COLUMN: Who knew?

LSU was able to erase some doubt with its 23-21 win over South Carolina.

It's the question I think many, if not most, asked while leaving Tiger Stadium or turning off their TVs late Saturday night.

Who knew?

Or, in its fuller form: Who knew the Tigers had that in them?

Weeks worth of evidence had piled up in front of us prior to Saturday, leading us to believe LSU was at best in a funk or at worst in decline with No. 3 South Carolina coming to town.

Yes, Les Miles' troops did dispatch of Washington, Auburn and three bantamweights to kick off the 2012 season, but none of those triumphs were resounding and reflective of a team hitting all cylinders, with the possible exception of the 41-3 win over the Huskies.

Then Florida played show-stopper, literally halting the highly ranked but underwhelming Bayou Bengals in their tracks.

The Tigers limped away from The Swamp on the wrong side of a 14-6 affair, handed their first regular-season loss in 22 months, sunk from their familiar top-two-ranked surroundings and, seemingly, exposed as a team – and an offense – not what they were built to be in the preseason.

Never mind that an absurd rash of injuries, suspensions and academic casualties had befallen LSU. The perception nationally, and in many cases locally, still was what it was.

LSU, fresh off being beaten at its own physical game by the Gators, deservedly belonged several rungs lower on the NCAA ladder.

And the arrival of Marcus Lattimore, Jadeveon Clowney and Steve Spurrier to Baton Rouge this weekend didn't exactly make for a cushy landing spot.

Who knew then that the LSU offense could be game for the Gamecocks?

But they were. Despite one of the poorest showings of the Greg Studrawa-Les Miles partnership in Gainesville, LSU's offense sparkled at times on Saturday night.

The Tigers breezed from 20 to 20 like driving down a toll-free road most of the evening. They smartly allowed Spencer Ware to line up under center twice, taking direct snaps and running for short yardage when necessary. They threw to running backs, utilized quick underneath passes and employed decoys, not getting the ball to the obvious option by personnel, regularly.

They also threw more on first down and were less predictable on the whole (at least for the first 45 minutes). In short, they weren't the boring, predictable unit that the Gators chomped up.

"First of all, (converting) third downs," answered Miles after the game when asked how the offense improved. "We were consistent on third down, and we rushed the football. We would get four or five yards and come back and do it again. I thought that Zach [Mettenberger] was good, minus one throw. When we play like that, we are pretty good."

The numbers prove Miles' point. LSU was an efficient 11-of-19 (57.9%) on third down against the Gamecocks after going 1-of-13 (7.7%) on third down the week before.

And LSU did it with a patchwork offensive line.

Who knew those guys could hold their own against one of the nation's best defensive fronts?

But they did. No Alex Hurst or Josh Williford was no problem for the Tigers. An offensive line that featured two freshmen on the right side and a sophomore at left guard held the potent ‘Cocks to only one sack all night.

"You look at it, we only have two guys starting that started the first game with La'el [Collins] and P.J. [Lonergan]," quarterback Zach Mettenberger leveled with reporters in postgame interviews. "I thought the old man at left tackle [Josh Dworaczyk] had a hell of a game, he was on [Jadeveon] Clowney all night. The two young guns, Vadal [Alexander] and Trai [Turner], played lights out. I think they're going to be a good combo in the future on the right side for sure."

Against South Carolina, LSU's front five was outstanding, particularly in blocking for the run game. A group with a lot of inexperience, some moving parts and virtually no continuity together changed the ballgame for the Tigers.

In a complete role reversal from the Florida tilt, LSU dominated the time of possession battle, giving John Chavis' defense a much-needed rest. The Tigers held the ball for 36 minutes, 57 seconds to only 22 minutes, 28 seconds of possession for Spurrier's squad.

Credit the offensive line for such a drastic transformation … and for the return of smash-mouth LSU football.

Who knew the Miles Method could effectively slay a defense like South Carolina's?

But it did. There might have been some lipstick on that pig with the quick passes, personnel usages and altered tendencies mentioned above, but I think we all recognize what we saw Saturday night.

That was Les Miles football.

LSU ran the ball 53 times (of 78 total plays) for 258 yards. South Carolina, with Lattimore in tow, eked out just 34 yards rushing on 25 carries.

It was an even more grueling story in the second half, when the Tigers mounted their comeback and wrestled the slim lead away in the fourth quarter. LSU gained 171 of its 258 rushing yards in the final 30 minutes. By comparison, Mettenberger threw for only 57 yards in the second half.

"I think we kind of wore those guys down," freshman running back Jeremy Hill said candidly. "They got tired as the game went on so we just kept running downhill, just hitting them hard, and eventually we were going to break one. That's kind of what I did."

Indeed Hill did, busting loose on a 50-yard scoring scamper with 5:03 left in the game to put LSU up by nine, a lead it wouldn't surrender.

It was also a welcome trip to the end zone, something the Tigers were struggling with woefully from close range throughout the course of the game.

Who knew LSU would struggle so much in the red zone?

Okay, so maybe this one wasn't a shocker like the rest. It's no secret in TigerTown that the LSU offense has been dreadful once it gets inside the 20 this fall. Continuing the metaphor began hundreds of words above, it's like there's suddenly a toll on the road as the numbers begin to drop below 20.

And, unfortunately for Tiger fans, Mettenberger hasn't had exact change.

The opening four games for LSU this season saw two Mett interceptions at the goal line as well as a fumbled exchange between No. 8 and Elliott Porter down on the doorstep at Auburn.

Those problems, at least when it comes to not scoring touchdowns, persisted Saturday. Drew Alleman kicked field goals of 20, 22 and 23 yards on the night to go with a miss from 32 yards out. They weren't turnovers, but they weren't multiples of seven either.

"I don't really know (what the problem is)," said center P.J. Lonergan. "We're going to have to go look at it and watch film, but that's definitely one of my personal goals for looking at this next week. We've got to turn those three points into seven points."

Red-zone head-scratching aside, there were a lot of positive steps taken – and even a few questions answered – by LSU and its offense against a good South Carolina team.

Now, despite the dark sky overhead after the Florida loss, this LSU team is right back into the thick of the national title discussion.

Who knew?

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