Sluggish start dooms Auburn in loss at LSU

Battling adverse conditions and a steady downpour, Auburn’s offense turned the ball over four times — two by way of turning over on downs — in its eight first-half series on offense as No. 6 LSU dealt Auburn its first loss of the season 35-21 in front of a nationally televised ESPN audience Saturday night at Tiger Stadium.

“I think it was obvious at the first of the game we didn’t respond very well to the elements, to the crowd, and kind of got ourselves in a hole,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.

“Any time you get in a hole against a good team on the road, it’s tough enough anyway, and that put us in a hole and we were fighting uphill the rest of the day.”

In a miserable first half Saturday, Auburn’s first-half drives ended, in order, with a lost fumble, a turnover on downs after a fumbled punt snap, back-to-back punts, and interception, another turnover on downs and two consecutive punts.

Meanwhile, LSU’s high-powered offense scored on three of its first four possessions on offense for a 21-0 start, taking advantage with drives needing a combined eight plays and 2:34 to travel 140 yards.

“We’re pleased to a point, but we’re not satisfied,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We can play better, and we need to control these games.”

In the first quarter, Auburn (3-1, 1-1 SEC) managed only 41 yards of offense, including 9 passing yards, all coming on his first pass attempt — a screen pass to Ricardo Louis. Marshall didn’t connect with a receiver for longer than that the rest of the first half, finishing 6-of-16 for 31 yards.

“It got so bad there for awhile, we were having trouble keeping the balls dry,” Malzahn said of the sloppy conditions. “So throwing the football after that one was kind of in our mind, and in our face, and we thought, run the football a little bit more that first quarter.”

But it was Marshall’s mistakes that continued to put Auburn in bad positions. Marshall fumbled an exchange with tailback Cameron Artis-Payne on fourth-and-1 that gave LSU (4-0, 1-0) field position on its own 41.

Four plays later, on his first carry of the game, Hill busted through a gaping hole in Auburn’s defensive line and barreled his way 49 yards to the end zone to put LSU up quickly 7-0 at 11:16 in the first quarter.

“They did a good job executing, I think we were out of a gap right there, but we made adjustments and they were few and far between after that,” Malzahn said of Hill.

One minute and 20 seconds later, after Auburn punter Steven Clark couldn’t handle a deep snap in the rain and was tackled for a turnover on downs, Hill barreled up the middle relatively untouched for a 10-yard touchdown for a one-play scoring drive that lasted three seconds.

“It just set the tone, we realized we can execute against anybody we play,” LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger said of the quick start. “Auburn is a very good and capable team, then again we need to learn to keep our foot on the gas pedal and finish games.”

Hill finished with a career-high 184 rushing yards on 25 carries and three touchdowns, including a gut-punch 6-yard score on the LSU possession immediately following Auburn’s first scoring drive of the night to go ahead 28-7 five minutes into the third quarter. But much of his production came on his first eight carries, reaching 140 yards 2 1/2 minutes into the second quarter.

Auburn tried to make it a game in the second half, racking up 333 of their 437 yards of offense and ran 48 plays, as Malzahn’s up-tempo cracked the 80-play plateau he likes to reach, finishing with 85 plays.

A big reason for the second-half surge was the running of tailback Tre Mason, who emerged as Auburn’s go-to back, rushing for a season-high 132 yards — including 76 in the final two quarters — and two second-half touchdowns.

“We kind of beat ourselves in the beginning — the fumbles, our punter dropping a snap — putting the ball on the ground on offense cost us,” Mason said. “Those things will lose a game for you.”

Also helping matters was Marshall finally being able to connect with deep-threat Sammie Coates, who finished with a career-high 139 receiving yards on four receptions, all coming in the second half after the rain subsided.

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