The Mountaineers (3-1) turned the ball over twice, missed two field goals, yielded punt returns of 26 and 60 yards (the latter went for a touchdown) and trailed 17-0 before 6:00 had gone by in the second quarter.
“I do not like missing two field goals,” said WVU head coach Bill Stewart. “I do not like giving up a punt return. I do not like us not handling the pressure.”
Indeed, there was a lot for Stewart to not like. But his team still had chances to take the lead in the latter stages, thanks largely to a stout defense that yielded only 230 yards to the Tigers, forced two turnovers and allowed the hosts to convert only only three of their 13 third downs.
But LSU’s defense was also up to the challenge. It held the Mountaineers to only 177 yards of offense. West Virginia converted only two of its 13 third downs. It failed to gain even 10 yards of offense on seven of its 13 drives.
“I felt pretty confident with that defense on the field,” said Tigers head coach Les Miles. “I felt like the game was really in control.”
Early on, Miles had little reason to doubt the outcome.
The Mountaineers took off on a promising second drive aided by a pair of personal foul penalties by the hosts. The second, a late hit on Lamin Barrow at the end of a 15-yard reception by Noel Devine, put WVU in position at the Tigers’ 16-yard line.
But West Virginia couldn’t capitalize on the LSU mistakes. Rushes by Devine on first and second downs gained five yards, and a third down pass from quarterback Geno Smith to receiver Jock Sanders fell incomplete.
The Tigers’ all-everything cornerback Patrick Peterson, who had already returned a punt 26 yards after WVU’s first possession, then blocked a 28-yard Tyler Bitancurt field goal attempt.
But flags continued to haunt Miles and company on their ensuing drive. Back-to-back false starts on left tackle Joseph Barksdale turned a second-and-3 into second-and-13. A 22-yard pass from Jordan Jefferson to Terrence Tolliver on third down was nullified by a holding flag, and LSU had to punt.
It mattered little, as the Tigers’ stout defense did what it has done all season -- make plays.
Mountaineer fullback Ryan Clarke fumbled at his team’s 10-yard line, and LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu recovered at the 7. Running back Stevan Ridley powered in from a yard away on fourth down, his fourth consecutive carry up the middle, to make it 7-0.
The West Virginia offense, playing without its star running back Devine (who was sidelined with what was reported to be a bruised toe), continued to struggle on its ensuing possession. The Tigers’ Mathieu was again an unlikely hero, intercepting Smith at the WVU 41-yard line.
No. 15 LSU’s offense couldn’t fully capitalize on the miscue. It failed to pick up a first down and settled for a 49-yard Josh Jasper field goal that made it 10-0 early in the second quarter.
Errors continued to haunt the visitors. A 10-yard foul for a chop block by Jeff Braun on the first play of the Mountaineers’ next possession ended any realistic thoughts of putting a drive together.
But Stewart and company added to their own problems by punting to Peterson. He returned the ensuing kick from Gregg Pugnetti 60 yards and went into the end zone almost untouched, making it 17-0 and setting off a wild celebration among the 92,575 in attendance at Tiger Stadium, the second-largest crowd to ever watch WVU play.
The coronation was briefly halted when West Virginia marched 53 yards in 10 plays towards the end of the half.
The drive included a critical fourth-and-2 conversion by Smith, who kept the ball on an option play and gained just enough to get a fresh set of downs. Three plays later, the sophomore quarterback found Stedman Bailey, who scooted to the outside and reached pay dirt. The 5-yard touchdown toss made it 17-7 at the intermission.
It was a first half that showed the importance of special teams and turnovers in football. LSU held that 10-point lead despite only gaining two first downs in the half. Its longest drive to that point covered only 20 yards, and its scoring “drives” had covered only seven and nine yards, respectively.
But the Mountaineers seemed to take heart in the way they had ended the first half. In the first series of the second half, safety Eain Smith intercepted a Jefferson pass and returned it to the Tigers’ 15-yard line.
Even the 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty Smith picked up for throwing the ball into the air in frustration after the play (he seemed to have a clear alley to the end zone and tripped over his own feet) did little to stymie the squad’s momentum. Two plays later, Geno Smith found Sanders for a 13-yard touchdown toss.
Suddenly, it was 17-14, and with the LSU offense’s struggles to that point, there was unrest amongst the vast majority of the Tiger Stadium crowd. Jefferson was continually booed by the attendees, and one of the loudest cheers of the night was reserved for when he was replaced for one series by Jarrett Lee.
“We didn’t throw it as well as we would have liked,” said Miles. “Our quarterback play has to get better. It’s just that simple.”
But Jefferson managed to put together one extended drive, aided by the power running of Ridley against a worn-down Mountaineer defense. Jefferson passed to Rueben Randle for nine yards on a critical third-and-7 from the WVU 45-yard line, and Ridley followed with a 12-yard rush two plays later.
West Virginia’s defense stiffened inside its 10-yard line, but the Tigers made it 20-14 with a 23-yard Jasper field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Mountaineers put together a drive of their own on the ensuing possession, getting to the LSU 28. But a counter play to Devine on second-and-8 from there went for a loss of three yards, and Smith couldn’t hook up with Sanders on third down.
Bitancurt then missed his second kick of the day, a 48-yarder that was wide left.
WVU would not gain another first down, going three-and-out on its final two possessions, both of which started inside its own 10-yard line.
The Tigers gained two first downs on a drive that started with just shy of three minutes to go, and Jefferson was able to kneel out of a victory formation to run out the clock.
“That was a tough one to lose,” said Stewart. “It is going to stick with me for a long time. It is going to stick with our staff, and more importantly, it is going to stick with our seniors.”
Smith was 14-of-29 passing for 119 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted once, but was not sacked all game despite being under heavy pressure and taking several hard hits from blitzing Tiger defenders.
Devine had one of his quietest games in a Mountaineer uniform, gaining only 37 yards on his 14 attempts, a 2.6 yards per carry average. WVU was held to only 58 yards rushing.
For LSU (4-0), Jefferson was 10-of-22 through the air for a mere 75 yards. He was sacked twice and intercepted twice. Ridley was the star, gaining 116 yards on 20 carries. None of his attempts went for a loss of yards.
West Virginia has a week off before taking on UNLV in a non-conference tilt at Milan Puskar Stadium on Oct. 9.
“We have to regroup,” said Stewart. “We have a week to get healed up and get ready to play UNLV at home before we start the Big East [conference play].”