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  • Back in Tiger Stadium after an upset loss to Troy put him on thin ice two weeks ago, Ed Orgeron was picked up by his players with a dominant second-half rally.
By Andy Staples
October 14, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. — Even though the momentum had already swung, the moment seemed too prophetic. LSU had gone down 20–0 to Auburn early in the second quarter. Swaths of empty seats had appeared on one side of Tiger Stadium. At halftime, LSU would honor the 2007 national title team on the field. That team’s coach would be on the field with them.

Yes, Les Miles. The guy LSU fired last season after a loss to Auburn that broke the back of a particular shade of tiger. He stood at the 50-yard line at halftime, holding that Waterford Crystal football in his hands. The crowd, now significantly smaller than the announced total of more than 101,000, roared as Miles was mobbed at midfield by his former players.

The numbers on the scoreboard at that moment didn’t matter, even though LSU had closed that gap to nine points. Auburn had jumped on the home team, and Les Miles had gotten the biggest ovation as his replacement floundered.

Inside the locker room, Ed Orgeron didn’t worry about the optics of the man he replaced bathing in the adulation of a crowd that would boo Orgeron if Auburn had another quarter like the first, when it ripped off 9.9 yards a play and left LSU’s defense sucking wind. Had that happened, the team that lost to Troy in its last home game would have been headed for an equally embarrassing loss to a more esteemed opponent.

During halftime, receiver Russell Gage approached Orgeron.

“We’ve got you, coach,” Orgeron remembered Gage saying. “We’ve got this.”

LSU’s offense, which had driven for two second-quarter touchdowns, wouldn’t find the end zone again. But LSU’s defense would look like an LSU defense, setting up LSU’s special teams to play a nearly perfect half. Auburn’s offense, meanwhile, would lapse into predictability and stay tethered inside its own territory. After Connor Culp’s second field goal of the fourth quarter sailed through and LSU defensive end Arden Key buried Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham on a desperate fourth down, LSU had won, 27–23.

Auburn gained 290 yards in the first half. In the second, LSU held the visiting Tigers to 64 yards and four first downs. Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson raced through LSU’s defense for 123 first-half yards but finished with 156 after LSU made one adjustment at halftime. “[Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda] went over there to that white board,” linebacker Devin White said, “and we fixed it.” The fix? Bringing a safety down in the box when Johnson lined up in the Wildcat. Plays that surged for eight or nine yards suddenly gained one or two. Eventually, Auburn stopped running it so much.

LSU’s offense didn’t have much success in the second half, either, but its special teams units were brilliant. Early in the fourth quarter, receiver DJ Chark settled under an Aidan Marshall punt. He knew he could score if he made one man miss. He caught the ball near the right hashmark and slashed left. Suddenly, he was alone on the left sideline. Seventy-five yards later, he looked back and saw no flags. “We weren’t supposed to be in the game,” Chark said. “But when you let us stay in the game…”

Later, LSU quarterback Danny Etling took off up the middle on a third-and-four play. He didn’t make it, but a field goal would give LSU the lead. Orgeron expected a measurement, though, and didn’t immediately send out the field goal team. Before his team could make a haphazard attempt, Orgeron burned a timeout. That allowed Culp, who had made two of three field goal attempts after replacing Jack Gonsoulin, to have plenty of time to set up for a 42-yard attempt with 2:36 remaining. The crowd let him know he’d made it before the ball sailed over the crossbar. Then Culp started running. “Everything goes black,” Culp said.

Everything after that went purple and gold. The defense got another stop. Culp tacked on a 36-yarder with 38 seconds remaining.

They hate day games here. But as Auburn’s hopes darkened, it felt late enough. At 5:53 p.m. Central, the voice of Death Valley’s PA announcer boomed: “The sun has found its home in the western sky. It is now Saturday night in Tiger Stadium!” Soon, Stidham was under Key and the party was underway.

Etling flipped a game ball to Orgeron. Orgeron flipped it back. “I didn’t want it,” Orgeron said. “It’s about them.” Moments later, Etling held that ball high as the band played the alma mater. Culp swayed as he rode on his teammates’ shoulders. Orgeron embraced his wife and sons. The crowd, which had cheered so loud for Orgeron’s predecessor at halftime, now cheered only for Orgeron’s team.

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