AUBURN, Ala. -- Walking into LSU’s locker room at halftime gave Sam Montgomery a sick feeling inside.
But it wasn’t because his team was trailing 10-9 to what seemed like an overmatched Auburn team. Montgomery was upset at the long faces and disgusted by the hanging heads that followed him in.
“I’ve seen that before and I refused to have it again,” LSU’s junior defensive end said.
So, like any good leader, Montgomery stood up and addressed his teammates. He urged them to wipe the despair from the faces and expunge the negativity. The game was ugly, but Montgomery reminded players -- and coaches -- that these are the games LSU lives for.
Too close for comfort is something LSU and its head coach have thrived on for years, and to have a rough half spoil a night in Jordan-Hare was unacceptable.
“It’s one of those things where I know being a veteran guy that I’m going to go and give my all,” Montgomery said. “I just need somebody to come with me. And those guys really listened to me.
“That was a great point and time for our team to grow up and be men.”
And for the next 30 minutes of play, the Tigers did grow up, as they shut out Auburn and walked away from Pat Dye Field with their spirits soaring after a nail-biting 12-10 victory.
It’s very cliché, but all championship-caliber teams have these sluggish, uncomfortable games that serve as a pick-me-up.
Saturday night was LSU’s pick-me-up.
It was ugly, sloppy and uncharacteristically bad for a team that has real hopes of making back-to-back trips to the national championship game. But it wasn’t a loss, and it should motivate LSU.
Especially because execution, not talent, was the issue.
There was the opening drive that went 56 yards down to Auburn’s 2-yard line that ended with a Zach Mettenberger fumble. Then there was the second fumble by Mettenberger on the ensuing drive that almost ruined Montgomery’s safety after fumble No. 1.
After Mettenberger’s second turnover, LSU’s offense basically went into hiding, and the mistakes and miscues shined brightly.
At halftime, LSU had three penalties. By the end of the game, the Tigers had committed nine for 80 yards. They weren’t even tolerable ones, as Les Miles called them “knickknack.” They were careless and either gave Auburn hope or stalled what looked like promising LSU drives.
If penalties weren't hurting the Tigers, engineering plays was. When big runs seemed to ignite LSU’s offense, wild passes, drops or more penalties killed drives. After LSU’s Drew Alleman hit the go-ahead field goal early in the third, LSU mustered just 84 more yards on its last four drives.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight coming in, but we were just shooting ourselves in the foot,” said wide receiver Kadron Boone, who led LSU with three catches for 49 yards. “We have to correct those mistakes because they can hurt us in the back end of the schedule.”
And Boone's right.
Against Auburn, miscues helped a struggling team feel like it could upset the No. 2 team in the country. Against another ranked SEC opponent, they could cost LSU a win.
This team is too talented to let silly mistakes and a lack of poise, as Miles put it, get in the way of wins. A lack of execution irked Miles, but the penalties upset him, and he knows those can break any team in key situations.
“I promise you that’s something we gotta fix,” Miles said.
But with a grind-it-out, grit-your-teeth win like this, there are some positives. Miles' team grew and won a tight game in a great SEC atmosphere on the road.
That goes a long way in the confidence department, and heading into the meat of the SEC season, it served as a wake-up call for Miles' Tigers.
“It’s a tremendous lesson for us,” Miles said. “It’s something we’ll certainly be able to teach from in a very aggressive manner.
“Not perfect. Work to do, but we’ll take a victory on the road at Auburn.
“This is a place that tests you and I am pleased. That’s what we needed to have happened.”