Hard to imagine, in fact, that the top-ranked Tigers could play much worse, especially on offense.
Then again, half the SEC Championship Game was the stuff dreams are made of for the Tigers.
|Tyrann Mathieu was in the middle of three key plays in LSU's victory.|
The Tigers are the 2011 SEC champions after delivering a dominant about-face performance to thump 12th-ranked Georgia 42-10 at the Georgia Dome.
With the victory, LSU pumps its record to 13-0 and punches a ticket to the 2011 BCS Championship Game on Jan. 9 at the Superdome in New Orleans.
"We expected a dogfight and that's what we got," senior linebacker Ryan Baker said. "But we found a way to get things fixed and dominated this game like we have most of them all season."
Saturday was microcosm of the Tigers' grinding road through a turbulent pre-season camp and the most difficult schedule in program history – and perhaps in the country this season.
The lone exception was the unexpected offensive malaise that could've been a major hurdle if not for the growing legend of the Honey Badger and a pair of backup tailbacks.
Tyrann Mathieu was as magnificent as he's ever been, returning one punt 62 yards for a touchdown that kept the Tigers afloat and an electrifying 46-yard return in the second half that set up one of three third-quarter touchdowns.
With the offense sorely in need of a jolt, freshman Kenny Hilliard delivered and Alfred Blue followed his lead. Hilliard rumbled for 72 rushing yards and produced all three of LSU's TDs in the third quarter and Blue led a second-half resurgence with 94 yards – anchored by a game-sealing 48-yard TD gallop in the fourth quarter.
Those three, and a spirited defensive performance after a wobbly first few possessions were the backbone of the latest LSU rout, this one bigger than the rest because of the implications.
As much glory as there was at the end, though, the Tigers were on shaky ground for 30 minutes – trailing 10-0 after a quarter and 10-7 at halftime. Worse yet, the offense had seven possessions and went three-and-out on all seven and headed to halftime with 12 total yards, no first downs and very little hope.
"Frankly, it was just a matter of time that this team would rebound and this team would get their feet underneath them and play," LSU coach Les Miles said.
That time actually began in the first half when the defense forced three straight three-and-outs sandwiched around Mathieu's touchdown return.
In fact, it was Sam Montgomery's 11-yard sack on third down right before the punt that set the tone.
The Tigers had started to generate pressure against Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray early on, but when Montgomery finally got to him, the tenor of the game changed.
|LSU cornerback Tharold Simon extinguished a Georgia drive with an athletic interception.|
"We had to adjust because we didn't expect them to come out throwing like they did," defensive end Kendrick Adams said. "We had to find a way to collapse that pocket. They came out with play-action passes and we had to adjust to what they were doing."
Mathieu helped that cause as well.
With Georgia's Drew Butler forced to kick from his own 3, Mathieu hauled in the 62-yard kick, weaved in and out of traffic, wiggled loose from a gaggle of defenders and arrived in the end zone to cut the Bulldogs' lead to 10-7.
"We got off to a slow start, so I just felt like I needed to change the momentum of the game," said Mathieu, who also recovered a third-quarter fumble that led to the go-ahead touchdown. "It was the perfect time with the punt return – just trying to make one guy miss and just get up the field."
Perfect for everybody but the Bulldogs. After dominating the first quarter and holding steady in a defense-dominated second period, Georgia watched a 10-point lead that could've been 21-0 shrivel to three points.
"When you play as hard as (Mathieu) does, good things happen to you," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. "There's something about him that he seems to do something special just about every game, and he did it again."
When he did, it suddenly inspired the Tigers' offense as well.
LSU got the ball back quickly in the second half when defensive end Michael Brockers stripped the ball from Murray at the end of a 9-yard scramble and Mathieu – who else – recovered.
Two plays later, Hilliard barreled through a pair of tackles on the way to a 15-yard power burst.
