Defense still LSU's calling card

AUBURN, Ala. -- LSU's offense, unlike last year's version, has a tendency to turn the ball over, especially in the red zone.

And the special teams? Last season was near perfection for a unit that routinely flipped the field. This year, the Tigers are missing field goals, getting penalties on returns and at times are just plain sloppy.

The defense, however, is vintage.

In Saturday's 12-10 win over Auburn, No. 2 LSU allowed the Plainsmen's offense a season-low 183 yards. It was another dominant performance from a unit that entered the night leading the SEC in total defense at 205 yards a game.

Unlike LSU's three previous performances, the Tigers needed every stop it could get against Auburn in what was LSU's first close game of the season.

"We were tested," said defensive end Sam Montgomery, who was at his disruptive best with 3.5 tackles for loss, including his second sack of the season. "I loved this. I loved the challenge."

The LSU defense kept answering challenges, even when other parts of the team struggled. The offense shot itself in the foot with a fumble in the red zone and another fumble that set Auburn up for a short field on its only touchdown. LSU has now failed to score in red zone possessions more times in four games this season (5) than it did in 14 games last season (4).

The special teams had destructive moments, including one punt return where the return team was flagged for not only a hold on the return, but a dead ball personal foul. There was also a missed field goal late in the game.

"Sloppy," head coach Les Miles called the performance.

Maybe he should leave the defense out of that critique. The defense was even turning the failures of the other phases of the game into positives. When quarterback Zach Mettenberger fumbled a snap on a third-and-goal in the first quarter, giving Auburn the ball at its own 3, Montgomery dumped Auburn running back Tre Mason in the end zone on the very next play for a safety, giving LSU a 2-0 lead and what was eventually the final margin of the game.

LSU's offense took the ensuing free kick and marched down for its only touchdown of the night. Montgomery's play had turned the negative of the first turnover into nine points for LSU.

It was one of those nights where the defense had to carry the load and make it hard for the opposing offense to carry its load

Auburn had to earn all nine first downs (none by penalty). Quarterback Kiehl Frazier ran for his life most of the night and often didn't get away. Safety Micah Eugene, who has found a niche as a blitzing dime back in long-yardage packages, had two of LSU's four sacks of Frazier. Montgomery was in his face all night and Barkevious Mingo had three of LSU's five quarterback hurries.

How disruptive was LSU? Of Auburn's 52 plays, 14 resulted in negative yards and two in interceptions.

"We played a great team," said Frazier, who threw for just 97 yards, completing 13 of 22 passes. "We have to give them all their credit. There's a reason why they're No. 2 in the country."

LSU was at its best in the second half.

After halftime, LSU got both of its interceptions of Frazier, including an interception of his last-play desperation heave by Tharold Simon, his first of the season. Linebacker Luke Muncie picked him off and often blanketed Frazier's favorite and most reliable target, tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen.

Most importantly, LSU shut out Auburn in the second half after a late AU field goal on its only sustained drive of the night -- 9 plays, 42 yards -- gave the home team a 10-9 lead shortly before halftime.

It started with an impassioned plea by Montgomery at halftime -- "He told them to 'play like me,' Miles said," -- and continued with inspired play. With the offense, which got off to a strong start, sputtering after halftime, the defense stayed under pressure, but kept playing sound football.

Auburn tried to beat LSU with misdirection, but often those plays would result by a disciplined LSU lineman staying home and dumping the Auburn ball-carrier for a loss. Auburn coach Gene Chizik said that running inside on LSU was "extremely difficult" and thought the best bet was to use misdirection to get to the perimeter.

With the Tigers usually not biting on the misdirection, a third of Auburn's 30 run plays resulted in lost yardage. And six of 26 pass plays ended in interceptions and sacks. Almost a third of Auburn's plays were disasters for the offense.

LSU had its disasters too, just not by a defense that was too busy carrying a Tigers team that, otherwise, looked vulnerable in its first real test of the season.