ATLANTA -- The sounds postgame in the Georgia Dome were familiar. Fans cheered. The band joined in. It was an ACC-SEC showdown that came down to the game’s final play, and the fans in baby blue weren’t hesitant to show their support for the effort.
Of course, North Carolina didn’t win.
After they once trailed by 20 points, the Tar Heels mustered a comeback that fell short when tight end Zach Pianalto couldn’t get his hands around either of the final two passes from T.J. Yates.
Final score: LSU 30, UNC 24.
Yet, LSU’s Houdini-like second half showing raised questions.
UNC senior quarterback T.J. Yates was a respectable 11-of-19 for 138 yards and a touchdown in the opening half, but from there his night would only get better.
Down 20 and without life in the run game, head coach Butch Davis called for Yates to air it out. By game’s end, his stat line read 28-of-46 for 412 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Many media members had called for redshirt freshman Bryn Renner to take the reigns in the UNC offense, but it was Yates - the unlikely candidate - that stole the opening weekend spotlight.
“T.J. Yates did a great job getting the ball down field to his receivers,” said LSU linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. “He’s a solid quarterback and he came out and performed.”
Double-digit defensive backs saw action in the LSU rotation, but no combination was sound enough to slow Yates and Co. as they pulled the trifecta – landing the long plays, sustaining deep drives and hitting the always elusive onside kick to draw within six points with 2:31 to play.
The end result was an incomplete pass to the endzone in the game’s final second, but the aftermath from the second-half collapse will loom like a cloud over head coach Les Miles – at least until he can prove that the inconsistent evening was an isolated incident.
“Our football team won the game in a very sloppy fashion,” Miles said.
It wasn’t the first time, and if Atlanta was a sign of things to come it won’t be the last.
Ironically the word from Miles all preseason was that the defense’s strength began with the defensive backs, a group led by veterans and made complete by an equally talented crop of youth.
Junior Patrick Peterson’s ability as a cover man is well-documented, and he – and teammates and coaches - essentially praised sophomore Morris Claiborne as the second coming. In his first night as a starter Claiborne became the target of the avoid-Peterson approach, and as wideout Jheranie Boyd racked up 221 yards through the air it quickly became a night the sophomore cornerback hoped to soon forget.
At strong safety, junior Brandon Taylor was one of four returning starters back to the defensive side from last fall. He came out of the gates in a hurry with a fumble recovery and three stops in the first quarter, but then the momentum slowed when he found himself out of position in coverage and spotty on attempted tackles late in the game.
At free safety opposite Taylor the combination of starter Jai Eugene and backups Craig Loston and Eric Reid yielded just five combined stops and no pass break ups.
Perhaps the most telling stat: 2-of-46.
Of his 46 pass attempts, the LSU defensive backs were able to break up a pass by Yates only once. The second and final time the Tiger defense was credited with a deflection came from Stefoin Francois on the game’s final play.
If this was considered the strength of the defense, their opening act wasn’t a good basis for judgment.
“The corners were biting on doubles moves and the safeties were biting on double moves,” said Sheppard when asked about the team’s second half stumble. “We are in coverage … and a guy has his eye where it isn’t supposed to be. Don’t bite on the double moves and that game is totally different.”
By the end of four quarters LSU defensive backs coach Ron Cooper had played 13 different names on special teams and double-digit players on defense.
At one point in the second half Cooper had Peterson on the bench as he tested the young talent.
“He’s just trying to see what those guys can do,” Peterson said.
Freshman Tyrann Mathieu wasted little time with his opportunity as he finished his college debut with nine tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. The New Orleans product worked ahead of junior Ron Brooks as the team’s third cornerback in the nickel.
On a night where head scratching was in force, Mathieu represented something to be certain about.
Unfortunately, questions remain.
Will Stefoin Francois and Lamin Barrow, newcomers at outside linebacker, be able to help minimize damage through the air? If Chavis decides to stick to stacking the box, will Claiborne prove to be the shutdown cornerback that the staff tabbed him? When does Loston step forward and make his mark at safety, and how long before Taylor finds the consistency that led Chavis to name him the quarterback of the defensive backfield?
At his lunch presser on Monday Miles will touch the topic, but it will likely be a few weeks – when the Tigers draw an efficient aerial attack – until the unit can prove that they simply woke up on the wrong side of the bed.