By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
A sole voice can be heard screaming above the dull roar emanating from the LSU locker room in the immediate aftermath of LSU’s stunning 27-23 upset of No. 10 Auburn at Tiger Stadium.
The voice belongs to Dennis Johnson, aka “Meatball,” LSU’s 28-year-old outside linebackers coach. His words cut through the blaring music and chatter coming from the home dressing room.
“Sixty minutes,” Johnson screamed. “Sixty (expletive) minutes.”
Two sets of Tigers did battle on Saturday afternoon for the nation to see. One met Johnson’s mandate. The other did not.
Auburn boat raced LSU through a 17-0 first quarter and appeared primed to name the score while snapping a losing streak in Baton Rouge that stretches back to 1999. Instead LSU erased deficits of 20-0 and 23-7 in a come-from-behind victory for the ages.
The 20-point comeback is LSU’s largest ever against an SEC opponent in Tiger Stadium. It’s the program’s largest comeback against a conference foe since Oct. 29, 1977 (won 28-21 after trailing Ole Miss 21-0 in Jackson). For Auburn, it’s the first time a ranked team coughed up such a 20-point lead to an unranked opponent since 2014 (previously 182-0).
Those statistics boggle the mind and yet still don’t truly do the comeback justice. Consider that LSU mounted such a rally against a top-10 defense without either of its starting offensive tackles.
That’s not to say LSU didn’t get some help. Whether it was the Atlanta Falcons refusing to play to the clock in Super Bowl LI or Auburn refusing to do anything but run clock on Saturday, the team that coughs up a historic lead is always in some way the architect of its own demise.
Gus Malzahn, once considered among the game’s premier offensive minds, either called the shots or stood by while Auburn ran the ball on 17 consecutive first downs. That’s the kind of uber-conservatism that has Les Miles being honored at halftime of big college games instead of coaching them.
But that doesn’t cheapen the accomplishment of a banged-up two-loss team seemingly coming back from the dead in front of a half-empty stadium on an unseasonably hot October afternoon.
“We’re just becoming a football team,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said after the game. “Our whole staff was galvanized. Our football team was galvanized.”
Both Orgeron and the program he leads are in far different places than they were this time two weeks ago. Coming off a devastating loss to Troy, LSU was a 3-2 team spiraling toward a lost season. Orgeron was the first-year coach of a program taking on water without so much as a bucket to bail some out.
More troubling than the results, LSU looked like a team that didn’t care. It gave up in the second half against Mississippi State, took its foot off the gas against Syracuse and didn’t show up until halftime against Troy.
The passion with which LSU played for Orgeron the interim coach had seemingly vanished into thin air. Communication breakdowns and rumors of in-fighting among the staff depicted a program in chaos as LSU found itself the butt of every national joke.
A week of come-to-Jesus meetings and soul searching followed and LSU bounced back with a gutsy 17-16 win in The Swamp last week. LSU then found itself at the receiving end of an early Auburn avalanche only to dust itself off and battle back again.
“We were resilient,” Orgeron said. “We kept on playing … Fight, scratch and claw like Tigers, cause we know how to.”
It took bottoming out, but Orgeron seems to have gotten his team together. LSU (5-2, 2-1 SEC) still has plenty of flaws as a team, but it is a team that’s bought into his mantra of togetherness forged through adversity.
“Nothing is going to come easy. Nothing. And we’re aware of that,” cornerback Donte Jackson said. “That’s how we practice. We practice like nothing is going to come easy. We know regardless of what a team’s record is, they’re always going to play LSU like they’re No. 1. We know that. We lacked knowing that against Troy.”
“Earlier in the season, we just weren’t gelled,” defensive end Rashard Lawrence added. “Once we gelled together and Coach O got us together, the things he’s doing and what he’s preaching to us about team and togetherness; that was big. We’ve come a long way. There were tough days and tough nights as a team, but we came through it.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that then that LSU’s comeback was the consummate team effort.
It started with a struggling offense finding a way to score two touchdowns before the half that cut a daunting deficit down to nine points.
Then came one of Dave Aranda’s patented schematic adjustments at halftime. A simple tweak to LSU’s run fits and some better tackling was the difference between Auburn gashing the Bayou Bengals for 290 yards in the first half and LSU suffocating the Plainsmen to just 64 yards after halftime.
Special teams provided the pivotal plays to win the game. D.J. Chark began the fourth quarter with a 75-yard punt return touchdown as the highlight of his career night. LSU downed a punt at the Auburn 2-yard line that eventually set up Connor Culp for the go-ahead field goal.
Chark’s afternoon is emblematic of LSU’s performance as a whole. He fumbled in the first quarter, setting up the first of two quick Auburn touchdowns, but never hung his head. Chark hauled in five passes for a career-high 150 yards in addition to making the key play in the return game.
“We got your back,” Orgeron told Chark after the fumble. “That’s the difference with this team.”
Few things in sports serve as a better rallying cry than us versus the world. A team full of players who want to sacrifice for each other and pick one another up can accomplish far more than the sum of their individual parts.
“We just try to know that it’s just us. It’s all on us. Two words we use a lot are ‘we’ and ‘us.’ I don’t want to say nobody else matters, but if you don’t believe in us like we do, then you really don’t matter,” Jackson said. “After the Troy game we came together. We don’t care how many people are in the stands. We don’t care how many people leave at halftime, whether it’s a blowout or we’re getting blown out. It’s all about us.”
It took time and heartache, but Orgeron appears to have instilled the familial culture he wants in this LSU team with the heart of its schedule still ahead of them.