“Oooh, nasty,” Ware said. “I like that defense. Just the way they swarm the ball, the speed on the edges.”
Likewise, when cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was asked about Ware, his answer was quick and succinct.
“He ran the ball like a man,” Mathieu said. “He makes the defense pay every time he gets it.”
Yep, there was plenty of reason for reciprocal compliments at Cowboys Stadium after the No. 4-ranked Tigers rolled past No. 3 Oregon 40-27 with a powerful second-half performance.
The defense throttled the Ducks’ potent offense most of the night, Ware and Michael Ford each flirted with 100-yard rushing nights and the LSU special teams forced Oregon into several mistakes in the punting game for a complete – but not perfect – victory on the opening weekend of the 2011 season.
On the way to beating the highest ranked regular-season non-conference opponent they’ve ever beaten, the Tigers (1-0) carved up the Ducks at the line of scrimmage and seized advantage of three lost fumbles to pull away after a taut first 30 minutes.
The game turned around for good in the third quarter, with all three units chipping in to pound Oregon (0-1) into submission.
LSU managed only 100 yards of total offense in the first half, 69 on a touchdown drive right before halftime that culminated with a 10-yard Jarrett Lee-to-Ruben Randle touchdown strike that gave the Tigers the lead for good, 16-13.
A sluggish start to the third quarter (a rare three-and-out) didn’t slow LSU down as it rolled up 122 yards on 26 plays, produced a pair of short-field touchdowns and set up the second of Drew Alleman’s two field goals.
Ware was the leading man on each of those series, but Ford emerged as a legitimate complement with a handful of carries – one for a 5-yard TD and a later one for 20 yards – to give the Ducks more of a headache.
“Michael Ford is becoming a very physical back,” LSU coach Les Miles said after Ford’s career-best 96-yard night. He added a game-sealing 16-yard scoring scamper with 2:52 left in the game. “He steps forward late in the game and makes some big plays.”
While Ware and Ford spearheaded the offense, the defense smothered Oregon – All-American tailback LaMichael James in particular – in the third quarter.
The Ducks got off only nine snaps for 15 yards in those game-turning 15 minutes and James hobbled off after his first carry of the second half.
That forced Oregon coach Chip Kelly to turn to freshman De’Anthony Thomas, which created a series of unfortunate turn of events for the Ducks.
LSU’s defense forced a three-and-out on Oregon’s first series and punter Brad Wing pinned the Ducks at their own 6-yard-line with a 58-yard punt when the Tigers’ offense sputtered.
On third down, Thomas ran Oregon’s tried-and-true inside counter play to the left and looked to have some daylight. But LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery stretched out an arm and jarred the ball loose and it bounded into the hands of safety Eric Reid at the 21.
Four Ware runs carved out enough yardage to get the Tigers to the 5 and Ford slashed in from there for a 23-13 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, Thomas gathered the ball in and rambled 25 yards to the 38, but he coughed the ball up again when Craig Loston hammered him, and this time Ron Brooks was in the right place to smother the ball.
With Oregon on the ropes, Lee made a perfect hot read with the Ducks stacking the box and zipped a quick pass to DeAngelo Peterson, who rumbled 29 yards to get LSU to the 8.
On his way to a workmanlike 99-yard performance, Ware crashed in five plays later to pad the lead to 30-13.
Oregon wound up producing two more touchdowns, the last with 13 seconds to go. But those two fumbles and Tigers’ subsequent TDs seemed to deflate the Ducks.
“I think we definitely took the heart of those guys,” Mathieu said. “I didn’t think they were fighting for anything after that.”
That deterioration might’ve had roots in the final minutes of the first half.
Down 13-9 after Oregon grinded out a 19-play, 79-yard drive touchdown drive, LSU got the ball with 5:16 left in the half and fed the Ducks a dose of their own fast-paced tempo.
Using mostly no huddle, the Tigers zig-zagged 75 yards in 12 plays, mostly behind Ware and Ford, with Peterson and Lee connecting for 18 yards on a key third-down conversion.
Oregon lent a hand with a pass interference call on Eddie Pleasant against Rueben Randle on third down from the 20. Still knocking on the door from the 6, Lee rifled a perfect back-shoulder fade to Randle in the end zone to put the Tigers back in front 16-13.
“We sped the tempo up and thought we could throw them off and wound up getting six points out of it,” right guard Will Blackwell said.
After that, LSU’s offense seemed to operate with a new swagger, patiently chipping away at the Ducks behind an experienced offensive line. Ware only had four carries of 7 yards or longer among his 26, but his battering-ram style took its toll.
“We hoped for the big plays, but we have to take what they give us,” Ware said. “Coach was telling us ‘Let’s run it down their throat, let’s eat them alive and let’s be physical.’ That’s what we did.”
And that’s what Oregon never figured out how to do against the Tigers’ fast and aggressive defense.
James was limited to 54 yards on the ground on 18 carries and the Ducks scratched out only 95 rushing yards on 28 attempts.
Mathieu credited the defensive line for constantly smothering James and forcing Oregon into a more pass-oriented scheme – quarterback Darron Thomas was 31-of-54 for 240 yards, but he never look totally comfortable in the second half either.
“LaMichael James wasn’t the LaMichael James we seen on film,” Mathieu said after recording a career-best 10 tackles. “He was hesitant. He was back there wiggling, wasting time, and our guys got in his space.”
Which was a game plan executed very well.
“It was critical,” linebacker Ryan Baker said. “You can see what kind of back he is. Neutralizing him really paid dividends for us.”
It paid off in the kind of suffocating defensive performance that Oregon didn’t experience much last season when it averaged 530.7 yards and 47 points a game – both best in the nation.
The Ducks went three-and-out twice in the first quarter and had to settle for field goals on the next two series, one that began at the LSU 20-yard-line after a botched shotgun snap.
Oregon pieced together a long drive to move in front 13-9 but went four possessions without a first down before finally clicking on two sustained fourth-quarter touchdown drives – both after the Ducks fell behind by 20 points.
That Oregon had to rely on long drives was another testament to the Tigers’ defense. Last season the Ducks had only 15 scoring series of 10 plays or more in 13 games and they never gobbled up as much as the 7:41 they needed for their first TD on Saturday.
In a sense, Oregon and LSU reversed roles, with the Ducks playing ball control because they couldn’t figure out any other way to attack the Tigers.
“That defense, played like that, can win a lot of games,” Miles said.
“We’ll be in every game with a defense that plays like that.”
In them and winning a lot of them.
There might have been a few holes let by the end of the night, a few places where coaches can coach players to get better as the season goes on.
But the combination of power running, forcing turnovers and slamming the lid on the opponent’s running attack is the kind of recipe that can fuel national championship dreams.
“They played good solid football,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “That’s it. That’s a good defensive front. They did a really nice job, they were sound in the schemes and really gap-control oriented.”
And for the 10th year in a row, all seven under Miles, the Tigers began the season with a victory – this one providing a nice launching pad for a team that certainly looked the part of national championship contender.