AUBURN, Ala. — The true freshman parade is over, rained upon by a series of costly turnovers on Halloween in Jordan-Hare Stadium, buried by a pile of points that added up to an even bigger LSU loss than the last time Auburn made a first-year quarterback pay.
TJ Finley’s second career start in the 48-11 loss Saturday night in front of reduced capacity crowd of 17,490 was a horror show that included two costly interceptions and a sack fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
The series between LSU (2-3) and Auburn (4-2) is historically close, historically crazy, and, in this most recent edition, Auburn’s 37-point margin made it the largest victory between the programs in history.
LSU’s historic loss — its worst since a 56-13 defeat at Florida in 1996 — is emblematic of a football program that is spiraling toward disaster in a title-defense season.
“We got punched in the face,” center Liam Shanahan said. “We got absolutely killed. But we have to bounce back. … We’re going to get back at it.”
Each game between Auburn and LSU was decided by at least five points in their previous four meetings, and Auburn was a one-point favorite Saturday morning. Instead, LSU’s losing margin even exceeded the 2014 blowout, when true freshman quarterback Brandon Harris was stifled in a 41-7 loss.
This year’s freshman, Finley, regressed after he impressed in LSU’s win over South Carolina last week, when he first filled in for Myles Brennan, who remains sidelined with an abdominal injury.
Any alleged quarterback controversy has evaporated, and the Tigers need Brennan back more than ever as they enter a two-week preparation for No. 2-ranked Alabama.
An improving LSU defense also returned to old habits in the face of the team’s three turnovers. A game that was scoreless after one quarter slowly built into an insurmountable Auburn lead.
Auburn quarterback Bo Nix completed 18 of 24 passes for 300 yards and three touchdowns, including a 91-yard bomb to a wide open Anthony Schwartz that scored the team’s final points in the fourth quarter.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron made no indications that changes within his coaching staff will be made before the season ends. He said once the season concludes, every coach will be evaluated.
It’s worth noting that LSU, like most college athletic programs, is in the middle of a financial freefall caused by the coronavirus pandemic. This week, LSU announced it is expected to lose $80 million in revenue. Eight employees were laid off, and coaches and other employees have been asked to reduce their annual salaries by 5% next year.
LSU has a hefty contract with defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who agreed to a three-year, $2.3 million deal in January, and any buyout would be in the ballpark of more than $5 million.
Still, LSU has been knocked back toward reconstruction in its upcoming open week, and the team will have to fix plenty in order to salvage a 2020 season that’s veering toward a losing record.
All but two of LSU’s five remaining opponents entered the weekend with a winning record, and Alabama, No. 8 Texas A&M (3-1) and No. 10 Florida (2-1) are all top-10 teams in the AP Top 25 rankings.
It’s an ominous projection for LSU, a program that hasn’t had a losing season since 1999, when the Tigers went 3-8 (1-7 SEC) in Gerry DiNardo’s final season.
On Saturday, Auburn’s defensive game plan essentially forced Finley to beat them with his arm, and the 6-foot-6, 242-pound Ponchatoula High graduate could not do so.
With a sturdy and aggressive defense, Auburn suffocated an LSU run game that was at the core of its victory over South Carolina. All three LSU running backs — John Emery Jr., Ty Davis-Price and Chris Curry — combined for 29 yards and a dismal 1.9-yard average per carry.
Meanwhile, Finley was rattled by an Auburn defense that pressured him often. He threw two incomplete passes on the first drive, which produced LSU’s first three-and-out since its loss at Missouri.
Auburn sacked Finley four times, and he constantly found himself rolling out of the pocket to buy more time looking for open receivers.
Finley finished the game 13-of-24 passing for 143 yards and two interceptions.
“I can’t expect him to perform well when we can’t block,” Orgeron said.
LSU also caught the bad end of a confusing non-penalty on its second drive. A targeting penalty was overturned on a five-yard quarterback draw by TJ Finley. No late-hit call was given either, and since Finley lost his helmet, he had to sit out on the following third-and-3.
Max Johnson, also a true freshman, entered the game, his deep pass to Jaray Jenkins fell incomplete, and LSU had to punt.
LSU’s offense never seemed to recover its rhythm.
Finley showed glimpses of talent. On the next possession, he gunned a 24-yard pass to Trey Palmer over the middle to start the drive. He completed a third-and-6 slant to tight end Arik Gilbert that reached the Auburn 42, and it appeared LSU would strike first in what had been a scoreless game.
But on the next three plays, Finley was sacked by Derick Hall, tripped up on a draw, and his screen to Terrace Marshall didn’t pick up the first down.
Then, Cade York missed a 54-yard field goal attempt wide right to start the second quarter. The sophomore kicker later made a 50-yard kick just before halftime, and the Texas native is now 8 of 9 on field-goal attempts this season, 3 of 4 from 50-plus yards.
A series of wild plays then broke the game open.
It appeared Nix had thrown a 18-yard strike toward the LSU pylon that would eventually produce points; but, upon review, cornerback Derek Stingley ripped the football loose from Seth Williams, and it bounced into the end zone and out of bounds for a touchback.
LSU could not capitalize on the break.
Three plays later, Finley sailed a sideline pass intended for Marshall, which landed square in the arms of Auburn cornerback Nehemiah Pritchett, who returned the interception 48 yards to the LSU 4.
Nix threw a 9-yard touchdown to Eli Stove on a screen pass, and Auburn led 7-0 with 12:13 left in the first half.
Both teams traded punts, and while Finley was searching for a deep pass downfield, he tried to avoid a sack, raised the football above his head, and it was knocked loose by Hall. The ball rested on the ground for a few seconds, and defensive back Christian Tutt scooped it up and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown.
After a six-play drive by LSU produced a punt, Nix threw another touchdown pass within LSU’s red zone to make the halftime score 21-3. This time, wide receiver Ze’Vian Capers was freed up in the left end zone after another receiver picked LSU nickel safety Cordale Flott on a rub route.
Nothing improved from then on.
Auburn opened the second half with an eight-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 5-yard touchdown scamper by Nix, who finished the game with 11 carries for 81 yards.
On the first play of the next drive, Finley’s pass was batted by Auburn defensive tackle Daquan Newkirk and intercepted by defensive end Big Kat Bryant at the LSU 21.
Five plays later, Auburn running back Tank Bigsby rushed for a two-yard touchdown on third-and-goal to go up 42-3.
Johnson replaced Finley on the next drive, and he finished 15-of-24 for 172 yards and a 43-yard touchdown to Kayshon Boutte.
But by then, the game was out of hand. Auburn outgained LSU 506-347 in total yards, and Nix delivered the dagger to Schwartz to start the fourth quarter.
“It hurts,” linebacker Jabril Cox said of the loss. “But you can’t dwell on this. We know who we have in two weeks. It’s something that we have to prepare and get our mind right.”