By Andrew Alexander
LSU demolished the New Mexico State Aggies 63-7 last Saturday night, officially closing the book on regular season non-conference foes for the 2014 campaign. The Tiger’s Southeastern conference gauntlet of a schedule resumes this weekend as they travel to Jordan-Hare Stadium to battle the No. 5 Auburn Tigers.
The stakes are high for LSU this weekend. Not only is this the Tigers’ first true road test of the season, but a loss would likely eliminate them from the Western Division title race. On the other hand, a win would rejuvenate LSU’s season and vault the Tigers back into the inaugural college football playoff discussion.
LSU is 7-2 against Auburn under coach Les Miles and is riding a three game winning streak. The last time Auburn defeated LSU, a Heisman-winner in the making named Cam Newton was at the helm of then-offensive coordinator-now-head-coach Gus Malzahn’s high-flying offense.
Two weeks ago, many fans would have written the upcoming matchup against Auburn off as the second of many losses during LSU’s 2014 season. But that was before last Saturday night, when Miles introduced a new wrinkle to the LSU offense: meaningful playing time for freshman quarterback Brandon Harris.
LSU OFFENSE vs. AUBURN DEFENSE
Miles answered the chants of LSU’s student section Saturday night when he inserted Harris into the game after sophomore Anthony Jennings’ horrendous three turnover first quarter performance against New Mexico State. With Harris under center, the Tigers’ offense seemed revitalized, scoring on seven straight possessions and looked radically different than with Jennings at the helm. Granted, LSU was facing an overmatched Sun Belt Conference foe, but there’s no denying the Tiger freshman quarterback has earned a shot as the starter and a baptism by fire in Jordan-Hare Stadium this weekend. Harris will need to keep the LSU offensive engine purring this weekend when it runs up against an Auburn defense that ranks third in the conference in rush defense (90.75 YPG) and is second in the conference with seven interceptions.
LSU DEFENSE vs. AUBURN OFFENSE
LSU may have looked impressive on offense against the Aggies, but questions still remain on the other side of the ball. New Mexico State is nowhere near the caliber of Auburn’s up-tempo offensive attack, and yet Aggie quarterback Andrew Allen was still able to rip off a 79-yard touchdown run. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall once again leads a potent Tiger offense, averaging 480 yards per game. Marshall is the Tigers second leading rusher, accounting for 273 yards and two touchdowns through four games. Cameron Artis-Payne has filled in nicely for the departed running back Tre Mason, averaging 117 yards per game and rushing for five touchdowns. LSU’s secondary will have its hands full with Auburn’s stable of talented receivers, led by junior college transfer D’haquille Williams, who has emerged as Marshall’s favorite target with 23 receptions, 357 yards and three touchdowns in his first season on the Plains. A major wildcard will be the health of junior receiver Sammie Coates, Marshall’s favorite target from 2013. Coates has yet to find the end zone in 2014, but he led the Tigers with 902 yards and seven touchdowns last season and has been nursing a minor knee injury he sustained in Auburn’s season opener against Arkansas. If Coates is at full-strength, Auburn’s offense could hit another gear and make it a long day for LSU’s defense.
LSU place kicker Colby Delahoussaye remains consistently accurate, connecting on all four of his field goal attempts, and missing just one of his 24 PAT’s. Punter Jamie Keehn ranks second in the conference in net punting average, which will be crucial this Saturday as the Tigers try to pin Auburn’s explosive offense as far back as possible. Auburn’s Daniel Carlson has connected on 5-for-7 of his field goal attempts, while nailing all 22 of his PAT’s. Auburn’s punt returner Quan Bray is averaging 36.7 yards per return and has already taken two to the house this season.
Under Harris’ guidance, LSU’s offense has the potential to be every bit as explosive as the up-tempo juggernaut coach Malzahn created in Auburn. Defensive play will be paramount in deciding Saturday’s winner, and LSU’s defense still has too many questions marks, especially in the front seven. If anyone can take advantage of LSU’s Swiss cheese defense, it’s the revenge-seeking duo of Marshall and Malzahn.
AUBURN 28, LSU 24