BATON ROUGE, La. -- The SEC West and a potential College Football Playoff berth were on the line in Death Valley, and No. 2 LSU did its best to remain alive in both by prevailing over No. 9 Auburn, 23-20, behind a strong second-half effort that saw the Bayou Bengals dominate the vast majority of the latter two quarters. LSU nearly doubled Auburn in its offensive output (501-285) on Saturday afternoon and got another efficient effort from quarterback Joe Burrow, who completed 32-of-42 passes for 321 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
What kept this game closer than the box score alone suggested it should be were a couple of LSU turnovers. Derek Stingley fumbled a punt in the first half that set up Auburn's first touchdown to give Auburn a 10-7 lead. Later, in the third quarter, Joe Burrow threw an interception at the goal line that would have given LSU a 17-10 lead.
Auburn's offense was stagnant all afternoon. It finished with 130 yards rushing in the game, but even that total was a bit misleading as 70 of those yards came on a D.J. Williams run. The Tigers managed only 60 yards rushing on their other 32 carries. Auburn's second touchdown drive didn't come until the final minutes when it was trailing by 10 points. Bo Nix completed just 15-of-35 passes for 157 yards with a score and a pick.
LSU's win was its 10th straight at Tiger Stadium and made sure Auburn remained winless in this venue since 1999.
What are the biggest takeaways from Saturday afternoon in Death Valley?
LSU's D showed up big: The script has flipped in Baton Rouge this year with the offense serving as the force and the defense struggling at times to keep teams out of the end zone. That changed on Saturday with a sizzling performance against Auburn.
It held Auburn to just 287 yards and six drives that ended in three-and-out. Part of that was on Auburn's offense and the inconsistency of Nix, but not all of it. The secondary played lights out -- getting a big interception near the goal line right before halftime that kept the game tied and living in the backfield in the second half. Grant Delpit made the play of the game forcing D.J. Williams out at the 9-yard line on a 70-yard run. That drive resulted in a field goal instead of a touchdown, and the LSU defense clamped down from there, allowing just five more yards for the rest of the quarter.
LSU is a complete football team now. The turnaround began last week in Starkville when they limited what Mississippi State could do, and thoroughly dominated Auburn in the biggest game of the year thus far.
Was it a complete game? No. The offense sputtered at times, which was bound to happen. The defense setting the tone is old school LSU football and a sight for sore eyes for Tigers fans who have become accustomed to this brand of football.
LSU found a running back: Burrow has been one of the biggest stars in college football this year, but the running game hasn't been as big of a factor in LSU's offensive success as many expected. Clyde Edwards-Helaire changed that on Saturday. The junior rushed for 26 times for 136 yards and a touchdown, including 45 yards on all four plays of a third-quarter drive that culminated with his lone touchdown to give his team a 16-13 lead.
It's the first time this year than any LSU player has had 20 or more carries this year. Coach Ed Orgeron said after the game that the balance that his team showed on Saturday is something that he came in wanting to see.
Edwards-Helaire hadn't been a No. 1 running back in his career until this year, and despite being No. 1 on the depth chart, he hasn't been a work horse. He was on Saturday. Now that Edwards-Helaire's taken the next step, the Tigers can build off his performance during the bye week heading into the final month of the season.
Auburn's offense brutal under Bo Nix: The true freshman quarterback has played a like a freshman in Auburn's biggest games of the season. He never seemed to get in a groove with his receivers, was off almost all afternoon and posed no threat to LSU's secondary.
This is an alarming trend that has been consistent throughout the season. Nix is 39-of-93 (41.9 percent) for 479 yards, four touchdowns and six interceptions in three games vs. ranked teams this season. Yes, he's a true freshman. But there isn't a defensive coordinator in the country that feels threatened by Auburn's passing game right now.
The running game couldn't get going on Saturday as a result. If you take away Williams' 70-yarder in the third quarter, Auburn ran for just 60 yards. That's not Auburn football. If Nix is the guy, Auburn needs to find a way to give him some help.
Setting up for the showdown: Orgeron dodged questions after the game about what's going to happen in Tuscaloosa in two weeks, but we don't have to. This is the first time since 2011 that LSU has a legitimate shot to upend top-ranked Alabama. Sure, there have been times in which it has rolled into Tuscaloosa with a chance on paper and even an unblemished record. But anybody who has watched this team knows that this time, it's different.
LSU has the ability to play with any team in the country, including the Crimson Tide. It has the ability to play the way that it wants to play but showed Saturday that it can adjust on the fly and play the way the opponent wants to play. LSU doesn't run itself into a wall over and over hoping that it can play inside of its comfort zone. It is willing and able to bend like a certified yoga instructor.
LSU vs. Alabama on Nov. 9 in the SEC on CBS Game of the Week. Get your popcorn ready. The Game of the Century Part II will live up to the hype.
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