There's no margin for error now.
Saturday’s 27-23 loss to LSU broke the hearts of Auburn fans hoping to see the team emerge as a national contender and brought with it a dose of reality — that this Auburn team is simply not ready to challenge the nation’s best teams.
Things looked great for a quarter and a half on Saturday. Jarrett Stidham and the offense moved the ball with ease in the first quarter and took a 10-0 lead after the LSU defense forgot to cover Will Hastings.
That lead increased to 20-0 after a Kerryon Johnson touchdown run and Daniel Carlson’s second field goal of the game. Halfway through the second quarter, Auburn looked like the dominant team that had steamrolled Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
But those games were at Jordan-Hare Stadium, where the crowd was trying to push Auburn into the national championship discussion. The crowd in Death Valley was different. They were desperate, determined to save the reputation of their Tigers and coach Ed Orgeron after the embarrassment of losing to Troy on their home field.
After a Stephen Sullivan touchdown run got LSU on the board and kept the Tigers within striking distance, Stidham and company had a chance to potentially put the game away with a touchdown before halftime. Stidham led the offense 62 yards into the red zone, but the drive stalled at the 8-yard line and forced Carlson to kick a 26-yard field goal.
Given new life after his defense made a big stop, Danny Etling quickly led LSU on an 8-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped off by a 14-yard touchdown pass with just 32 seconds left before the half. Just like that, a game that should have been over at halftime was a ballgame again.
What happened next shouldn’t have been a surprise. Auburn dominated the line of scrimmage early, but was manhandled up front when it mattered late in the game. For two quarters, Stidham looked like the guy who was ready to take Auburn to that next level.
But when the lights were brightest, when his team needed him to steal a big win on the road, he couldn’t do it. Outside of their final two possessions, Auburn gained just 55 yards on offense in the second half.
The Tigers became predictable on offense in the second half. They ran the ball for little yardage on first and second down and then were forced to throw on third down and long. At one point, Auburn ran the ball on 17 consecutive first downs, nearly three entire quarters.
The LSU defense held nothing back, they played man coverage on the outside and came after Stidham, giving him little time to throw.
The blueprint for beating Auburn is simple. Stop the run, and get after the quarterback. And that’s what good teams do well. Nick Saban has won multiple national championships with a defense that executes that gameplan to perfection.
It was a familiar sight for Auburn fans. Wilting under pressure in big games has become the norm.
The Tigers were in a similar situation against Georgia a year ago. Needing a win to prove themselves as a threat both in the SEC and nationally, Auburn couldn’t move the ball in the second half, and were dominated up front as they were upset by the Bulldogs.
It happened again against Clemson earlier this year. Auburn couldn’t handle Clemson’s defensive line and gained just 117 total yards as they lost 14-6 in a game that felt like a Clemson blowout.
Relying on the defense to carry the team in big games can only go so far, that has now become clear. The conservative offensive play-calling down the stretch in close games is a recipe for disaster.
Auburn players and coaches tried to blame Saturday’s loss on execution, but this loss ultimately falls on the coaching staff. Changes need to be made.
Ed Orgeron made halftime adjustments, Gus Malzahn did not. When LSU brought another man into the box in the second half, Malzahn continued to stick with the run, no matter how many times the LSU front seven stuffed Kerryon Johnson in the backfield.
Stidham saw this, but said he was not given the authority to change the play call accordingly. This is inexcusable. Stidham is relatively inexperienced and has struggled at times, but he’s proven himself to be a capable quarterback. It’s time to turn him loose.
Things won’t get any easier moving forward for the Tigers, and jobs are on the line as the season moves into the second half. Whatever margin for error Gus Malzahn had heading into the meat of the SEC schedule is gone.
Road games at Arkansas and Texas A&M are now must wins for Malzahn if he hopes to keep his job, and Auburn will likely be heavy underdogs in their final two SEC games against Georgia and Alabama.
Malzahn said postgame that this loss “is not the end of the world.”
He’s right, it’s not the end of the world. But it should be the end of his tenure at Auburn.