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Anatomy Of A Comeback

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How to spot your opponent 20

NCAA Football: Auburn at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

I have a confession: after LSU wins against conference opponents or other big teams, I like to go back and read the twitter profiles of opposing fans.

I’m not looking for a meltdown or something to laugh at (well, most of the time. A lot of these people are my friends, either in real life or internet buddies. But sometimes...). This really is a topic for another day, but the long and short of it is that I just want to see how different fanbases react to different outcomes.

In my reading Sunday morning, I came across a very common thread amongst Auburn folk: conservative play calling. This is not a unique complaint in terms of a blown lead though. Conventional football logic says when you’re ahead big you start eating clock and stop reaching for explosive plays, be it because you want to run plays that keep the ball in bounds and the clock rolling or you don’t want to dump your playbook in a game that you see as decided.

And as I did my readings, the Saints tried to blow an even larger lead against the Lions. That game was vastly different from Auburn-LSU for a number of reasons, the chief one I didn’t even realize how quickly the Lions were catching up to the Saints until they were right on their bumper. In the Auburn game, Barner folk were very aware of their lead at all times and were reaching for the panic button well before LSU got the ball with a chance to go ahead.

I think Bill Connelly summed it up well in the Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody S&P Recap Show when he said “When you go up big you say ‘alright cool we got it’ and then disengage. And then after that, you can’t re-engage.”

I think that’s the nail on the head for what happened in the game Saturday. But Auburn only represented half the teams in the comeback, so let’s take a step back and look at everything that played a major factor in the 20-point comeback.

1 - Just from a run/pass perspective, Auburn got less conservative than you think.

Auburn had five drives between the start of the second half and LSU’s go-ahead field goal. They ran 23 plays in those five drives, seven of which were passes. The issue is that of those seven passes only one was complete, a six-yard pass in the Auburn’s opening drive of the second quarter. Hindsight is 20/20, but a 7:16 mix is usually a very acceptable amount of run/pass mix when you have a lead that you want to protect like Auburn did.

2 - Auburn abandoned outside runs completely.

In the early stages of the game, Auburn put LSU on skates and rocked them against a wall by mixing power runs with sweeps, zones, pitches, and yes, passes, but notably absent in the second half was that presence in space. In the second half Auburn completely neglected to test LSU’s ability to tackle outside of the box, only running two outside plays. The confusing thing is that those two runs were very positive plays, netting six and eight yards. And it’s not like LSU was setting the edge well, taking away those outside lanes, or reading an outside option (Gary Danielson was practically begging Auburn to run a read option on air), the visiting Tigers just blindly committed to three yards and a cloud of dust football despite not exactly being built for it. It’s a little like taking an F1 car and putting it in the field at Talladega against NASCARs. Completely out of their element.

3 - DBU took over.

Let’s expand our focus here to the entire second half, go-ahead and closeout field goals and all.

Obviously once Auburn went down, they had to pass the ball and pass the ball often. By my count Auburn only had one pass that wasn’t tightly contest or covered, and that was a drop on the sideline short of the first down marker anyway. Everywhere Jarrett Stidham threw the ball, Donte’ Jackson was there. The be-dreadlocked defensive back recorded four pass break ups in those two drives alone, one of which was a tip on fourth down that gave LSU the ball already in field goal range.

This was probably the most welcome part of the game for LSU fans. With the game on the line, it was the young million-dollar defense that had to shut it down, the same one that got that absolutely torched at the start of the game. More than anything else LSU prides itself on outstanding defensive back play and these two drives were a testament to the secondary’s mettle.

Brandon Adam over at the Rev had a nice article on this aspect of the comeback if you’re interested in further reading on the subject.

4 - LSU dominated special teams.

Yes, DJ Chark had the punt return to pull LSU within two. And yeah, that was a huge moment in the game. We’re not here to pretend like it wasn’t. But as a whole, LSU played perfect special teams in the second half of the game. Let’s review it point by point:

  • 30 yard punt by Growden, fair caught at the Auburn 10.
  • Van Rosenberg 49 yard punt. Russell Gage makes a shoestring tackle to save an estimated 10-15 yards on the return.
  • Von Rosenberg touchback on a 49-yard punt. This was the special teams low point in the game, a 49-yard punt.
  • DJ Chark 75-yard punt return touchdown to pull LSU with a field goal.
  • Growden 33-yard punt, downed at the Auburn three-yard line by Gage.
  • Connor Culp 42-yard field goal to give LSU the lead
  • Culp 36-yard field goal to take a game-winning field goal off the board for Auburn.

LSU had two nearly 50-yard punts to negate any field position win by Auburn, two backspin punts to nail the orange and blue Tigers to their endzone, and a 15-yard saving tackle to boot. Culp was a perfect two for two and Chark of course put LSU in a position to win the game in the first place. After years and years where special teams were just “there” save for a play or two against Florida, it was refreshing to see the third unit do their part when a victory in all three phases was needed.