Those who look solely at the final score may believe this was a rout, but the 62,056 in attendance -- the largest WVU home crowd since a 2003 win over Pitt -- would beg to differ.
After trailing 27-7 at halftime, head coach Dana Holgorsen’s offense began to find its rhythm in the third quarter, scoring the first two touchdowns of the period to draw back within six points and whip that crowd (still buzzing from having ESPN’s “College GameDay” on campus Saturday morning) into a frenzy.
But as national championship caliber teams almost always do, LSU was equal to the challenge. Just after Dustin Garrison’s 1-yard TD rush made it 27-21 near the end of the third quarter, Morris Claiborne took the ensuing kickoff back 99 yards for a score. Suddenly, the Tigers’ lead was back to 13 points and the task of coming back was that much more daunting.
“When the crowd got jacked and we came back on the field,” said LSU’s head coach, Les Miles, “I knew we were going to play.”
The return was deflating to the hosts’ hopes, and West Virginia’s fourth quarter execution suffered as a result.
Player of the Game
Suddenly, the defense could not tackle its opposition, allowing LSU to tack on another 14 points in the final 10 minutes of play. The offense never got back into the rhythm that it had shown in fits and spurts -- and ruled the day in the third quarter.
“If I was to have scripted it, I probably wouldn’t have scripted it this way,” Holgorsen said after his first defeat as a head coach. “[LSU is] going to find ways to win. They were a smarter football team than we are.”
Intelligent play was not one of the hallmarks of a poorly-played first half for the Mountaineers, who turned the ball over three times before intermission and never had field position in their favor. A stretch of 31 consecutive plays (spanning possessions by both teams) were run on WVU’s side of the 50-yard line.
And with under a minute left in the half, when the Tigers’ Tyrann Mathieu picked off a Geno Smith screen pass and ran it back to the West Virginia 1 (setting up Jarrett Lee’s touchdown pass to Chase Clement) it looked as though the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The Mountaineers trailed 27-7.
“It came down to two things: turnovers -- which once we turned the ball over a couple times it gone down to where they were flipping the field -- and they were a lot better than we are at special teams,” Holgorsen said. “If you factor those two things in, good field position is going to be a struggle.”
Player of the Game
Six total tackles
One pass break-up
Turnovers, penalties and special teams conspired to work against WVU all night long. LSU’s average starting field position was better than its own 44-yard line; the Mountaineers’ was their own 15.
Those factors explained how Holgorsen’s team won the total yardage battle 533-366, ran 87 plays to LSU’s 66, saw Smith set a school record for passing yardage in a game (463) and still lost by 26 points.
But while so much of the conversation in the lead-up to this game revolved around whether the West Virginia could move the ball on the Tigers -- a question that yardage total answered with a resounding “yes” -- there were no self-proclaimed moral victors to be found among the Mountaineers.
“We did some good things offensively and defensively, but you can’t beat a good team by [making mistakes],” Holgorsen said. “You can talk about 500 yards if you want to, but the only thing I’m going to talk about tomorrow is four turnovers.”
Couple those miscues with one of WVU’s worst defensive performances at home in the past decade (LSU’s 47 points were the most scored by any Mountaineer opponent since a 48-17 loss to Maryland in 2002) and this was too tall a task.
For the Tigers (4-0), Lee completed 16 of 28 passes for 180 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Spencer Ware ran for 92 yards on 23 carries, and Michael Ford added another 82 yards and two touchdowns on 12 attempts.
West Virginia’s Smith was 38-of-65 through the air (a school record for attempts, besting the previous benchmark by eight) for 463 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted twice. Tavon Austin had 187 receiving yards, and Stedman Bailey added another 115.
The Mountaineers’ 533 yards of offense nearly matched the 623 the Tigers’ defense had surrendered to their first three opponents of the season -- Oregon and Mississippi State among them. It was only the fourth time since 2005 LSU had given up 500 or more yards, and the most any team had gained since Arizona State rolled up 560 on the Tigers in 2005.
“I think what is being done here at West Virginia is very strong,” said Miles, in a bit of lofty praise from a coach who won the 2007-08 national championship. “They have a good quality team.”
With a third win over a ranked team in the first four weeks of the season -- all of which came on the road or at neutral sites -- Miles’ Tigers thrust themselves into a national debate as to whether they should be the nation’s No. 1 team.
West Virginia (3-1) has one last non-conference tune-up game remaining (a contest against Bowling Green next Saturday) before beginning Big East Conference play.