|Unforeseen path to victory|
Rueben Randle: Early TD catch sets a tone
No. 2-ranked Tigers survive WVU's 463-yard passing barrage behind Lee's three TD passes, Claiborne's 99-yard kickoff return and a stretched out defense that comes up with four key turnovers
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. – Afterward the numbers were staggering.
School records all over the place for West Virginia’s offense. A quarterback torching LSU’s ironclad defense for the most passing yards since Les Miles’ first game as the Tigers’ coach. Two receivers combining for 302 yards alone between them. That defense having to endure 87 plays.
Perhaps the most amazing number of all, though: Despite a monumental night by the Mountaineers’ offense, LSU stormed to a 47-21 victory at Milan Puskar Stadium.
Jarrett Lee passed for three first-half touchdowns, Morris Claiborne turned the game completely around with a 99-yard kickoff return for a score and Spencer Ware put the offense on his back on a game-sealing touchdown drive as the Tigers finished September perfect at 4-0.
And that defense, which WVU quarterback Geno Smith shredded for 463 passing yards? There was some pride restored with four turnovers, including two from the human highlight machine, Tyrann Mathieu, who set up a touchdown right before halftime.
A strange night indeed in front of a rambunctious crowd of 62,056.
If somebody glanced at the final stats without knowing the final score, the logical guess would be a West Virginia win.
The 16th-ranked Mountaineers (3-1) rolled up 533 total yards and 28 first downs, anchored by touchdown drives of 73, 80 and 90 yards.
“We really thought we could’ve defended it better,” LSU coach Les Miles said.
That first glance would require a double-take, though, as the Tigers cruised to their biggest true road victory since walloping Mississippi State 45-0 to kick off the 2007 season.
“It’s a testament to our offense,” said Mathieu, who also swiped a ball from WVU receiver Brad Starks in the first half. “They definitely had our backs this week.
“We knew (the Mountaineers) were going to make some big plays and get some yardage, but it was all about getting the ‘W.’ ”
The Tigers accomplished that by scoring the game’s first two touchdowns to take a comfortable lead and then stemming the Mountaineers’ comeback bid with the game’s final three scores – two fourth-quarter touchdowns after Claiborne’s dazzling return.
LSU won a third game in four this season away from Baton Rouge, all against ranked foes, despite the defense’s uncharacteristic night.
“The big thing is, we understand how to go on the road,” Miles said.
“When the crowd got jacked when we came onto the field, I knew we were going to play. It was like they were having a football party and they invited us.”
That party included yellow towels draped over every seat that they fans wagged furiously, especially when Smith engineered 80- and 90-yard TD drives in the third quarter to close LSU’s seemingly fluffy 27-7 halftime gap to 27-21.
Moments later those the fans were ready to throw their towels in when Claiborne ended the Mountaineers’ surge.
The Tigers’ star cornerback fielded the ensuing kickoff, glided toward the left sideline, blasted through a pair of would-be tackles and got springing blocks from Lamin Barrow and Alfred Blue on the way to LSU’s longest kickoff return since Eric Martin dashed 100 yards against Kentucky in 1981.
“We knew we had to do something,” said Claiborne, who was in search of some personal redemption after he was flagged for a personal foul to sustain a drive and then whiffed on a tackle on West Virginia’s first touchdown – Smith’s 20-yard hookup with Stedman Bailey, who grabbed eight passes for 115 yards.
“Somehow the (kickoff) team got me a couple of blocks, I broke a few tackles and we were able to get into the end zone.”
Added Lee, “That was huge. We know Mo has the potential to make plays. He did that for us tonight. It was the turning point in the game for us.”
Lee made a few sizable plays along the way to aid the Tigers’ cause.
He engineered tidy 58- and 50-yard TD drives in the first quarter, picking apart West Virginia with an effective play-action passing attack. Lee connected with Rueben Randle on an 11-yard scoring strike on LSU’s first series after zipping throws of 16 yards to Randle and 30 yards to Odell Beckam Jr. to convert twice on third-and-long during the series.
