ARLINGTON, Texas --- At first it looked like LSU wasn’t awake.
Then it was as if Texas A&M had stumbled across one of college football’s sleeping giants.
Perhaps it was repercussions of a foreign environment, or maybe they were thinking about the Les Miles to Michigan chatter. Whatever the case, the Aggies quickly made a lackadaisical LSU group pay.
Coryell Judie nearly ran back the opening kick, and five plays later Aggies quarterback Ryan Tannehill found wide receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu for the game’s first touchdown.
Then Jordan Jefferson tossed an interception on LSU’s first drive, which the Aggies turned into three points by way of a nine-play, 76-yard drive.
With five minutes left in the opening quarter the Tigers found themselves down by double-digits, but that deficit only tested LSU fans’ patience.
By early in the second quarter the Tigers were on top 14-10, and from there punches went back-and-forth until the Aggies had nothing left, a moment that came with 4:37 remaining in the half - the final time that Texas A&M was able to put points on the board until the fourth quarter.
For LSU, a team that moved to 11-2 with the win, it was the night offensive coordinator Gary Crowton – and everyone else in purple and gold – had dreamed about the entire break.
“We had a really good gameplan and we executed it well,” Crowton said. “We wanted to keep them off balance, and we ran the ball with two backs and Jordan was able to carry us with his legs and his arm.”
Against an Aggies defense that came into the game as one of the best 15 teams against the run, the trio of Jordan Jefferson, Stevan Ridley and Spencer Ware proved too much for Von Miller and Co. to handle.
Ridley finished with 110 yards, while Ware went for 102 yards on 10 touches, the best outing of his young LSU career.
“I think we got good running backs,” Miles said. “I think our fullbacks are coming to life. I think our two-back was very good. I think our offensive line really said this is a challenge they wanted. I think they played to that challenge.”
But wait, there’s more.
Jefferson eclipsed 100 yards for the third outing in a row, a relatively impressive feat given the junior had only gone over 100 yards once before the three-game stretch to end the season.
As for his lack of aerial production in the regular season, Jefferson silenced his critics with a three-touchdown night.
“I just came into this game with the mindset of showing the critics that I can do what I need to do on the field to be noticed as a good quarterback. I really feel that I did tonight.
“But I couldn’t do it without Terrance. I couldn’t do it without the O-line protecting for me and making sure that they blocked the Butkus Award winner. I couldn’t do it without the running game doing as well as they did it, without the coaches getting us prepared for this game.”
Terrance Toliver, back home in Texas for the final game of his LSU career, was arguably Jefferson’s biggest help. After he promised that he would go out in a blaze of glory, Toliver’s foresight proved prophetic.
He finished with five catches for 112 yards and three touchdowns, one coming in each of the first three quarters. His 42-yard grab put LSU on the board and cut the Aggies lead to 10-7, and his two-yard fade route touchdown pushed the lead to 28-17 just before half. Then came the only points of the third quarter, a 41-yard score that gave LSU their biggest lead of the game.
For a Hempstead, Texas native, Friday night was the perfect sendoff to a college career.
“Since I’ve been at LSU, I always wanted to play a Texas school, whether it was Texas A&M or Texas,” Toliver said. “Just play a good game, have a game of my life in my own state. It was great for me.”
The defense, driven by youth on a night that sent off Kelvin Sheppard, Drake Nevis and likely Patrick Peterson, answered the call after the Aggies initial push. Freshmen Tyrann Mathieu, Tharold Simon and Eric Reid all recorded interceptions, while Mathieu led the team in tackles and earned the Defensive Most Valuable Player, only the second freshman in Cotton Bowl history to win the award.
“Those guys don’t play young,” said defensive coordinator John Chavis.
Ryan Tannehill went for 204 yards and two touchdowns, but the turnovers proved too much to overcome despite the fact that Cyrus Gray eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the seventh time.
“I think tonight was just really a number of great performances to cap a year that they achieved greatly,” Miles said. “A team that’s beaten the teams they’ve beaten and played as well as they have, this was a fitting game.”