That was the tip of a third-quarter iceberg when Hilliard scored all three Tigers' touchdowns in the quarter, adding a 4-yard run to cap a short drive set up by Mathieu's 46-yard punt return and on an 8-yard pass from Jordan Jefferson when Hilliard bulled over Bulldogs' cornerback Brandon Boykin.
|Kenny Hilliard: Three touchdowns helps LSU turn the game around.|
Anchored by that line, the Tigers rolled up 195 rushing yards and carved out 13 first downs in the final 30 minutes.
There was plenty of soul-searching at halftime, but Miles insisted it wasn't fire-and-brimstone stuff, but a reminder of who they were.
"Once we got into that locker room, there was no question the resolve was there," Miles said. "We were just waiting to get back on the field."
Added receiver Russell Shepard, "The coaches didn't scream and holler. They just told us ‘Get your mind right. If you want to be the best then play like the best.' "
Not to be outdone, the LSU defense also had a come-to-Jesus session on the sideline after Georgia's first few series. The Bulldogs racked up 107 yards on their first four series and had the Tigers reeling – especially a normally lock-down secondary.
"We had to adjust," Baker said. "They came out and punched us in the mount a few times. I was asking guys ‘Are you all ready to play now?' Are we going to start playing our game? ‘ Once the emotions calmed down, we got back to basics and started playing the way we know how."
That meant sacks (4 for -32 yards), that meant turnovers (3, all in the second half) and that meant forcing Georgia to pass instead of allowing Murray to throw when he wanted to (6-of-17 for 49 yards in the second half).
|Mo Claiborne's pick-six added an exclamation point.|
"We blew a couple of coverages in the first half and that's not like us," safety Eric Reid said. "We had to get the nerves out of us. We settled down a little bit and relaxed.
"We knew they had won the battle for field position in the first half so it was up to us to change that in the second half. Once we did that, we were pretty confident they weren't going to move the ball on us anymore."
That confidence was hard to find in the first half.
Somehow, LSU was still within striking range at halftime despite the ignominy of not registering a first down on seven first-half possessions.
The Tigers took 21 snaps on those series and scratched out only 12 yards, an intentional grounding flag right before halftime wiping out 17 yards.
Quarterback Jordan Jefferson was 2-for-8 in the initial 30 minutes, but neither completion was beyond the line of scrimmage and the throws he did launch were nowhere close to the intended targets most of the time.
Mathieu was LSU's saving grace, along with a defense that adjusted after the Bulldogs punched them in the mouth on their first few series.
Georgia came out firing with Murray floating a 44-yard strike to Tavarres King on the second snap to set up a 40-yard Blair Walsh field goal.
Walsh missed a 45-yard kick on the second possession, but the Bulldogs nudged the lead to 10-0 on Murray's 12-yard TD strike to Aron White that finished off a 44-yard drive, which Carlton Thomas fueled with a 16-yard run.
The Bulldogs also left the door open, when at least two touchdown passes were dropped.
"We dropped one in the end zone," Richt said. "We dropped one that looked like a sure score in the first half."
After that, the Tigers tightened up and forced four straight Georgia punts. The Dawgs managed only 16 yards and two first downs on those four series, a harbinger of the second half when they buckled down and didn't allow Georgia into LSU territory until its last series.
"That defense, the way it's playing, when they had their 10 (points), I thought that would be it and we needed just frankly to get it started," Miles said.
The Tigers got it started and they finished with a flurry. Now they can redirect their focus to whatever – whoever lays head – in 5½ weeks. The BCS Championship game participants will be unveiled at 7 p.m. Sunday, with Alabama and Oklahoma State the two teams battling for the chance to take on LSU.
There has been sentiment for and against an SEC rematch with the Crimson Tide. Now that the Tigers can talk about it, they made it clear they'd look forward to round two.
"This team, we don't care who we play," Shepard said. "We're chasing history. If it's Bama, let's go."
Added Reid, "We're going to line up and play whoever is front of us."