BATON ROUGE — At 21-0 and rain pouring into Tiger Stadium, a place that reportedly never sees precipitation, LSU fans decided they’d had enough, confident their team was well on its way to its fourth win of the season.
They began leaving the stadium, unworried about an Auburn team that looked overmatched, outmanned and in over its head against the country’s sixth-ranked team.
But as the final 30 minutes showed, a period of football those in their Baton Rouge homes and hotel rooms likely watched on TV in panic, one half doesn’t equal two.
LSU nearly failed to finish Saturday night, holding on to a 35-21 win that didn’t feel nearly as clean as the final scoreline would make one believe.
And those donning the white jerseys and gold-ish pants know it can’t happen again, not with the next game being even bigger than the last. The Tigers travel to No. 9 Georgia next week, a giant step up in competition and a team capable of going toe-to-toe with LSU for 60 minutes in a way Auburn was not.
“When we’re making great plays, we have to be hungry to make even better great plays than the one before,” LSU cornerback Jalen Mills said. “You can’t get lax. You just have to play ball for all 60 minutes.”
The Jekyll and Hyde Tigers of Saturday night need to figure out a way for the first-half team to play the whole time against the Bulldogs.
Not that this message needs to be drilled into their heads. At this point, they know. They knew minutes after the game. It’s the reason why, during post-game interviews, it generally felt like LSU lost instead of won, moving to 4-0 and 1-0 in the SEC.
“I’m disappointed just because I know how good we can be,” LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger said. “I know the potential of this offense and I want us to do better.”
Added running back Jeremy Hill, “I wish we would have finished a lot stronger than what we did, putting our defense in tough positions. I think we started off well, we’ve just got to finish. That’s kind of the bitter taste in your mouth when you finish a game like that. It gave me a sour taste.”
Auburn certainly isn’t Georgia.
But what those Tigers lacked in depth they made up for in coaching guile and heart. Those in charge made adjustments, a key Hill said changed the feel of the game.
What was working for LSU in the beginning, what led to 223 first-half yards, 21 points and multiple long runs, didn’t continue as the game wore on because Auburn made adjustments.
While LSU held Auburn to 104 first-half yards and only six first downs, it allowed 333 second-half yards, 15 first downs and three scoring drives of 50-plus yards, in essence, keeping the road Tigers around longer than they should have been.
The focus wasn’t there, the sign of a team with players that aren’t experienced enough in key positions. Saturday was, or should be, a learning experience.
“It’s a lot of things,” Mettenberger said. “Majority it’s mental. Guys just didn’t keep their heads in the game, start thinking about the next series after we score. We get up 21-0 on an SEC West opponent who was 3-0 and showed they can come back late in a game against Mississippi State, we just let off the gas pedal.
“Hopefully this is a lesson that everybody learned.”
Still, it’s a win and one that keeps LSU exactly where it wants and needs to be – undefeated and entrenched firmly in the running for season goals of a divisional, conference and national championship.
In one week, we’ll know if they learned the lesson. If not, they’ll have real reason to feel like they lost.