AUBURN, Ala. -- A blowout that was supposed to unfold never showed up at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night.
Instead, No. 2-ranked LSU found itself in a toe-to-toe battle for 60 minutes with Auburn before prevailing 12-10 in a game that became a defensive struggle for the final half.
Drew Alleman's 30-yard field goal late in the third quarter gave LSU a slender lead and the defense made it stand up -- finally when an Auburn last-ditch drive fizzled when Tharold Simon intercepted Kiehl Frazier's final pass near midfield.
"Any time you come down to Auburn and you get a victory on the road, it's a great win," said LSU coach Les Miles, who earned a win on The Plains for only the second time.
"Not perfect, work to do, but we'll take a victory on the road at Auburn."
After a start that seemed to make a dominant performance probable, LSU (4-0, 1-0 SEC) spent most of the night trying to overcome mistakes.
Two lost fumbles by quarterback Zach Mettenberger in the first quarter got the Tigers off track and penalties pestered LSU the rest of the night: nine for 80 yards in all.
"I made a couple of mistakes early on, but (winning) really showed the character of this team," said Mettenberger, who finished with a season-low 169 passing yards. "It got tough late, but we were able to come out of this one with the win."
Auburn (1-3, 0-2) took advantage of LSU's struggles to take a stunning 10-9 halftime lead, scoring its only TD after the second of Mettenberger's two giveaways and getting Cody Parkey's 40-yard field goal right before the break.
LSU's malaise continued in the third quarter when the offense couldn't carve out three yards to convert a first down and then special-teams penalties -- two of them on one punt worth 24 yards -- prevented a chance for decent field position.
With Auburn's defense playing inspired and much better than it had in the first three games, LSU struggled to piece together sustained drives.
Four of the first five series ended in punts, but in that one exception the Tigers got the points they needed to regain the lead.
"It was a field position game, which we knew going in it was going to be and we knew it had to be," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "I am very proud of the effort (Auburn) gave and the improvement they made."
Three straight incompletions forced LSU to punt from its 12-yard line, but on Brad Wing's kick Quan Bray muffed the ball and Jarvis Landry recovered just past midfield.
Mettenberger got just enough time on second-and-12 to loft a deep pass down the left sideline to Kadron Boone for a 29-yard completion that got LSU into field goal range.
Bottled up most of the night, LSU's bulky tailback, Kenny Hilliard, broke free for a 12-yard pickup that got the Tigers close enough for Alleman to nail the go-ahead kick.
The tide of the first half was turned late in the opening quarter when Mettenberger was sacked, coughed up the ball and Angelo Blackson recovered.
Until that point, LSU had dominated, devouring 115 yards on two drives to take a 9-0 lead. But in a harbinger of the rest of the half for Mettenberger, those first two series had some emptiness.
After forcing an Auburn three-and-out on the game's first series, LSU took the ball and methodically churned out 56 yards, moving to the 2-yard line, where it faced third-and-one.
Mettenberger and backup center Elliott Porter -- in the game because starter P.J. Lonergan tweaked a knee on the second offensive play of the night -- couldn't connect on a snap and Auburn's Jeffrey Whitaker pounced on the ball.
Two plays after the exchange, LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery smothered Tre Mason in the end zone for a 2-0 lead.
Following the free kick, LSU again went to work and pounded away on a 59-yard drive. Spencer Ware provided a spark with a 28-yard burst on a lead play.
Mettenberger twice converted third downs on the series with a swing pass to Ware and a short zip to tight end Chase Clement. The second conversion set up a pair of one-yard runs, with Michael Ford dashing in on a wide toss for a 9-0 LSU lead.
Before LSU could run away, though, the game turned on their second turnover.
Looking for a receiver on third-and-four, Mettenberger stepped in the pocket but couldn't avoid Corey Lemonier, who dropped him for a sack. The ball popped out and Whitaker corralled it for Auburn at the 26-yard-line.
It looked bleak when LSU's defense smothered Onterrio McCalebb for a three-yard loss on the first snap, but Mason found a crease on second-and-long on a fake-dive, wide-pitch play and exploded down the sideline for 25 yards to the 4-yard line. McCalebb blasted in on the next play to close the gap to 9-7.
With the Auburn defense suddenly awake, LSU struggled to carve out first downs. After 115 yards and six first downs on those first two possessions, LSU managed only 65 yards and three first downs the rest of the half -- 30 yards on one Ware run.
Meanwhile, Auburn's offense found a groove. Although AU had only 88 first-half yards, it managed to piece together a 42-yard drive culminating with Cody Parkey's go-ahead 40-yard field goal right before halftime.
On that march, Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier got time to look for receivers and that came in handy on third-and-nine near midfield when he rifled a 22-yard strike -- AU's longest play of the first half -- to Emory Blake.
LSU's defense limited Auburn to 183 yards and nine first downs. LSU carved out 351 yards.
Numbers aside, there seemed to be little doubt in the LSU locker room that this game showed how much room there is for improvement.
"I think a lot of these guys know we haven't played our best complete game yet," Mettenberger said.
Added linebacker Luke Muncie, who picked Frazier off in the third quarter: "This is a huge victory. It was too close a call, but a win's a win and we're going to have a lot of stuff to look at for next week."
NOTES: LSU trailed at halftime for the first time this season, and just the second overall. The other was when Washington kicked a field goal in the opening minute of the game on Sept. 8 after the Tigers fumbled the opening kickoff ... Mettenberger has thrown a pair of interceptions at the goal line this season and coughed up a fumble at the two-yard line on Saturday ... McCalebb's first-quarter TD run was the 20th of his career, which ties him for 10th all-time on AU's career list. He shares that spot with 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, who racked up all 20 of his rushing scores in that one season ... Former LSU signee Patrick Miller got the start for Auburn at right tackle. Miller (6-foot-7, 288 pounds) was on campus in Baton Rouge from January on but was asked if he would gray shirt when LSU accepted more than the SEC-permitted 25 scholarships ... Renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews was recognized Saturday and drew applause from both sets of fans. Andrews, known for his work with Tommy John surgery, has been on the Auburn athletics staff for 20 years and is an LSU graduate.