LSU clears three-score deficit, survives Auburn

STRUTTING TO SIX:  John Emery Jr. high steps into the end zone for what proved to be the decisive TD Saturday night for LSU at Auburn. (Photo courtesy LSU Athletics)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

After giving up 17 unanswered points Saturday night in the first half at Auburn, LSU’s 21-17 come-from-behind victory justified what Brian Kelly’s been saying about his team the entire time.

They just won’t quit.

“It’s been the DNA of this group to battle, to fight,” Kelly said. “We did that tonight. They found a way to win. Look, at the end of the day, there’s a saying in golf: There’s no pictures on the scorecard, there’s just what you score. And tonight, there’s no picture on the scoreboard for us. We just found a way to win this game.”

It was the first road win for Kelly with the Tigers, and it was a grinder as LSU (4-1) upped its Southeastern Conference record to 2-0 heading into next Saturday morning’s visit from No. 8 Tennessee in Tiger Stadium.

Auburn (3-2) put the visitors on their heels from the outset.

With former LSU quarterback TJ Finley sidelined with a sprained AC joint, Auburn relied on Robby Ashford to helm the offense. The move paid dividends immediately, as Ashford hit Ja’Varrious Johnson on a 56-yard touchdown pass just two minutes in to go up 7-0.

LSU’s defense was shaken, a man down after starting cornerback Sevyn Banks left the field on a stretcher following a collision on the opening kickoff. Banks was cleared to return with the team to Baton Rouge, LSU officials said after the game.

The Tigers’ comeback came with quarterback Jayden Daniels running things, but it finished with Garrett Nussmeier behind center. Daniels left the game in the fourth quarter after attempting an awkward slide. Kelly said that Daniels was in pain, but early reports indicate no structural damage to his knee.

Auburn took a surprising 17-0 lead after Ashford tossed an 18-yard touchdown to Camden Brown early in the second quarter, and Anders Carlson knocked in a 29-yard field goal with 9:38 left in the half. Ashford threw for 164 yards in the second quarter and finished with 337 yards on 19-of-37 passing including the two touchdowns, but his night ended with a costly interception by Greg Brooks, Jr. that sealed the outcome with 2:18 remaining.

“We went to Robber coverage, we had been playing in a lot of quarter coverage on that down,” Kelly said. “[Brooks] was the robber. [Defensive coordinator] Matt [House] said to me, ‘He’s going to steal this one,’ because he had seen the route before and he was just a little late. He was waiting on it, and he in fact stole it.”

LSU’s secondary held Ashford to just 90 yards passing and no points in the second half.

“They made some plays, so give Auburn credit in the passing game,” Kelly said. “We cleaned some things up at half time, made some adjustments in some coverages, and certainly tightened things up.”

LSU’s first score came with 6:33 left in the second quarter after BJ Ojulari strip-sacked Ashford and Jay Ward returned it for a 23-yard touchdown. It wasn’t until 15 seconds were left in the first half that LSU scored its first offensive points, with Daniels scoring on a one-yard option keeper. John Emery Jr. completed the comeback with a 20-yard touchdown run with 3:32 left in the third, a play that wound up as the difference in the contest.

LSU’s struggles through the air forced Kelly’s offense to operate on the ground, but no Tiger eclipsed the 70-yard mark, with Josh Williams leading the way with 68 yards on 17 carries. LSU’s run game finished with a combined 49 carries for 185 yards.

LSU was saddled by 10 penalties for 96 yards.

That 2-0 start in conference play has Kelly feeling good, and relieved.

“We found a way to win. It’s tough competition in the SEC West, especially going on the road,” Kelly said. “It’s a tough crowd that you have to overcome. Was that our best performance? I hope not. But it was gutty, it was gritty, and it was one that I’m proud of our guys, the way they hung in there down 17.”

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