Alex ScarboroughESPN Staff Writer
AUBURN, Ala. — You can’t rewrite the whole long, sad history of objectively bad, borderline counterproductive, LSU offenses in one day. Not even against a top-10 Auburn team on the road. Because, let’s face it, we heard that same tall tale last season against the very same team when Danny Etling & Co. came roaring back from 20 points down at halftime to win inside Tiger Stadium.
That proved to be nothing but a trick. A sleight of hand. Yet another mirage in the post-JaMarcus Russell era, where there’s no middle ground between extreme hope and extreme mediocrity, and trips to the College Football Playoff are possible but never likely.
Sometimes it’s as if Les Miles never left. It even felt that way Saturday when his successor, Ed Orgeron, called for a fake-punt jump pass at midfield. It was a play that only Miles could have pulled off, and no one should try to imitate the Mad Hatter.
But something else happened after the punt-pass gone awry, after LSU gave away a 10-point lead to start the game and looked well on its way to yet another heartbreaking loss. Joe Burrow happened, and a path to SEC contention and playoff possibilities materialized. While his final stat line wasn’t particularly inspiring — he completed 15 of 34 passes for 249 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions — there was something about his play that felt different.
Maybe it was the way he always kept his eyes downfield. Maybe it was how he hung in the pocket, ran for tough yards and took shots deep. He didn’t flinch. And when the fourth quarter rolled around, he took control, putting together two fantastic final drives — the first where he hit Derrick Dillon in stride for a 71-yard touchdown to make it a one-score game, and then a methodical 14-play, 52-yard drive that drained 5:38 off the clock and set up the game-winning field goal from Cole Tracy as time expired.
Looking back on that fourth-and-7 during the game-winning drive, when LSU’s offense was stuck at midfield, down two with 2:00 remaining and timeouts to spare, Orgeron could have punted and let the defense try to force a three-and-out. But did he even consider that?
“Nope,” Orgeron said afterward.
That one word spoke volumes. It spoke of confidence. When asked if this was the kind of game, the kind of performance, he brought Burrow in for, Orgeron nodded his head slowly. LSU had to fend of Cincinnati and other suitors for the Ohio State graduate transfer, and the Tigers were glad they did when Burrow delivered that 9-yard strike on fourth down, keeping the drive alive.
“He showed today that he’s a competitor,” Orgeron said. “Things weren’t always good, but he competed his butt off. I thought he played well. Didn’t play great, played well. He’s 3-0 as our starting quarterback. That’s pretty good.”
The thing is, LSU never needed greatness from its quarterback. Good would have always been good enough.
The program has always had an upper-echelon defense. It has had plenty of parts on offense, too, when you consider the stable of running backs and receivers it has sent to the NFL. But it has never had the missing piece: a confident, competent quarterback who can make plays when called upon.
Burrow showed against Auburn that he might be just that. He might be the one to stop the long line of quarterbacks with strong arms, bountiful potential and ultimately underwhelming production — names like Brandon Harris, Jordan Jefferson, Jarrett Lee, Ryan Perrilloux and Anthony Jennings.
Earlier in the week, Orgeron acknowledged that to gain respect as a quarterback you have to win big games. And not only did Burrow do it against Miami to start the season, he did it again on an even bigger stage against Auburn.
Orgeron talked to his team about poise before the game, and Burrow showed it.
He talked to his team about not panicking, and Burrow never did.
Afterward, Orgeron called Burrow “cool as cucumber.”
“That’s kind of how I’ve been my whole life,” Burrow said. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going. And I think of myself as a tough guy.”
He saw Auburn’s defense load the box, daring him to pass.
“They kept challenging us and pressing us,” he said. “So we had to take shots.”
He wouldn’t say the game validated him as a quarterback. He wouldn’t even make bold proclamations about the team and its playoff chances.
But after beating a ranked Miami to start the season and top-10 Auburn on the road, the game said something.
“I think it shows that we’re a really tough team,” Burrow said. “We gritted this one out.”
Tight end Foster Moreau, who was wide-eyed and optimistic about Burrow’s arrival during SEC media days in July, was wide-eyed for different reasons late Saturday night. The senior thought back to two years ago, when he hugged then-coach Miles in the same end zone where Tracy kicked the game-winning field goal Saturday. He and Miles thought they’d won the game back then, but time had expired. LSU lost, and soon Miles lost his job.
This time around, they finished the task at hand. This time, Moreau said his quarterback’s experience shined when it mattered most.
They had to dig deep, he said, and they did.
He could barely describe the feeling when he saw Burrow hit Dillon for that late touchdown.
“That was incredible,” Moreau said, shaking his head and searching for the right words. “Jeez. Wow. That gave us a big boost of energy.”
He added: “We felt it was our game to win at that point.”
They were 10-point underdogs, but they won, beating an Auburn team many had pegged as the chief competition to No. 1 Alabama in the SEC West.
Now, with Burrow at quarterback and the team’s confidence growing, LSU has taken that mantle, showing it might have the offense to finally compete.
There’s still a long way to go, of course, and a lot left to prove.
Saturday was the start, but we’re talking about LSU here. There’s much more history to rewrite than will fit in one day.