In a results-driven, bottom-line world, it’s hard to haggle much with the outcome of Saturday’s game at Tiger Stadium on Saturday.
But big plays from Odell Beckham Jr. and Tyrann Mathieu, a strong relief outing by Alfred Blue and another steady, albeit imperfect, performance from quarterback Jarrett Lee to stay unscathed this season.
The No. 1-ranked Tigers stayed unbeaten with little fanfare, rolling past the Wildcats 35-7 in a game that lacked the kind of sizzle LSU has flashed during an impressive first month of the season featuring three victories over ranked opponents away from Baton Rouge.
The formula was pretty familiar as the Tigers (5-0, 2-0 SEC) got a suffocating defensive performance, powered through the UK defense with the running game and Lee stayed within very specific parameters to effectively manage another one-sided victory.
The cast of characters was juggled quite a bit, though, most notably early in the game when one player expected to make a major impact this season finally made his belated season debut.
Senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson was back on the field for the first time this season, three days after his suspension related to an arrest was lifted and he didn’t waste any time making a mark.
Jefferson trotted onto the field with LSU facing fourth-and-goal from inches away, and after a small stutter step that forced a timeout, he sneaked in for the game’s first touchdown.
When Jefferson first came onto the field, a smattering of the Tiger Stadium crowd showered him with boos, a gesture that didn’t sit well with Miles or several of Jefferson’s teammates.
Jefferson missed the first four games after he was arrested and charged with second-degree felony for his alleged involvement in a bar fight outside a bar on the outskirts of LSU’s campus on Aug. 19.
An East Baton Rouge grand jury reduced the charge to misdemeanor simple battery on Wednesday and Jefferson practiced with the team Thursday for the first time since Aug. 25.
“I didn’t anticipate that,” Miles said, growing agitated as he spoke. “I can’t imagine that. I can’t imagine anybody would take the field for the Tigers and give them everything they’ve got and be treated poorly. To me, how could you anticipate that? I didn’t anticipate that at all. … It doesn’t work for me.”
Added offensive guard Will Blackwell when asked if the reaction to Jefferson bothered him, “Yes it did. A lot. I don’t feel like any of our players should be booed for anything by their fans. Jordan has done his time. He’s paid his punishment. To be booed is just not classy.”
Afterward, the Twitter-verse filled up with message from current and former Tigers scolding the small but noisy faction of fans who booed.
Senior guard T-Bob Hebert tweeted “Anybody who booed #jj9 today needs to stop watching #LSU games and stop cheering for the tigers, we don't need you and don't want you.”
Mild-mannered receiver Rueben Randle also weighed in, tweeting “I don't (appreciate) how our fans booed JJ when he got in. Either u wit US or not. That wasn’t necessary.”
That drama aside, most of the regular Tigers cast provided the bulk of the foundation for a workmanlike win.
Beckham supplied the game’s most memorable moment with a 51-yard zig-zag catch-and-run for a touchdown in the second quarter and Mathieu turned a sack into a scoop-and-score touchdown late in the third period.
There were a few different wrinkles in the backfield.
With starter Spencer Ware slowed by a hamstring injury and Michael Ford struggling to get on track, Blue came off the bench to anchor a running game with 72 yards and a TD and freshman Terrance Magee got his first career carries and finished with 38 yards and his first career score.
After a sluggish start, LSU wound up rushing for 179 yards on 46 attempts and eventually wore down the Wildcats (2-3, 0-2).
“It was great to see guys like Blue and Magee come in and not miss a beat,” said Blackwell, who started at left guard in place of Hebert. “We feel like all our guys can run the ball. They all run hard so we don’t really care who gets the ball.”
Lee passed for 169 yards, although he connected on only 8-of-21 throws. There were a handful of drops, and junior Russell Shepard had a rollercoaster day with two acrobatic catches for 35 yards but there were also two catchable balls he missed when they clanged off his hands.
The big play was Beckham’s dazzling catch and run that boosted the lead to 14-0 early in the second quarter.
LSU’s second series was a 12-play, 68-yard march that culminated with Jefferson’s 1-yard TD on his first snap of the season. Lee accounted for 61 yards through the air on the drive, bolstered by a 37-yard heave to Randle, his only catch of the day.
After that, though, the Tigers bogged down and had to punt on three straight possessions.
