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A Death Blow in Death Valley

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Baton Rouge has been a house of horrors for Auburn this century.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn spoke this week about how Auburn needed to start fast against LSU. After all, in Malzahn’s four games with Auburn in Baton Rouge as either head coach or coordinator, the Tigers hadn’t scored a touchdown in the first half.

Check.

Auburn scored not one, but two first-half touchdowns in Tiger Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Add three field goals from automatic Daniel Carlson, and Auburn raced to a 20-0 lead, which was 23-7 at halftime. The offense was pounding the ball on the ground, and Jarrett Stidham was connecting on deep passes.

Baton Rouge had been a house of horrors for Auburn this century, with the Tigers coming into today’s game with eight straight defeats there. A streak-busting blowout appeared to be happening, but LSU rallied for 20 unanswered second-half points for a 27-23 win.

In a 180-degree reversal from the four previous meetings on the bayou, Auburn took the second, not the first, half off. The visiting Tigers were shut out in the second half. LSU never led until the final three minutes, when a pair of field goals by Connor Culp, one go-ahead and one insurance, gave the purple and gold Tigers victory.

For Malzahn, the game was a disaster. Auburn had just 60 yards of offense after halftime, as the intermediate passing game was non-existent. LSU sold out against the run, and Stidham couldn’t complete the deep balls that were connecting in the first half.

Whether Malzahn or first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey calls the plays is a bit of a mystery, but the second half calls sure looked like Malzahn had more than a hand in them.

Was Saturday’s debacle enough to cost Malzahn his job? Absolutely.

After a pair of 8-5 seasons sandwiched around a 7-6 2015 campaign that began with Auburn ranked in the top 10, Malzahn needed a big 2017. The September 14-6 loss at Clemson was a respectable one. Saturday’s loss to another group of Tigers wasn’t.

At 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the SEC, it’s not over for Malzahn yet, but he’s now going to have to do something he hasn’t done since 2013: Beat Georgia or Alabama. The Tigers get both teams, currently ranked in the top five, in Jordan-Hare Stadium in November, but both are 5-1 against War Eagle this decade.

Even with road wins over Arkansas and Texas A&M to get Auburn to 5-1 in the SEC and 7-2 overall, Malzahn won’t survive with two conference losses to close the season. The Tigers’ decision-makers will not tolerate an 0-8 record against their two biggest rivals. Even if you chalk up losses this year to Alabama and Georgia being two of the three or four best teams in the nation, there’s now Saturday’s inexcusable loss that will hang over Malzahn’s head.

Credit LSU for fighting back and making necessary adjustments after being punched in the mouth for a quarter and a half, but Auburn is the better team. Malzahn didn’t need to go ultra-conservative in the second half. He has a talented quarterback capable of throwing in traffic. Another touchdown probably buries an emotionally and physically spent LSU team. It never happened, and now Auburn heads home with their College Football Playoff chances barely flickering.

Malzahn was in similarly heated water after a 1-2 start in 2016, but rallied his team for six straight wins before quarterback injuries derailed the offense, and the Tigers dropped three of the final four games.

Last year, he got a pass without having to beat the Bulldogs or the Crimson Tide. This year, that get-out-of-jail-free card doesn’t exist. The next two games, separated by a week off, don’t matter all that much, only in that, if Auburn loses one, Malzahn will have to beat both rivals in order to survive. Four regular-season losses for a fourth straight year won’t cut it under any circumstance.

The funny thing is, Malzahn did exactly what he noted his past Auburn teams couldn’t in Baton Rouge. It looked like it would be enough for victory, but he took his foot off the gas far too soon.

Even in a place that has caused so much pain in recent years, Saturday was the most painful loss yet for Auburn. If this season is it for Malzahn, the beginning of the end came in Tiger Stadium.

Why? Because while Auburn had a different beginning in Baton Rouge, it had an all too familiar end.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.