By RON HIGGINS, Journal Sports
BATON ROUGE – You’d think after his team got handled by 30 points on a loud Tiger Stadium Saturday night, Auburn first-year head coach Hugh Freeze would have been in a hurry to find the team bus and head for the airport.
But after LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels accounted for 422 total offense yards and three TDs in a 48-18 victory, showing the passing and running skills Freeze had marveled over the last 10 or so days studying LSU game tape, Freeze sought him out during the postgame handshakes between the teams.
When Freeze filtered through the crowd of sweaty bemouths and found Daniels, he shook his hand and pulled him close.
“He told me `You’re a hell of a player,’” Daniels said. “You obviously want your opponents to respect you. For a coach of his stature coming to find me after the game meant a lot.”
Daniels completed 20 of 27 passes for 325 yards, one interception and TD passes of 29 yards to Malik Nabers, 25 yards to Kyron Lacy and 13 yards to Josh Williams. He ran for 97 yards on 11 carries.
But the crazy thing? Even though the third-best offense in the nation rolled 563 yards on 66 plays and scored on 8 of 11 possessions – “I’m mad when we don’t score,” Daniels said – the Tigers still weren’t clicking on all cylinders.
The offense was whistled for six (including three false starts) of LSU’s 12 penalties for 40 of the team’s 100 penalty yards.
What lessened the sting of those mistakes was one of the better performances of the season by an LSU defense that had been ranked 121st of 130 FBS (Division 1-A) teams in total defense 445.7 yards allowed per game) and 109th in scoring defense (32.33 points allowed).
The Tigers held Auburn under 300 yards – 293 on 61 plays.. When AU’s Alex McPherson kicked a 38-yard field goal to cut LSU’s lead to 20-10 with 11:35 left in the third quarter, LSU’s response was to turn up the heat in every phase.
Starting with freshman running back Kaleb Jackson’s 60-yard kickoff return, Daniels guided the Tigers to two consecutive TD drives sandwiched around a three-and-out from Auburn’s offense.
“We are getting to that level of complimentary football,” said LSU head coach Brian Kelly, whose 22nd-ranked team improved to 5-2 overall and 4-1 in the SEC West. “We felt like our offense needed some help from our defense. We really looked at structure and getting guys in the right place, and then playing a much more disciplined, aggressive style of defense.”
While the usual LSU standouts shined on both sides of the ball – Daniels, Nabers (6 catches for 89 yards, 1 TD) and running back Logan Diggs 97 rushing yards, 1 TD) on offense and linebackers Harold Perkins Jr. (5 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack, 1 pass breakup) and Greg Penn III (7 tackles) – there were some surprises.
Lacy, the senior wide receiver transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette in his second season with the Tigers, caught 4 passes for an LSU career-best 111 yards. All his receptions came after he dropped a pass, something that has often plagued him.
“He came to the sideline and told me `I owe you one’,” Kelly said of Lacy. “I said ‘You owe me two.’”
Lacy’s weaving 57-yard catch-and-run that set up Kelly’s TD toss to Williams for a 34-10 LSU lead with 3:53 left in the third quarter was exactly the type of play the Tigers have been seeking from their third receiving option behind Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr.
“I came into this game knowing there would be a lot of bracket coverage (on Nabers and Thomas Jr.),” Lacy said. “It’s great to be able to fill that void in the offense and take advantage of the 1-on-1 opportunities.”
Defensively after he has been roasted most of the year by opposing receivers, LSU starting cornerback Zy Alexander finally drew a line in the sand. The junior transfer from Southeastern Louisiana had a team-high 9 tackles and broke up two passes by finally turning his head and locating the ball in the air.
“Earlier this week, Coach Kelly pulled me over to the side,” Alexander said, “and he told me ‘when the ball is in the air, you’re just like a receiver, just go up and get the ball.’”
LSU led Auburn (3-3 overall, 0-3 in the SEC West) from start to finish. The Tigers took a 17-0 lead in the game’s first 13 minutes and responded with points after AU’s two TDs and a field goal.
“They beat us in every way that you could,” said Auburn’s Freeze of LSU. “We had no answers for them defensively and offensively we’re just not consistent enough to stay in scoring match with them.”
Saturday’s game was the last of five straight SEC games for the Tigers and the first of five home dates in their last six regular season games. Army makes its first-ever Tiger Stadium appearance next Saturday at 6:30 followed by the usual open date before LSU plays at Alabama on Nov. 11.
“This team controls its own destiny at this point,” Kelly said. “From an offensive standpoint, I’d put this team up against anyone in the league right. If we continue to get better defensively in terms of all 11 players knowing their assignments, playing disciplined football and being more aggressive to the ball when it is in the air, then this is a team that can compete for a national championship.”
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