Chark makes most of 2nd chance
BATON ROUGE - When one receives a free extra swing off the scorecard after a wicked slice or hook into the lake - on the other hole - or rough, one feels supported by his friends and/or golfing partners. Either that, or they feel sorry for you.
Whichever it was, LSU wide receiver/punt returner D.J. Chark felt sort of like he received a Mulligan after he lost a fumble on the Auburn 36-yard line following his 39-yard catch. LSU's scoring opportunity was gone, and just 36 seconds later Auburn took a 10-0 lead on a 49-yard touchdown pass from Jarrett Stidham to Will Hastings.
The Tigers would fall behind by 20-0 in the second quarter. Many LSU fans in Tiger Stadium decided to stay only to see the 10-year reunion of the 2007 national championship team at halftime.
Chark, a senior from Alexandria Senior High who leads LSU with 22 catches for 535 yards, did not give up and got to remain in the game. He got more swings, so to speak.
"We got your back," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said he and players told Chark after the fumble. "That's the difference now. We got your back. We're becoming a team."
Chark, who was stripped of the ball by cornerback Stephen Roberts, was thrown to on quarterback Danny Etling's very next pass on the Tigers' next drive, though it was incomplete. Etling found Chark five times in all for 150 yards on the day, including a 37-yard completion late in the second quarter to the Auburn 38. That set up Etling's critical and near perfectly thrown 14-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Russell Gage just before the half to cut Auburn's lead to 23-14.
"I fumbled as I was switching arms with the ball, which is a mistake that should never be made," Chark said. "I was upset, but I knew that it was the first quarter. I knew that I had to do something for my team. To be a leader to the other guys, I can't mess up and continue to mess up. Then everybody picked me up. Russell (Gage) picked me up after the fumble. The defense picked me up. Danny picked me up. They never doubted me, and I didn't doubt myself."
Etling did not doubt Chark. He found him again on a 14-yard pass on LSU's first drive of the third quarter, but it ended with no points after a punt from Auburn's 40. The teams proceeded to trade five more punts with the score still 23-14, Auburn.
The fifth punt came on the second play of the fourth quarter. Aidan Marshall sent it 50 yards to the LSU 25-yard line. It was his long of the day, but that is not always a good statistic for a punter. He may have liked a Mulligan on that one.
"He kicked it far enough to give me a chance to run," Chark said. "I saw the ball hang in the air. I knew if I could make the first guy miss, my blockers could o the rest. Our guys sealed off their guys."
WATCH: Chark's game breaking, 75-yard punt return
Chark ran backwards and toward the Auburn sideline for about seven yards and got his first big block from redshirt freshman cornerback Andraez "Greedy" Williams of Shreveport, and he was off.
"Greedy had a big one right at the start. After that, everybody was just laying everybody out," Chark said.
Linebacker Jacob Phillips and defensive back Todd Harris - both true freshman - and senior linebacker Jonathan Rucker made additional key blocks as Chark sprinted down Auburn's sideline toward the South end zone at Tiger Stadium. He had one man to beat. With true freshman safety JaCoby Stevens in front of him, Chark put his hand on Stevens' rear and guided him into the next would-be tackler.
"I wanted to get behind him enough so I'd have enough room after the collision," Chark said.
Touchdown. LSU was within 23-21 after the 75-yard return with 14:33 to play in the game.
"The blockers set up the return, and that set up a victory," Chark said.
Connor Culp booted a 42-yard field goal with 2:36 to go for a 24-23 lead and added a 36-yard field goal with 38 seconds left for the 27-23 final in between another fourth quarter shutout by the defense.
Orgeron, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and players from both teams said the Chark return was the turning point of the game. Chark sensed it before it happened.
"I was back there, and I knew I had to do something with it," said Chark, who finished with 233 all purpose yards (150 receiving and 83 on two punt returns). "We weren't moving the ball. I never said, 'I'm going to take this one back.' Because the first thing you have to do is catch it and then think field position. But I knew we had studied a lot. We see where he wants to kick it, so I knew I was going to have a chance to have a big return. I figured it'd probably be a big return when I caught it. I knew the guys were going to block their hearts out. Definitely, at that moment in the game, people were giving all they had. And I felt like that's really when I knew I'd be able to return it."
LSU special teams consultant Greg McMahon, who cannot coach the team directly, set up the play via secondary coach and special teams return coach Corey Raymond.
"Greg found something on film where we can double team somebody," Orgeron said. "And we used the technique that he brought from the NFL. And Corey taught it to our punt return unit, and we did it and scored a touchdown."
Chark's touchdown not only set up the upset victory for LSU (5-2, 2-1 Southeastern Conference), which jumped back into the USA Today poll at No. 25, it put Chark in the LSU history book. He and former LSU tailback/kick returner Kevin Faulk of Carencro are the only players in LSU history to score touchdowns of 75 yards or more three ways.
Chark has the 75-yard punt return against Auburn Saturday, an 80-yard touchdown catch from Etling in a win over Southern Mississippi last season and a 79-yard run for a touchdown on an end around in the win over Texas Tech in the 2015 Texas Bowl. Faulk had touchdown runs of 80 and 81 yards in wins over Houston and Idaho in 1996 and '98, respectively, an 88-yard kickoff return in a loss at Notre Dame in 1998 and a 78-yard punt return in the Houston game in 1996.
Chark is also the only player in LSU history to score on a rush and a reception from 75 yards or more in his career. Faulk never caught a TD pass of 75 yards or more.
"That's a big honor. I found that out today," Chark said.
In addition, Chark became LSU's first player to return two punts for touchdowns in the same season since Odell Beckham in 2012. Chark returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown in LSU's 45-10 win over Chattanooga on Sept. 9.
Naturally, comparisons to Billy Cannon's 89-yard punt return for No. 1 LSU's 7-3 win over No. 3 Ole Miss in Tiger Stadium on Halloween Night, 1959, that helped win him the Heisman Trophy came up Monday along with Beckham's 89-yard return from the same area of the field in a 41-35 win over Ole Miss in 2012. LSU plays at Ole Miss (3-3, 1-2 SEC) at 6:15 p.m. Saturday on ESPN.
"You can't come here and not see that play by Billy Cannon," Chark said. "He was a play maker. Those are legendary plays by legendary players. Hopefully, I'll get to have some more like that."