By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
ORLANDO, Fla. – First-year Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn is no stranger on The Plains.
Before spending one season as the head man at Arkansas State in 2012, Malzahn was part of one of the great three-year runs in Auburn history as offensive coordinator. With Malzahn driving the offense, the Tigers won 30 games from 2009 through 2011, including a perfect 14-0 national championship season in 2010.
A lot can change in a year’s time, however. The situation in Auburn upon Malzahn’s return was much different than it was at the time of his departure, with the Tigers coming off a three-win season that included a 0-8 record in Southeastern Conference play.
Malzahn has hit the ground running, leading AU to a 24-20 win over Mississippi State last week in the Tigers’ first SEC game of his tenure, ending the school’s 10-game losing streak in league play. With that momentum behind them, Malzahn’s Tigers will now turn to an even bigger challenge that waits in Baton Rouge on Saturday night against No. 6 LSU – a game that Malzahn said will be a good gauge of where his program sits after three games.
The other Tigers in this matchup, led by head coach Les Miles, have been almost unbeatable in night games at Tiger Stadium. LSU is a dominant 63-5 in Saturday night games at home, and the Tigers are 39-2 overall in such games under Miles. With kickoff slated for 7:45 p.m. this week, Auburn will find itself in a precarious position that not many teams have been able to climb out of historically.
The only two teams to escape Tiger Stadium with wins since Miles took the reins in Baton Rouge have both been ranked atop the polls at the time of their visits; No. 1 Florida notched a 13-3 win in 2009, while top-ranked Alabama seized a 21-17 win in the final seconds last season.
LSU, one of the most established programs in the league over the past decade, having won 88 games under Miles, will provide a measuring stick for an Auburn program trying to re-establish itself after a down year. The atmosphere will be tense, as it always is at Death Valley on a Saturday night, and the game can be viewed on ESPN.
Saturday’s showdown in Death Valley will mark the 48th all-time meeting in the series between Auburn and LSU…In the previous 47 meetings, LSU holds a 26-20-1 advantage over Auburn…LSU leads 15-5-1 in games played in Baton Rouge, as this year’s edition will be…Seven of the last nine meetings between the two teams have been decided by seven points or fewer…The home team has emerged victorious in 12 of the last 14 meetings…LSU has won four of the past five meetings.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
2012 – LSU 12, Auburn 10 (Auburn, Ala.)
2011 – LSU 45, Auburn 10 (Baton Rouge, La.)
2010 – Auburn 24, LSU 16 (Auburn, Ala.)
2009 – LSU 31, Auburn 10 (Baton Rouge, La.)
2009 – LSU 26, Auburn 21 (Auburn, Ala.)
A LOOK AT THE LAST MEETING
Les Miles led No. 2 LSU into Jordan-Hare Stadium a season ago, and his Tigers had to claw their way out in a 12-10 win over Auburn. Trailing 10-9 at the half, LSU used a field goal from Drew Alleman to take the lead in the third quarter and rode the strength of its defense to victory from that point. LSU’s Tharold Simon recorded an interception on fourth down to thwart Auburn’s final effort at the comeback. Defense was the theme of the night, and neither team found much success through the air. LSU’s Spencer Ware led the way on the ground with a game-high 90 yards on 16 carries.
PLAYMAKERS – OFFENSE
LSU – Zach Mettenberger, Senior, Quarterback
Mettenberger has been stellar through LSU’s first three games of the season. After averaging just 6.2 yards per pass attempt in 2012 with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions, the senior has upped the ante across the board in 2013. Mettenberger has hit on 65 percent of his throws this season and has not thrown any interceptions. He is the first LSU quarterback in history to throw for 250 yards or more in each of the first three games of the season, and his nine touchdown passes also have him on a record pace. With a stable of running backs (which includes Jeremy Hill, Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue) and a bevy of talent on the outside (wide-outs Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. are two of the best in the SEC), Mettenberger has taken his game to the next level, which has the Tigers looking like one of the conference’s most powerful offenses.
Auburn – Nick Marshall, Junior, Quarterback
Auburn has a pair of dependable running backs in Tre Mason and Corey Grant, who have combined to rush for 145 yards per game in 2013 on 6.9 yards per carry. The duo has also scored four combined rushing touchdowns, but the heart of any offense is the signal-caller. Marshall, who threw for 339 yards and a pair of touchdowns – including the game-winner – last week against Mississippi State, is a first-year starter who will be leading AU into very hostile territory for the first time in his career. Tiger Stadium has been a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks at night, and much of Auburn’s success this weekend will depend on how well their green QB is able to handle the raucous atmosphere. So far this season, Marshall has thrown four touchdowns with an 8.4-yard per pass average, but this Saturday’s game will be about managing the noise, avoiding turnovers and getting the ball to his play-makers in Mason, Grant and receiver Quan Bray.
PLAYMAKERS – DEFENSE
LSU – The Secondary
When a team has the talent to play five- or six-deep in the defensive backfield, it’s tough to select only one standout. Senior safety Craig Loston appears to be destined for a first-round selection in next year’s NFL Draft. Then there is stud sophomore Jalen Collins, who started all 13 games as a true freshman, and fellow sophomore Jalen Mills, who recorded 47 tackles at the cornerback spot last year. Ronald Martin lines up at the safety spot opposite Loston, rounding out a downright intimidating secondary. There is no doubt that LSU’s defensive front-seven remains in great shape despite a mass departure of talent from last year, but the secondary is on another level and will make life tough on Auburn’s Nick Marshall Saturday night.
Auburn – Dee Ford, Senior, Defensive End
Ford made his return from injury last week against Mississippi State, and it was a welcome sight for Auburn. The Tigers’ best pass-rusher from a year ago (6.5 tackles for loss, six sacks in 2012) made an impact in his first appearance of 2013, recording six tackles and hurrying MSU’s Dak Prescott six times throughout the game. The Auburn defense has yet to surrender a point in the fourth quarter of its first three games, and the senior will need to shake off the rust to help AU keep that streak alive against a potent attack in Baton Rouge.
• LSU is 39-2 in Saturday night games at Tiger Stadium under head coach Les Miles. Dating back to 2000, LSU is 63-5 in such games.
• Saturday will mark Auburn’s 76th appearance in an ESPN game. That number is the most of any college football program.
• LSU enters its showdown with Auburn ranked in the top-10 for the 12th consecutive year, dating back to 2002.
• Auburn is one of only six teams in the country that has not been scored on in the fourth quarter this season.
• LSU has not trailed at all so far in the 2013 season, leading all 180 minutes that it has played to this point.
• Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn is 3-0 as the Tigers’ leader, and he served as the team’s offensive coordinator previously from 2009 to 2011, including the 2010 national championship season.