BATON ROUGE – How good was the LSU defense on Saturday?
Mississippi State, a team built on running the football, rushed the ball on 44 of their 62 offensive snaps. Of their 18 passes, both quarterbacks – Chris Relf and Tyler Russell – completed only five attempts each, and the pair combined for five interceptions.
Patrick Peterson had picks in the second and fourth quarters, one coming off each of the Bulldogs passers. Morris Claiborne, the cornerback opposite Peterson, pulled off the same feat. Even defensive tackle Drake Nevis got in on the action, pulling down a ball that Russell let flail when cornerback Tyrann Mathieu caught him on a third down blitz with less than three minutes before the fourth quarter.
The mark is the highest that an LSU defense has posted since their 2007 bout with Mississippi State. That day, the defense nabbed six interceptions.
“That is two years in a row against this team that we were negative four in turnover ratio,” said Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen after his team’s 29-7 loss. “You’re not going to win any football games turning the ball over in that fashion.”
Despite the win, the home opener never turned into the aerial assault that many LSU fans hoped for.
Instead it played out as a battle between backs, seeing Stevan Ridley reach 19 touches for the second game this season. Not a night when the staff wanted to test their fortune with Jordan Jefferson, the junior quarterback kept the ball on the ground just as many times (10) as he completed a pass.
The results: 167 yards rushing compared to 97 yards passing.
While the offensive numbers don’t jump off the stat sheet, head coach Les Miles wasn’t overly concerned, thanks in large part to the defense’s ability to keep the Tigers on the right side of the field position battle.
“Certainly the number of turnovers that we got and the short field was very significant,” said Miles of the team’s 55 total snaps, about 20 below where the headman wants the yearly average. “I felt like the opportunity to control the ball down in the red zone, we would have liked to have finish with seven (touchdowns).”
LSU finished with just two touchdowns, both of which came in the third quarter via the ground game. Jefferson’s 16-yard scamper came off an option play with 5:16 left, while Ridley’s two-yard score came at the 1:23 mark.
The rest of the time LSU settled for field goals, and by night’s end kicker Josh Jasper was fielding questions from reporters on what turned into a career night.
Jasper set the school record for field goals in a half with four during the opening two quarters, including a 51-yarder that pushed the LSU lead to two possessions midway through the second quarter. Jasper also set the record for field goals in a game with five.
“I’m very excited, it felt incredible,” Jasper said. “I didn’t really realize until halftime that I was close, and I was really hoping I’d get to kick the fifth one in the second half. “I got to do it, and I got my name in the (record) book.”
Jasper’s leg helped push LSU to a 12-0 lead before either team found the endzone, seeing the Bulldogs break the drought first when backup quarterback Tyler Russell stepped in and led the Bulldogs 48 yards down the field for the score.
More of a pure-passer than starter Chris Relf, Russell immediately found his rhythm behind back-to-back completions of 17 and 19 yards. With the ball inside the redzone, Mississippi State rushed the ball six straight times to get the score, a one-yard rush by Vick Ballard.
The scoreboard read 12-7, and the patience of the crowd of 92,538 was tossed out the window.
Before they could clear their throats to express their distaste, Jefferson had the answer that put the energy back into Death Valley. He hit Toliver for a gain of 18 yards and then found Randle on back-to-back snaps to move the ball inside the red zone.
While it was all field goals to that point, a seven play, 60-yard drive, capped off with Jefferson’s 16-yard option scamper, put six points on the board and pushed the Tigers far enough out front that they never worried to look back.
“We wanted to put together a drive, and the interesting thing is they have a new coordinator on the defensive side (Manny Diaz), and we didn’t necessarily know what to expect,” Miles said. “After we finally felt like they had shown their hand, we felt like coach Crowton put together a nice drive to move down the field.
“That’s how we want to play. That’s who we are.”
Jefferson finished the night 10-of-16 passing for 97 yards. He added 43 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. He was sacked just once. Ridley led all rushers with 82 yards on 19 carries, while Randle’s four catches for 34 yards was best among the receivers.
It was never perfect, but it was good enough to keep LSU (3-0, 2-0 SEC) that way.
“This is a young football team, and a team that if they continue to put their nose to the grindstone and fight like hell, they have a very, very good upside,” Miles said. “I think that our team, beyond this game, certainly understands that there is a lot to accomplish.”