To an extent, the notion of No. 1-ranked LSU coming out flat the week after the widely proclaimed ‘Game of the Century’ was predictable. Maybe even acceptable.
Just don’t try to convince the Tigers’ coaches of that.
With LSU trudging through the game after Alabama that pitted No. 1 vs. No. 2 – leading by only a touchdown at halftime Saturday night against Western Kentucky – the locker room at the break was plenty lively.
“I don’t think this was in any way an impassioned effort by our guys,” Miles said after his team’s 42-9 triumph.
“It was ‘OK, let’s go play guys.’ The intensity on some of the calls just weren’t where they needed to be.”
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Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue rushed for two touchdowns apiece to fuel a downhill rushing effort (291 yards) , as the Tigers obliterated any doubt with a strong second half and improved to 10-0 for the first time since 1958. The victory was also the 100th of Miles’ coaching career.
So even though Saturday’s performance wasn’t razor-sharp, it was ripe with meaning.
No matter how unaesthetic it might’ve been.
“This kind of game lets us know we’re not invincible,” safety Brandon Taylor said. “It lets us refocus and tells us we’ve got to keep pressing toward our goal.”
Before Saturday’s game took shape as a blowout, there were some intriguing story lines.
Quarterback Jordan Jefferson made his first start of the season and played the first three quarters and a handful of plays in the fourth, finishing with 168 passing yards and a pretty 59-yard touchdown pass to Rueben Randle in the first quarter.
Miles said the quarterback shift was a decision made by him and the offensive staff and may – or may not – be a “one-game decision.”
There were several unsubstantiated media reports after the game that the quarterback switch might have been tied to Lee missing classes during the week after a dismal outing against Alabama.
But the LSU quarterback decision was only part of the story, especially in the first half.
Western Kentucky (5-5) kept the game close with ball control, running 40 plays to the Tigers’ 22 and gobbling up 20:01 of the game clock. A 10-play, 65-yard touchdown drive, capped by Keyshawn Simpson’s 2-yard blast, pulled the Hilltoppers even, 7-7 with 1:26 on the first-quarter clock.
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LSU got the 59-yard bomb to Randle in the first quarter and then pieced together a 68-yard touchdown drive later in the second, with Jefferson zipping three consecutive passes for 6 yards to Spencer Ware, 29 to Odell Beckham Jr. and 24 to Chase Clement.
That series accounted for a bulk of the Tigers’ offense in the first 30 minutes, which featured only 81 yards on the ground.
That prompted Wilson to gather his running back group at halftime and issue a challenge.
“He told us ‘We’re better than this and somebody has to step up,’ ” Blue said. “He told us we were about to see who’s going to get it, who’s going to stand up.”
Blue got his turn and made the absolute most of it.
On LSU’s opening possession of the third quarter, Blue bolted 15 yards on third-and-6 and followed that with a 13-yard burst to set up Hilliard’s second 1-yard TD of the night.
After a WKU safety when Jefferson was flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone, the Hilltoppers squandered a chance to pull closer when Tahj Jones picked off a deflected pass just inside Western Kentucky territory.
Hilliard lost 3 yards on the Tigers’ first play before Blue took a belly handoff and found nothing but wide-open space to the right side and dashed unfettered for a 45-yard TD and 28-9 lead.
Right guard T-Bob Hebert called it simply the perfect play call against a defensive stunt.
“It was a pretty big hole,” he said matter-of-factly.
Blue wound up in the end zone again early in the fourth period to finish off a 72-yard drive.
The Tigers got the ball back on a punt and Blue carved out 20 yards on an off-tackle play and LSU got 15 more yards on a facemask. Jefferson manufactured a 20-yard pass play to Jarvis Landry when he rolled left, evaded a pass rush, scampered back right and heaved a throw downfield that Landry came back to haul in.
That put the ball at WKU’s 17-yard-line and three Blue carries devoured that for a 35-9 advantage.
Another Hilltoppers’ punt gave LSU the ball back with 12 minutes to go and that was when Lee trotted on to run the offense.
If the fifth-year senior and starter in the first nine games was miffed about not starting or playing until then, Lee didn’t show it. He engineered a 14-play, 82-yard drive – running a few unexpected options with Michael Ford and even breaking loose for a 15-yard scramble.
On second-and-goal, Lee zipped a bullet to Kadron Boone on a quick slant that resulted in a 5-yard touchdown.
The change at quarterback was, from all indications, a late-week decision that the other offensive players weren’t privy to until game time.
Their reaction? None at all.
“It didn’t really matter to us because both guys can come in and do the job,” Randle said.
Added Hebert, “We have two great quarterbacks and we have full faith in both of them to go out and lead this offense.”
While the offense got untracked with both quarterbacks at the controls, the defense also upped its performance in the second half as well.
As efficient as the Hilltoppers were for 30 minutes (140 yards, 10 first downs), they couldn’t get much generated in the final 30 minutes.
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WKU only ran a handful of plays in LSU territory in the second half and wasted its lone chance to score when the Tigers held firm on three snaps after a Bobby Rainey set up second-and-goal from the 2 after Antonio Andrews’ 73-yard kickoff return.
That led to the safety, but the Hilltoppers’ offense managed only 86 second-half yards, went 2-of-8 on third downs and carved out only five first downs in the final 30 minutes.
“Coach Chavis came in and really got us fired up,” Taylor said. “We came out flat and we have to go back and change how we practice and intensify it so we don’t come out flat.”
Added defensive end Barkevious Mingo, “We tried to make the down and distances longer and that let Coach Chavis call things the way he wanted to. We played with a lot more intensity.”
That was a common theme after a sluggish start, and a difference that led to LSU’s seventh win of the season by 26 points or more – and the first after a gritty, emotion-draining 9-6 overtime triumph at No. 2 Alabama the week before.
Most importantly, Saturday’s nondescript performance keeps the Tigers where they want to be heading into the two-week season-ending stretch with games at Ole Miss and at home vs. Arkansas.
“This game here, as lackluster as it may have been, was more important than the last one,” Miles said. “If you don’t handle this one, now every position you’ve put yourself in is negated.”
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