AUBURN, Ala. --- Onterio McCalebb carried the ball only four times on Saturday night, but it took just one of the sophomore’s snaps – his final carry – to send LSU home as losers for the first time in eight games this year.
On a night when the top rush defense in the Southeastern Conference didn’t quite look the part, McCalebb’s 70-yard scamper with 5:05 left in the fourth quarter was the final dagger.
The total snap count closed at 68 for the winners and 67 for the losers, but quarterback Cam Newton made certain that his 44 chances were felt a little more than the rest.
A testament to his claim for the Heisman Trophy, Newton netted 303 of Auburn’s 526 yards of total offense – a one-man highlight reel that ran over and around a defense that hadn’t had much trouble slowing down opposing rushing attacks this season. The 6-foot-6, 250-pounder also scored twice, including a 49-yard scamper in the third quarter that saw Newton slip past yellow helmet after yellow helmet before dragging Patrick Peterson across the goalline for the score.
“Plain and simple, he’s the best quarterback in the country,” Sheppard said.
The LSU defense did what they had to when it came to slowing Newton through the air, keeping the junior to 88 yards and no passing touchdowns.
As for the highly touted rush defense, consider it a really bad day at the office.
“We came in here and did exactly what we couldn’t do,” said senior linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. “We missed tackles, and guys were getting out of place and getting out of their gaps trying to do too much. We emphasized that all week, and for some reason, we couldn’t come in here and execute the gameplan.”
After Auburn scored to make it 17-10 with 11:10 left in the third quarter, the LSU defense strung together a fumble recovery, two forced punts and a turnover on downs over the next four series.
When Newton and the offense got the ball back with 6:10 to play and the score tied at 17-17, the defense couldn’t seal the big play any longer, going only three plays before McCalebb sprinted from one side of Jordan-Hare to the other for the winning score, a 24-17 lead that LSU wouldn't threaten.
As bad as the defense seemed, the offense managed to go stride-for-stride.
Solid special teams set offensive coordinator Gary Crowton up with advantageous field position throughout, but LSU’s two-quarterback system was never able to muster anything against one of the worst pass defenses in the conference.
Jordan Jefferson started the game and played into the second quarter, where Lee stepped into his normal third-series responsibilities and shared action moving forward.
While Jefferson’s team-high 74 yards rushing were a welcomed element, neither name found success with their arms. Lee finished 8-of-14 for 43 yards, while Jefferson went 7-of-14 for 46 yards and an interception – which marked the fourth game in a row that the junior has turned the ball over on the second possession of the game.
Just as bad were the drops, including three from senior wide receiver Terrance Toliver.
“I just can’t do that, and I feel sick about it,” he said. “I am supposed to be a leader for this team, and that’s not how to do it. There are no excuses. The drops slowed us down and it cost our offense.”
When Auburn went cold across the middle of the second half, LSU never answered the call. The result of the remaining third quarter possessions after Newton’s run made it 17-10: punt-punt-punt.
“(Auburn) played a really strong game and we missed a lot of opportunities,” said running back Stevan Ridley. “Today was tough.”
The only offensive bright spot in the second half came on LSU’s lone touchdown pass.
Jefferson looked right and hit Ware on a swing pass. Instead of the tuck-and-run, the former high school quarterback pulled up and passed over the attacking Auburn defense to a streaking Randle, who adjusted to make the catch and get in for the game-tying score with 12:16 left.
LSU got the ball just two more times, and they came away with a total of nine yards on seven snaps, including a fourth-down stop by the home team deep in LSU territory that effectively ended any shot Les Miles had at keeping his team undefeated.
Wearing the look of heartbreak, the headman’s message after the game was one of optimism – thanks in large part to a conference that always seems to have a surprise or two in store.
“It’s still early in the backend of the season,” Miles said. “We still have a lot of good football teams to play.”