By BRETT MARTEL, AP Sports Writer
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — LSU coach Ed Orgeron didn’t want the game ball, turning down a chance to stick it in the faces of so many critics who think he is in over his head.
Across Tiger Stadium, Auburn fans clustered in the stands near the visitor’s locker room voiced their displeasure with coach Gus Malzahn, some yelling audibly that he’s “got to go.”
Such is life in the Southeastern Conference, where a young LSU team might be changing minds — and winning back disillusioned fans — thanks to a pair of gritty victories.
D.J. Chark returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown, Connor Culp kicked field goals of 42 and 36 yards inside the final three minutes, and LSU erased a 20-point deficit on its way to a 27-23 victory over No. 10 Auburn on Saturday.
“We’re just becoming a football team. Our whole staff is galvanized. Our football team is galvanized,” Orgeron said. “We were going to be resilient. We weren’t going to give up. We were going to block out the noise and we were going to fix the things that were fixable.”
LSU’s defense improved dramatically in the second half, when it allowed no points and just 64 yards. That enabled LSU (5-2, 2-1) to win with special teams play.
Defensive coordinator “Dave Aranda had ice in his veins tonight,” Orgeron said. “We made some mistakes very early. Other people would have tended to quit. Not us.”
Russell Gage made a diving 14-yard touchdown reception and had a 70-yard run that set up another TD in the first half, when LSU closed to 23-14 to set up a tense finish.
Kerryon Johnson rushed for 156 yards and a short TD for Auburn (5-2, 3-1), which had won four straight.
“This is an extremely tough loss from the standpoint that we got off to an extremely good start,” said Malzahn, whose team had won its previous three SEC games by 21 points or more.
Malzahn couldn’t recall Auburn losing such a big lead since he became coach in 2013.
“The biggest thing was the punt return. That really broke our back,” he said. “We were in pretty good shape up to that point.”
Arden Key’s sack of Jarrett Stidham with 2 seconds left squelched Auburn’s last hope of an improbable comeback, sending the volume in Tiger Stadium about as high as it has been this season despite an unusual number of empty seats visible for a competitive SEC game.
After LSU quarterback Danny Etling kneeled to end it, LSU players streamed wildly onto the field and then ran toward the corner of the end zone closest to their locker room to acknowledge the school’s frenzied student section.
Orgeron, under heavy scrutiny since a lopsided loss to Mississippi State and an upset against Troy, calmly shook hands with Malzahn and then tossed the game ball back to Etling after the quarterback tried to give it to his coach.
“I said, ‘I don’t want it. You get it,'” Orgeron said. “It ain’t about me. It’s about them.”
Derrius Guice rushed for 71 hard yards for LSU, including a crucial third-down conversion in which he ran through a tackler at the first-down marker, setting up the go-ahead field goal.
Etling finished 13 of 24 for 206 yards and one TD. Chark had 150 yards receiving on five catches. Stephen Sullivan scored LSU’s opening TD on a fourth-down end around from a yard out.
“A lot of people doubted us early in the year,” Chark said. “I’m just so proud of these guys. These guys didn’t give up and this just shows the type of players we have.”
Stidham completed 9 of 26 passes — although some crucial ones were dropped — for 165 yards and one TD, a 49-yarder to Will Hastings.
Auburn: Because of its inability to mount any offense in the second half, Auburn missed a chance to continue climbing in the AP Poll on a weekend when several top 10 teams faltered.
LSU: Talent and effort appear to be progressively mitigating the squad’s relative youth and inexperience. LSU proved it could beat one of the SEC’s front-runners, and for a second straight week, LSU’s defense demonstrated it could close out a tight game, having done so at Florida a week earlier.
Auburn had a chance to win at LSU for the first time since 1999.
“We knew there was no better opportunity than this year,” Johnson said. “It hurts, but it is not the end of our season. We just have to put our head downs in practice this week and get back on track.”
Meanwhile, LSU players were gratified they could execute a memorable comeback with former coach Les Miles and members of LSU’s 2007 national championship team — who were honored at halftime — at the game.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re ranked when you come into Tiger Stadium,” said cornerback Donte Jackson, echoing comments similar to those Miles used to say. “Death Valley is where dreams come to die.”
Auburn: Travels next week to Arkansas, which Auburn beat 56-3 last season.
LSU: LSU visits Ole Miss.
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