Auburn's defense got a much-needed 'head start' on LSU's elite offense
Jayden Daniels and LSU are putting up Joe Burrow-like numbers. Can Auburn, fresh off a bye week, turn back the clock in Death Valley?
(Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
Hugh Freeze was not coaching in the SEC when LSU blazed its legendary trail of destruction in 2019.
He was in his first season at Liberty when the likes of Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson and Clyde Edwards-Helaire combined to create one of the greatest offenses in college football history.
So Freeze knows he can’t directly compare that Burrow-led LSU offense to this one quarterbacked by Jayden Daniels and featuring Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr. out wide.
But it’s not a stretch at all to say they’re pretty dang close: LSU’s 2019 offense averaged 7.89 yards per play and 48.4 points per game. So far in 2023, LSU is averaging 7.81 yards per play and 44.8 points per game.
“I think their offense is the most explosive that I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Freeze said Monday. “… This quarterback, if he’s not in the Heisman discussion, there’s a problem. He’s playing at an incredibly high level with dynamic receivers, and there’s not a weakness on that offense. It’s impressive to watch.”
That’s the challenge Auburn faces Saturday night in Death Valley. Auburn will try to limit an LSU team that a) isn’t afraid to get into shootouts with anybody and b) currently leads all of college football in explosive plays of 20-plus and 30-plus yards.
However, this is not unfamiliar territory for Auburn as a program. Four years ago, Auburn went down to Baton Rouge to play that legendary 2019 LSU offense — and it held Burrow and Co. to their worst output of the season.
LSU averaged only 5.77 yards per play, which was the only time it was held to anything under 6.5 for the entire season. The Bayou Bengals scored just 23 points, marking the only time anyone prevented them from scoring at least four touchdowns.
That game happened two head coaches and three defensive coordinators ago for Auburn. A lot of faces who were involved in that matchup, a 23-20 loss for the orange-and-blue Tigers, are long gone. That includes All-American defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who was the key to a 3-1-7 scheme, because he could do the work of two linemen at the same time.
However, Auburn’s starting safeties in 2023 — Jaylin Simpson and Zion Puckett — were both on that 2019 roster. (Puckett appeared in the game but didn’t record a stat, while Simpson didn’t participate.)
In 2020 and 2021, they helped Auburn seal back-to-back wins over LSU and pull off the program’s first road victory in the series since 1999. And, in 2022, Auburn’s defense held LSU to a season-low 270 yards on 75 plays (3.60 yards per play) in a disappointing 21-17 loss in which the offense couldn’t get anything going late.
“It was very, very frustrating because they still — even last year — had elite receivers,” Simpson said Tuesday. “They still had Nabors. They had (Kayshon) Boutte and a couple of other guys. And we held them to not even what, 80 yards passing? Something like that. (Note: It was 85.) And to do that and take an L? That was tough.
“It was very frustrating, and I want to get it back.”
That’s much easier said than done, as Auburn hasn’t faced many offenses of this caliber since that showdown with Burrow and LSU in 2019.
Yet this is an Auburn team that gave back-to-back defending national champion Georgia a tight, four-quarter game the last time out. And even though Auburn fell short at the end, that performance resonated with the Tigers’ defense.
“I think we learned that we're capable of beating everybody in the country,” Puckett said Tuesday. “That's something that we're gonna stand on for the rest of the year.”
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