling, who watched the play from the sideline. “That was just a quicker touchdown drive.”
Chark brought LSU within striking distance with his legs, and Culp put them over the top with his. Etling (13-of-24, 206 yards, 1 TD) converted a critical third and five on a swing pass – his fifth and final conversion on third down through the air of the game – to Derrius Guice (20 carries, 71 yards) to bring the Tigers within field goal range. Three plays later, with just over two minutes to play and LSU down 23-21, Culp kicked straight and true for the winner, adding a second from six yards closer minutes later for good measure.
“I believed he was going to make it today for some reason,” said Orgeron, who has, more than once this season, lamented LSU’s lack of a proven kicker. “I felt like he had gained some confidence in last week’s kick (against Florida).”
That it even boiled down to a kick was a minor miracle. Auburn raced out to a 20-0 lead and had, according to ESPN, a 95.8 percent chance of winning the game, capitalizing on LSU’s early turnover. After Daniel Carlson opened the scoring with a 46-yard field goal on Auburn’s first drive, Etling found Chark open down the right sideline for a 39-yard gain. But Carlton Davis stripped the ball and brought it back 12 yards, setting up Jarrett Stidham’s first and only touchdown pass – 49 yards to a wide open Will Hastings – two plays later.
“We got your back,” Ed Orgeron told Chark after the fumble. “That’s the difference with this team.”
The visitors scored again on their next drive, a Kerryon Johnson (31 carries, 156 yards) four-yard plunge following an eight-play, 81-yard march. Stidham’s 3-and-13 screen pass to Ryan Davis for 52 yards kept the drive alive before Johnson punched in with 3:30 left in the quarter, and Carlson would add another field goal early in the second quarter for the twenty point lead.
LSU, to its credit, answered. Russell Gage raced 70 yards on a jet sweep on the second play of the ensuing drive, setting the table for Stephen Sullivan’s fourth and goal touchdown rush from one yard out. Sullivan took a jet sweep to the right and dove over the pylon to pull LSU within 20-7 at the 9:19 mark of the second quarter.
“I made a mistake early, and Russell picked me up, came back with a big play,” said Chark. “We continued to make plays. The team just rallied. There was no point where anybody on the team gave up. I haven’t been a part of a team like that. That was a great feeling.”
The hosting Tigers responded to Carlson’s third field goal of the day with another touchdown. Chark opened the drive with a 37-yard catch and run, and Etling found a diving Gage with a lofted ball just in front of LSU’s student section, trimming Auburn’s advantage to nine points just before the half.
“Our guys believed at halftime,” said Orgeron. “There was no, ‘Hey, we can’t get this done.’ We just knew we were a couple of plays away here and there.”
After the break, Dave Aranda’s defense tightened up. After giving up 225 yards and 20 points on Auburn’s first four drives, LSU held Auburn to just 129 yards and three points the rest of the game.
The adjustment was simple, said leading tackler Devin White: LSU brought an extra safety into the box to account for the running quarterback and wildcat formations.
“We ran the same plays,” said White, who finished with a career-high 15 stops, his fifth straight game with double-digit tackles. “We just needed the extra safety in the box.”
The home-standing Tigers held the visitors to just 64 yards and 0 points in the second half. Johnson had 123 yards on the ground at halftime. He picked up only 33 more after the break, and LSU closed out its last seven series with a pair of turnovers on downs and five Auburn punts.
On the third, Chark attacked. The senior fielded Aidan Marshall’s punt at his own 25 and raced down the East sideline virtually untouched. As Chark crossed the end zone for the second time in his punt returning career, LSU pulled within 23-21 with nearly a full quarter of football to play.
Auburn (5-2, 3-1 SEC) could do nothing offensively with that time. The visiting Tigers gained less than 10 yards on five of their final six drives. Donte Jackson registered four of LSU’s 11 pass break ups, and Jarrett Stidham, who started 6-of-8 for 145 yards and a score, finished 3-of-18 for 20 yards on his last 18 attempts.
“Dave Aranda had ice in his veins tonight,” said Orgeron. “We didn’t call different defenses. We ran the same defenses, but we made adjustments where we needed to.”
LSU now heads into next week’s clash at Ole Miss needing one win to set up a showdown in Tuscaloosa against Alabama with control of the SEC West on the line. Two weeks ago, after a historic defeat, that possibility seemed remote. Saturday, after a historic comeback win, it seems imminent.
“Gut check,” Orgeron said of the last two weeks. “Realized number one, I have to coach better, our staff had to coach better, our players had to practice better, we had to have leadership on our football team. We were going to block out the noise, we were going to fix the things that were fixable.”
“We knew what was being said, how it wasn’t going to be close, we were going to get slaughtered,” added Chark. “We really learned how to block out the outside noise.”