When the defense forced UK into its fifth punt in as many possessions, LSU got the ball at its own 36 and went to work.
Shepard grabbed a handoff on a jet sweep and raced 13 yards to near midfield. Lee targeted Shepard on the next play, but the ball deflected off his hands and a second-down pass fell incomplete as well, bringing up third-and-10.
Lee faked a handoff, dropped back and waited for Beckham to find open space on the left sideline. The pass was delivered a little high, but Beckham leapt and corralled it at the Kentucky 36, wiggled away from cornerback Anthony Mosely and then zig-zagged across the field and left four more Wildcats in his wake with a series of head and hip fakes. He found daylight at around the 20 on the opposite side of the field and dashed in from there.
“The offensive line gave J-Lee a lot of time to throw it,” Beckham said. “It was a comeback route and he put it perfectly to the sideline so the DB couldn’t come and get it. As I landed, I spun and just saw open field, so I tried to cut back on a few people and get to the end zone.
“I wasn’t expecting it to go the way it did. I saw the corner right behind me and I thought I was going to be down right there. I got the spin off him and tried to make some people miss.”
They missed, and in the blink of an eye the Tigers were comfortably in front and on the way. LSU produced a pair of TD drives in the second half to methodically build the lead to 35-0, with Blue and Magee 1-yard runs sandwiched around Mathieu’s dagger.
While the offense worked though some rough patches, the Tigers’ defense made life miserable for the Wildcats from the get-go.
Kentucky’s first five series read like an offensive coordinator’s horror story: 15 snaps, 8 yards, seven plays for no yards or a loss and five punts.
The Cats’ initial first down didn’t come until 19 minutes had elapsed. Their offensive production was 12 yards in the first quarter, 33 in the second and 14 in the third.
“I really felt like our defense came out and set the tone for the day,” Miles said. “We played an intense football game from start to finish. We gave up very few plays.”
In other words, the Tigers’ defense delivered an about-face from the week before when it allowed 533 total yards and 463 through the air to West Virginia.
LSU pressured Kentucky quarterbacks Morgan Newton and Max Smith all day and finished with a season-high five sacks. Newton misfired on his first nine pass attempts and combined he and Smith were 7-of-25 for 66 yards – most of that in the final period.
“We were just trying to definitely keep those guys in front us of and not having any missed assignments and just pursue the ball,” Mathieu said.
Added safety Brandon Taylor, “We stepped up at practice and made it more intense and when you do that it shows up on the field.”
Mathieu delivered the defense’s signature moment – what else is new this season? – with 4:30 on the third-quarter clock.
With UK facing third-and-10 after Bennie Logan dumped Smith for a 4-yard loss, Mathieu blitzed from the right edge and drilled Smith from his blind side to dislodge the ball. It squirted 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage and Mathieu alertly tracked down the ball, sprinted to pick it up and high-stepped into the end zone.
“All game I hadn’t been blitzing that much, so it was just really me sneaking up there and getting to the quarterback as fast as I can,” Mathieu said.
For a different twist, Mathieu made his mark without much chatter.
After the Tigers’ secondary spent most of their night at WVU chattering with the Mountaineers’ receivers, there was hardly a hint of trash talk Saturday.
“We just went out there and played assignment football,” Taylor said. “We had more focus and a lot less talking – more respect for the opponent and the officials.”
And a better bottom line to show as Kentucky finished with only 155 total yards, with 100 of that coming on the final two series. The Wildcats pieced together a 70-yard TD, with Newton floating a 4-yard scoring strike to Matt Roark.
But being stuck in neutral proved too much for UK to overcome. The Cats finished with 10 punts and eight three-and-outs and snapped the ball only five times in LSU territory prior to the long touchdown drive.
“Our offense cannot do that to our defense,” UK coach Joker Phillips said. “We cannot go three-and-out, three-and-out and three-and-out and put our defense in a tough situation to go up against a talented team over and over.”
Now that talented team redirects its focus to a showdown with 12th-ranked Florida next week at home. The Tigers and Gators have established one of the SEC’s top rivalries since 2004, with four of the last seven games decided by four points or fewer – all LSU victories.
“Think you’ll see better play next week,” Miles said.
“You run across great Florida matchups as you review seasons that are significant and certainly this is another.”