AUBURN, Ala. — Les Miles, the Mad Hatter, had pulled victory from the jaws of defeat in stunning fashion one more time.
And then he didn’t.
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“I don’t know that I’ve ever come so close to winning a game and finished second,” Miles said.
With the clock having run out, Danny Etling rolled right and threw what appeared to be a game-winning, season-saving touchdown pass to D.J. Chark on fourth down.
Only after review, it turned out the clock expired before the snap got off, giving Auburn the 18-13 victory over No. 18 LSU at a raucous Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night.
“That was a heartbreaker because we thought we won,” defensive end Lewis Neal said.
LSU, trailing by five, began the drive at its own 25-yard line with 2:56 remaining and two timeouts. Etling, using both his right arm and his legs, drove LSU within Auburn’s 20-yard line. The confusion began with a sack that forced Miles to burn his final timeout.
Facing third-and-16, Etling found Malachi Dupre for a 10-yard gain.Etling then hurried LSU up to the line and converted the fourth-and-6, but an illegal shift penalty cost LSU five yards and forced them to try it again with just one second remaining on the clock.
Etling got LSU lined back up and attempted to time the snap with the official starting the clock. It appeared he did, with Chark’s tip-toe grab in the end zone setting the visitors into a delirious celebration. But the officials reviewed the play and deemed the ball hadn’t been snapped in time.
“We had enough time, in my opinion, to get a first down and then go run and get our last play off from a little closer,” Etling said. “There’s a second left, and as soon as the whistle sounded I called for the ball, so either it was a quick second or it’s impossible to get the ball off in one second.”
Miles concluded it was the latter, explaining after the game that he’d always thought it takes a minimum of two seconds to begin a play. The coach also said that he figured the illegal shift penalty would have ended the game, as most procedural penalties that occur with the clock running in the game’s final minute result in a 10-second runoff.
“They say you can’t start a play in less than two seconds,” Miles said. “You have to have two seconds to start a play. But you see people do it all the time.”
The loss drops LSU to 2-2 overall and 1-1 in Southeastern Conference play. It’s the first time LSU has suffered two defeats before the month of October since 2000, Nick Saban’s first year on the job. It’s also a death blow to the national-championship aspirations LSU began the season chasing.
For Auburn, the dramatic victory ends a seven-game losing streak against Power-5 conference opponents at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Plainsmen avoided a possible 1-3 start and 0-2 start in league play by prevailing in a matchup of two coaches purported to be on the hot seat.
“We’ve just got to get healthy and look forward to playing more games,” Miles said. “Playing next week and playing in Tiger Stadium. Who knows? Just put your head down and work hard and take it one game at a time. Just go have some fun, go win and see where we’re at on the back end.”
LSU had other chances to take the lead in the fourth quarter but repeatedly shot itself in the foot.
Trailing 15-13, an end around to Chark picked up 35 yards and set LSU up in enemy territory. Two plays later, Etling inexplicably dropped a handoff and Auburn dove on the fumble at its own 31-yard line.
The LSU defense did its part, forcing a three-and-out to get the ball back. However, a costly 15-yard personal foul call against Colin Jeter for a block below the waist set LSU back into a first-and-25 hole that they’d never climb out of.
After the punt, Auburn quarterback Sean White hooked up with Ryan Davis for a pair of first downs. That drive ended with Daniel Carlson’s sixth field goal of the game and an 18-13 Auburn lead with 2:56 left to play.
The defense kept Auburn out of the end zone all night, forcing those six Carlson field goals in addition to a crucial goal-line stand at the end of the first half. Still, it wasn’t enough on a night when LSU’s offense managed just 338 yards, with only 118 yards passing.
“We kind of did what we can, as far as holding them to field goals,” safety Jamal Adams said. “On the sideline we kept saying that they didn’t need to score any field goals, but hand clap to their kicker for making the field goals. We were doing our job.”
The game got off to a slow start, with the two sides trading three-and-outs through the first four drives. Auburn got on the board first with Carlson 51-yard field goal, thanks largely to field position set up by two Josh Growden punts traveling just 36 and 34 yards.
LSU responded quickly, capitalizing after a 52-yard dash by Derrius Guice through a gaping hole opened up by the right side of the offensive line. Two plays later, Etling bought himself time off play action until he found tight end Foster Moreau on an improvised shovel pass of sorts. Moreau dove for the end zone and, after video replay,
was ruled to have reached the ball across the plain for his first career touchdown.
LSU had missed opportunities of its own in the first half. Colby Delahoussaye missed wide right on a 51-yard field goal, a kick lengthened significantly by a sack of Etling. Chark later dropped what could’ve been a touchdown after getting behind the defense.
Still, matters could’ve been far worse for the visiting Tigers.
For one, Etling briefly left the game after taking a helmet-to-earhole shot from Auburn linebacker Tre’ Williams when Etling attempted to slide. After review, Williams was ejected for targeting. Etling, replaced briefly by Brandon Harris, returned one play later having showed no signs of concussion symptoms.
“I’ve taken some hard hits in my life,” Etling said, with visible bruising above his lip and right eye. “It’s fine … He just got a good shot on me.”
Auburn would’ve taken a 16-7 lead into the break if it weren’t for LSU’s finest display of bend-but-don’t-break defense yet. White marched the Plainsmen inside LSU’s 5-yard line to set up first-and-goal, but LSU, led by Kendell Beckwith, mounted a stand. The senior linebacker made critical stops at the 1-yard line on third and
fourth downs to force a turnover on downs and keep LSU within two.
“That defense made some plays when they needed to,” Miles said emphatically. Earlier in the press conference the coach lamented how long LSU left that unit on the field on a hot-and-steamy night on the Plains.
LSU briefly pulled ahead in the third quarter thanks to a pair of Delahoussaye field goals. The first was set up by a 16-yard Fournette rush and a 32-yard completion from Etling to Jeter off play action. That ended in a 29-yard kick.
The theme of the night was red zone ineffectiveness for both teams. Trailing 12-10, Arden Key gave the Bayou Bengals a golden opportunity to take control of the game with a strip sack that Davon Godchaux fell on deep in Auburn territory.
But Fournette got stopped short on third-and-three, forcing LSU to settle for a 25-yard Delahoussaye field goal. Auburn quickly answered with a scoring drive of own, capped by Carlson’s fifth field goal of the night, a 37-yarder, to retake a 15-13 lead.
LSU now returns home to take on Missouri on Saturday night at Tiger Stadium.