Auburn still making case as SEC team of destiny, thanks to Newton
Auburn dominated LSU in every statistical phase, but still needed help in the end
First-year QB Cam Newton has steadily emerged as the Heisman front-runner
LSU is still alive in the SEC West title chase, but must beat Alabama on Nov. 6
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AUBURN, Ala. -- As Cam Newton stood on top of the brick fašade at the front of the Auburn student section in the South end zone of Jordan-Hare Stadium, engaging in his now-weekly celebration of another monstrous performance and another SEC victory, the scoreboard above him flashed the remnants of what might have seemed like a one-sided blowout.
Auburn rushing yards: 440. LSU: 115.
Auburn total yards: 526. LSU: 243.
Beneath those, however, were the only numbers that mattered: Auburn 24, LSU 17 -- the final score of yet another fourth-quarter dogfight. In spite of the home team's near-total defensive domination, despite another Herculean performance from its presumptive Heisman front-runner (217 rushing yards, two touchdowns), there was no telling which of these Top 10 foes would remain undefeated until Auburn tailback Onterrio McCalebb dashed 70 yards for a tiebreaking touchdown with 5:05 remaining.
Only after the defense had stopped LSU one last time and after Newton had bled the last 3:20 off the clock could Auburn's wide-smiled star make his customary dash to the sideline, hurdle a 3-foot fence and join 87,451 delirious faithful in celebrating their latest victory.
"My adrenaline was still pumping," said Newton.
Auburn is now 8-0, the SEC's lone remaining undefeated team, and with the exception of Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe, every win has required nearly four full quarters of work.
"There were a lot of times in that game that it did not look good -- but I say that every week," said Auburn coach Gene Chizik. "I don't know what makes team chemistry. I have no clue. I only know in my heart of hearts, that we have it."
A year ago, they were a middling 8-5 team just trying to find their identity under then first-year coach Chizik. Thanks in large part to the arrival of a certain magnetic, athletically gifted transfer quarterback, Auburn stands on the brink of a likely top-three ranking in the new BCS standings, enjoying its best season since Tommy Tuberville's 13-0 team in 2004.
Newton put his stamp on Saturday's victory with yet-another career-high rushing night (topping the 198 he put on Kentucky two weeks ago), including a dazzling 49-yard third-quarter touchdown run that left no fewer than three LSU defensive backs on the ground, unable to get even a hand on him. "It's my job description to make that play," he said nonchalantly afterward.
But it would be disingenuous to say he did it alone. Behind a relentless offensive line and some textbook perimeter blocking by the receivers, Auburn racked up 440 rushing yards against an LSU defense that came in allowing just 83.6 yards per game. Freshman tailback Michael Dyer went for 100, McCalebb for 84.
"It's a lot of hard work paying off," said guard Ryan Pugh. "It makes you feel good when they tell you [afterward] you ran for 440 yards against the No. 3 defense in the country."
Auburn had to grind out yards, in part, because it often had the entire field to work with. As has been the case all season, LSU quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee struggled most of the day, with one of the offense's lone highlights coming on a trick play (fullback Spencer Ware's 39-yard touchdown pass to Rueben Randle). It did, however, put on a special-teams clinic, with punters Derek Helton and Josh Jasper combining to pin Auburn inside its own 10 five times.
As a result, Auburn, which had gone up 10-3 early in the second quarter, scored just once on its next seven possessions. After LSU tied the game 17-17 on Ware's pass early in the fourth quarter, Newton led Auburn from his own 20 to his opponent's 40 before a puzzling pair of play calls gave the ball back to LSU with 7:51 remaining.
But a dominant as Newton was on offense, defensive tackle Nick Fairley played as impressive a role on defense. On Saturday, the future All-American notched 3.5 tackles for loss, two coming within a three-play span on LSU's subsequent possession to force a three-and-out and give Auburn another chance to drive for the lead with 5:05 remaining, this time starting from its own 10.
On first down, Newton burst for 16 yards, followed by a 4-yard Dyer run. Then McCalebb took a handoff around left end, found a seam and dashed 70 yards nearly untouched to the end zone. (Speedy LSU star Patrick Peterson, to his credit, nearly chased McCalebb down from across the field.)
"Once I got around the corner," said McCalebb, "I wasn't going to let anybody catch me."
Suddenly, SEC opponents are down to just four more chances (or, if Auburn gets its way, five) to catch the Tigers.
The knock on Auburn coming into Saturday was its defense, fresh off a 65-43 shootout with Arkansas and ranked just 63rd nationally. Defense was not a problem Saturday, but it's hard to say how much of that was to Auburn's credit and how much was yet another poor offensive showing from LSU.
Still, with so many close wins week after week, Auburn has to eventually run into someone it can't outlast. Doesn't it? It's played eight straight weeks without a break and won't get one until the second-to-last week of the season (Nov. 20). Chizik said the defense in particular is banged up, with "freshmen and walk-ons" pressed into action Saturday.
Could the letdown come next week at sure-to-be-overlooked Ole Miss? A couple of weeks later against Georgia? Or is this team destined to be 11-0 heading into what would surely the biggest Iron Bowl in two decades (Nov. 26 in Tuscaloosa)?
Predictably, Auburn coaches and players insisted they aren't taking anything for granted, that nothing can stop their weekly routine. But with the most hyped player in the country now residing in their locker room, with "Auburn" inching ever closer to the top of the various rankings, the noise is bound to grow even louder than this stadium was during Saturday's fourth-quarter defensive stops.
"It's in the back of your mind," admitted Pugh," and you're thinking about it when you're not in the football [complex]."
Inside those walls and on the practice field, however, the Tigers press on. Rest and recovery can wait until December. They're having too much fun right now to stop and think about the implications.
"We're playing as one," said defensive end Antoine Carter. "We're tired, we're beat up, but you don't hear anyone talking bad or complaining."
Why would they? As the Jordan-Hare fans shouted with ferocity Saturday, right now, It's great ... to be ... an Auburn Tiger.