The Tigers’ second TD was more ground-oriented, with Ware and Michael Ford teaming up for 42 yards – the last 22 on a nifty dodge-and-weave run by Ford to the end zone.
West Virginia countered with a 12-play, 73-yard scoring drive with Smith finding his groove with 7-of-10 accuracy on the march for 76 yards, four to Tavon Austin (11-187 receiving) for 33 yards.
The two teams exchanged punts, with Brad Wing pinning the Mountaineers at their own 4 with one of several booming kicks he contributed.
When LSU got the ball back at its own 39, Ford and Ware each gouged WVU to set up third-and-1. Lee feigned a handoff to Ware, drifted back and uncorked a picture-perfect pass to Beckham at the West Virginia 31 and he outraced Terence Garvin the rest of the way for a 52-yard TD pass – the Tigers’ longest this season.
“He’s making plays right now as a freshman that a lot of fifth-year guys don’t make,” Lee said of Beckham. “We’re going to keep getting him the ball some way, somehow.”
Most of Lee’s 16 completions and 180 passing yards come on play-action calls.
“With the running game that we have, it only helps us,” he said. “Something us quarterbacks and running backs really work hard on is selling that fake. We know those safeties will bite and our receivers will get by them.”
Mathieu set up a fourth score right before halftime and the Tigers didn’t need to throw the ball much after Claiborne’s dagger. Instead they turned the game over to the running game.
With WVU trying to establish some momentum going into halftime, Mathieu batted Smith’s third-down pass up behind the line of scrimmage, plucked it out of the air and sprinted 16 yards to the Mountaineers’ 1-yard-line. Two plays later Lee hit tight end Chase Clement with a short TD pass, again on play action, for a 27-7 advantage at the intermission.
“I knew they were going trying to get the ball to No. 1 (Tavon Austin) when they saw me on the line (of scrimmage),” Mathieu said. “It was just about getting up the field and just getting my hands on the ball.”
The Mountaineers’ two long touchdown drives made things interesting before Claiborne gave LSU breathing room again. Then the Tigers went for the knockout blow.
Getting the ball back early in the fourth quarter when WVU went on fourth down and failed on one of Smith’s few bad throws, LSU pieced together a back-breaking drive.
Ware carved out 34 rushing yards on four totes and caught a pair of passes for 16 more. He converted a pair of third downs, when he spun away from would-be tacklers – the second on a third-and-eight bread-and-butter lead.
Ford finished it off with his second TD run, but the series had Ware’s fingerprints all over it.
“Coach Frank (Wilson) came over to me in the fourth quarter and said ‘Be special. Do something big,’ ” Ware said. “So I told him ‘Get me the ball and I will.’
“Those spins are a high school thing. Not having a great offensive line in high school, my backside was very vulnerable and that was one of my escapes. It got to point where I could to it without thinking and (Saturday) it felt natural. I saw how they were trying to tackle. They were coming in with their heads down and their arms out. I was able to get a hand on them and spin away.”
Ware’s spins were symbolic of the Tigers’ gfitty performance on a night when the Mountaineers did so much right and flirted with a major upset, but LSU kept spinning away.
“There were a couple of times I thought we had momentum,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “We did some good things offensively and defensively, but you can’t beat a good team by doing that.”
Now the Tigers head into an October slate with three games at home, including a looming showdown with East Division co-leader Florida on Oct. 8.
True to form, Miles wasn’t ready to proclaim his team the best in the land – though LSU is likely to make a bid at vaulting to No. 1 in the polls when they come out Sunday – and continued beating a drum about where the Tigers are headed.
“I don’t know that we’re good enough right now to do everything that we want to do,” Miles said.
“If we continue to improve, continue to do things we’re capable of, somewhere we’ll stake a claim to something that’s important.”
Saturday was another step in that direction. An unforeseen step when a stingy defense got stretched to its limits and the offense and special teams carried the load.