It was one of those nights that LSU fans across the map had been waiting for – and most not that patiently.
For followers of Les Miles football, Saturday’s battle between two Tigers in Death Valley was watched with a mental checklist, a list of “must-see” events that would gauge if the team were clicking.
LSU’s opening possession, an 8-play, 83-yard drive that culminated in a Terrance Toliver touchdown catch, set the tone of the night.
There were fresh faces on the drive, from Dominique Allen’s first start at fullback to Russell Shepard lined up at not just quarterback, but running back and receiver. That was on the mental list.
There were downfield passing plays, the biggest coming on a deep route to Toliver on first down from the Auburn 46-yard line. While the ball was incomplete, the pass to the end zone was on the money and the Auburn defense was forced into pass interference to save the touchdown.
Jefferson, who showed unseen poise in the pocket from the first snap, found Toliver on a fade route in the corner of the end zone four plays later. The young quarterback sitting back and feeding his older, athletic wide outs was certainly on the list.
The touchdown pass brought back memories of Jefferson’s opening act in 2008. On Nov. 22 against Ole Miss, in his first significant action, the freshman quarterback found Toliver on a 9-yard fade similar to the one thrown on Saturday night.
“Using our athletes at receiver is something we want,” Toliver said. “We did that [Saturday] night. We saw that Arkansas had done that against Auburn, so we worked on stuff likes fades in the red zone.”
After a three-and-out gave LSU the ball back, Jefferson moved the offense to the Auburn 36-yard line before being forced into a 4-and-6. Despite a five-yard penalty that moved LSU’s attempt to 49 yards out, kicker Josh Jasper missed wide right.
For the moment, the score stayed at 7-0.
All season, LSU had been on the short end of the sack stick. The offense gave up too many, and the defense could not ever seem to come up with one.
On Auburn’s next drive, the Tigers faced a third and long from their own 35-yard line. LSU sent the blitz, linebacker Harry Coleman recorded the timely strip, and safety Danny McCray secured the loose ball.
Turnovers from quarterback pressure, two forced by night’s end, was on most lists - even Coleman’s.
“We had been calling that play and not getting the sack,” he said. “So this week we went back to the basics. I worked on some of my moves, simple things like dropping my shoulder. I came out tonight and made a point to change some things, and we did that.”
LSU needed just three plays to make the visitor’s pay for the mistake. On 3-and-9 from the Auburn 15-yard line, Jefferson scrambled from the pocket and dashed through the red zone for the score.
Not ready to get off the turnover train, the LSU defense intercepted Todd on the fifth play of the next drive, this time on a one-handed snag by cornerback Chris Hawkins.
Up by two scores and working with a short field, the LSU offense moved the ball inside the Auburn five-yard line before facing a fourth down call. In search of the early knock out punch, Miles made the call for a quarterback keeper, and Jefferson picked up the first down.
Two plays later, Jefferson appeared to be headed for six before Auburn defender Zac Etheridge forced the Tiger quarterback to put the ball on the ground. Auburn recovered the fumble in the end zone for the touchback, and for the moment, had life in a game that LSU dominated from start to finish.
Any momentum was then lost after the Auburn offense combined for only 22 yards on their final three possessions of the first half.
The battle between Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis was one of the storylines headed into the night. Midway through, it was evident that Chavis had the better hand.
Through one half, the defense held the Auburn power-spread attack to just 42 total yards. The running game, which was touted as one of the nation’s best headed into the evening, was bottled up for 26 yards on 19 attempts.
“The defensive line did a really great job,” said LSU linebacker Perry Riley. “Everyone prepared well and brought that to the field. When the offense is clicking like that, and the defense has consistently played well, everyone gets confident because we know that we are rolling.”
Josh Jasper added a field goal just before the half, and LSU extended their lead on the first possession out of the gate in the second.
Following a 26-yard completion to Trindon Holliday, Jefferson found Brandon LaFell from 17 yards out for the touchdown. Once again, Jefferson dropped back and tossed a ball up for his receiver to make a play on. And once again, the wide out made the play.
Up 24-0, it was a picture perfect night for Jefferson – who finished 21-of-31 passing for 242 yards and two touchdowns. Despite the win, arguably his biggest, Miles said that his starting quarterback is not there yet.
“I think you watched him execute pretty well, but he is the kind of quarterback that expects to be better,” he said. “[Jefferson] is a confident guy, but he will look to improve.”
After two possessions that combined for 101 yards on 18 plays, Auburn came away with just three points. The game was well in hand, and LSU was about to put it away for good.
On 2-and-4 from the LSU 31-yard line, Shepard took the handoff out of the shotgun, found a hole and then sprinted 69 yards for the touchdown – the first of his career.
“The whole night I didn’t hit the hole,” Shepard said. “The line opened it up, and I saw it, and then I told myself to do what you got to do.
“I might have gotten the record for longest time standing in the end zone after a touchdown. I didn’t want to leave.”
Just three quarters in and LSU, now ahead 31-3, had put together the performance that they had been waiting all season for.
“This was the first complete game that we have played,” Toliver said. “I read the chat lines and people saying that we could not throw downfield and that we couldn’t run, and during the bye week we were hungry. We established things with some runs, and we were making plays.”
Toliver led all receivers with 86 yards on nine catches. LaFell finished with 67 yards on six receptions.
On the ground, Shepard, thanks to his long touchdown run late in the third quarter, led all rushers with 76 yards on six carries. Jefferson scrambled for 50 yards on 12 attempts, while running back Charles Scott carried the ball 10 times for 22 yards.
The LSU defense, which held the typically red-hot Auburn offense to just 81 yards passing and 112 yards rushing, did not allow a touchdown until the final three seconds of the game.
With the only missteps coming on special teams, Miles said that he likes where his 2009 squad is headed.
“The key piece is not the score, but that we improved,” he said. “This team is a competitive group, and they understand what it means to win.
“We are not there yet, we have a ways to go.”
One thing is certain, after Saturday’s 31-10 win over Auburn, LSU fans have crossed a few things off their “must-see” list.