BATON ROUGE --- Les Miles admitted that LSU didn’t give their best shot in a sleepy 22-point win over McNeese St. on Saturday night. It was the first meeting between the schools, and certainly a keep-it-close effort that people in Lake Charles will talk about longer than those in Baton Rouge.
“They took away some things that we really wanted to do,” Miles said. “We had a quality plan in place. Don’t get me wrong. They played well, and the things that we probably led with may not be the things that we would have led with in other situations.”
Translation: kudos to the Cowboys, who kept it closer than most anyone expected. But with four SEC Western Division opponents still on the schedule, this wasn’t the time for Miles to continue rolling out the playbook for all to see.
“We kept some things that we didn’t want to run in this game, particularly going into next week and the importance of the games headed forward,” he said. “I would probably do it again.”
LSU stuck to their recent blueprint for quarterback play, sending Jordan Jefferson in for the start and Jarrett Lee in for the first time on the team’s third series.
Once more, it played out positive for the backup and not so good for the starter.
Jefferson’s first drive ended in a punt, and for the third week in a row he turned the ball over on the team’s second possession – this time a sack that resulted in a fumble inside the LSU 10-yard line. McNeese State scored on a Damion Dixon run three plays later.
After a 45-yard kickoff return by Patrick Peterson, Lee worked the short field on a 2:37 scoring drive that went 40 yards on six plays and ended with running back Stevan Ridley’s first score.
The idea was to get Ridley some early rest, but it was a night where not all plans played out.
The junior came in with 125 carries in six games. The next name on the depth chart, freshman Alfred Blue, had 14 carries. With Blue sidelined with a foot injury, the focus turned to Mike Ford – a heralded prospect that simply hadn’t had the chance to turn hype into production.
He capitalized against McNeese State, but it didn’t happen right away.
Ford couldn’t get his hand on an option pitch from Jefferson on his first touch of the game, and from there the redshirt freshman was put on the backburner until the contest was more in hand. For the rest of the first half Ridley carried it - 13 times for two touchdowns to be exact. His first touchdown came from two yards out at the end of the first quarter, and his second score answered a McNeese State field goal five minutes later.
Once more, the Cowboys score came by way of an LSU misstep. After Jefferson’s fumble gave the Cowboys seven points, a bouncing punt deflected off LSU’s Spencer Ware and into a McNeese State defender’s hands. They took over in LSU territory and tacked on the field goal from 23 yards - only after Wes Briscoe dropped a touchdown on third down.
With the score at 14-10, it felt like LSU was going to fall into a funk where shooting themselves in the foot became commonplace.
McNeese State took the title, instead.
The Cowboys stopped Jordan Jefferson and forced a punt at midfield, which Josh Jasper downed inside the five-yard line. When Andre Anderson tried to take the ball out of the danger zone on first down, reigning SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week Drake Nevis got into the backfield and forced the safety.
After getting the ball back on the punt, Lee stepped in and drove the offense on an 11-play drive that spanned 4:54. But penalties – in particular an illegal motion flag on senior receiver Terrance Toliver that negated a first-down inside the 10-yard line – stalled the drive, and Jasper missed the 32-yard kick to extend the lead to two possessions.
“It wasn’t what we wanted, and a lot of the time it was mistakes that were putting us in holes in bad times,” Lee said. “There were some things that we struggled with that we are going to get fixed.”
The second-half didn’t see McNeese State get back onto the scoreboard, while the Tigers matched their first-half performance.
After Jefferson’s first drive out of the half ended in a punt, Lee stepped in and navigated the offense 53 yards on six plays for the score.
The lone difference: Ford replaced Ridley. The two split carries on the drive, but the big runs – a 13-yard gain and a six-yard scoring scamper - both came from Ford. The off night continued for Jasper, missing the extra point to keep the score at 22-10.
Another stalled drive from Jefferson took the Tigers into the fourth quarter, where Ford came through in style. The Leesville native paced the offense with three carries on a drive that ended with Jasper’s field goal at the 10-minute mark, and he came back with three carries on the offense’s final drive – the last of which he popped off for a 36-yard touchdown.
“I really didn’t know I had a chance to score,” Ford said. “I just go out there and run hard, and whatever happens-happens. I didn’t know I was going to get (10) touches, so I just tried making the most of it.”
Ford’s second touchdown brought the scoring to a close at 32-10, the final chapter on an in-state battle that never looked as pretty as LSU fans had envisioned for their team the week prior to a road date with undefeated Auburn.
As for the quarterback debate, consider the facts from Saturday typical of past performances. Jefferson threw for just 28 yards, and his legs proved even less effective. With a turnover to boot, Jefferson was in on 12 plays and netted just four yards.
“We have to pass it better, bottom line,” Miles said. “We know that.”
Lee finished 9-of-14 passing for 75 yards, while Ford’s line read 88 yards and two scores in the first double-digit carry game of his young career. Russell Shepard became the focal point at receiver, grabbing a career-high seven passes for 53 yards. On the ground he totaled 25 yards on three carries.
Defensively the linebackers - Kelvin Sheppard and Ryan Baker - paced LSU. Sheppard was in on 10 tackles, while Baker was in on nine stops with two sacks.
It was never pretty, but the point remains.
This team, still unbeaten, has reached heights that the program hasn’t seen in recent memory.
“This is the first time LSU has been 7-0 since 1973,” said Patrick Peterson. “We are very excited. But we have a 24-hour rule, and after 24 hours we are going to put this game behind us and look forward to playing Auburn.”