Ninth-ranked LSU will be in unfamiliar territory Saturday night when it hosts third-ranked South Carolina in another battle of top 10 teams for both schools. For the first time since November 27th, 2010, the Tigers are coming off of a regular season loss. LSU lost to Florida 14-6 last week in the Swamp. LSU had won 18 consecutive regular season wins since a 31-23 loss at Arkansas in 2010. Now the Tigers will return home to the familiar Death Valley and welcome in a Carolina team that is flying high after a 25-7 demolition of Georgia last week.
"Our football team is certainly stunned a little about the outcome," LSU coach Les Miles said Monday. "I think that is right. I think that they are looking forward to playing in Tiger Stadium. I think that they are looking forward to playing well in front of their friends and family in Tiger Stadium. We are going to play a very good football team. I want Tiger Stadium to be a loud and very difficult place to play for our opponent."
Entering the season LSU, along with Southern Cal, were the two teams expected to challenge Alabama for the national championship. Halfway through the season both LSU and Southern Cal have looked anything but a national title contender. While there is one team that enters the game as a National Championship contender, it's not LSU. LSU could still get there if they win out, but right now the third-ranked Gamecocks are getting plenty of love from the national media.
"South Carolina is a tremendous team," Miles said. "They have a good defense to go with a quality offense. They have a mobile quarterback. They have a very good running back in Marcus Lattimore. Again, they are a very quality team and it is going to take a great effort from us to play well."
LSU knew it was going to have a great defense, but the offense was a big question mark. After putting up well over 400 yards of offense in its first three games, including 508 against North Texas in the season opener, LSU was looking pretty scary. They put up 41 in each of the first two games and 63 against Idaho, while winning by an average margin of 38 points per game.
When LSU opened up conference play at Auburn, things began to change. LSU fumbled the ball twice, both at crucial times. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger fumbled on the Auburn two on a third-and-one play that Auburn recovered. LSU would get a safety on the first Auburn play of the possession and score on the ensuing possession to take a 9-0 lead.
On LSU's next possession, Mettenberger was sacked by Corey Lemonier and fumbled again. Auburn would make LSU pay with a touchdown to trim the lead to 9-7. After gaining 115 on two drives in the first quarter, LSU would gain just 236 more the remainder of the game and had to hold on for a 12-10 win against an Auburn team that is not very good at all.
LSU returned home the following week for a warm-up against Towson before their trip to the Swamp. It would be anything but a warm-up for LSU as the Tigers trailed 9-7 midway through the second quarter before taking a 17-9 lead to the half. LSU would pull away in the second half, leading 31-9 before settling for a 38-22 win. The Tiger offense got back on track with 396 yards of offense, but gave up a season-high in points and yards defensively.
Last week's match-up with Florida was anything but pretty, but LSU held a 6-0 lead heading to the half. LSU mustered just 91 yards of offense in the first half while Florida had just 112 yards of offense. Turnovers would prove to be the difference for the Tigers in the second half. After Florida had grabbed a 7-6 lead early in the third quarter, Mettenberger hit Odell Beckham for a 56-yard gain, but Beckham fumbled and the Gators recovered. Florida turned that into another touchdown to take a 14-6 lead. Beckham would fumble again with just nine seconds left to end the game.
"Our football team is going through some changes," Miles said. "We need to play better in a number of ways. It is not an effort thing. I enjoyed my team's effort. We have to play smarter and with a wisdom that allows us to use the advantages that we are given."
Florida dominated the time of possession battle, especially in the second half. The Gators held the ball for 20 minutes in the second half and had the LSU defense on the field for 15 more minutes than the offense for the game.
"I thought the defense played a tremendous game and gave us every opportunity at victory," Miles said. "We're not a team that puts our defense on the field for as long as we put them on the field in that game. That is what we did. We have to execute better just in the fact that we are going to have a great defense. With them on the field stopping most offenses that we play, we need to control the ball more on the offensive side of the game."
The offensive problems begin with Mettenberger. The most popular player on any team is the back-up quarterback, and that is the case at LSU. Some fans are asking to see the 6'8, 225-pound freshman Stephen Rivers, but that would be very dangerous against a defense like South Carolina. Rivers has played in three games, but has only thrown one pass – an incompletion – and one run for two yards. You can't expect a quarterback to come in and just hand the ball off time and time again and throw every now and then. For better or worse, for this week Mettenberger is the only option.
It is not like Mettenberger has had an atrocious season. He is 89-for-144 (61%) for 1174 yards, six scores, and three interceptions. By comparison, Connor Shaw 56-for-74 (76%) for 733 yards, seven scores, and two interceptions. Mettenberger has not been the best player for the other team, but someone has to be blamed for the deficiencies with the LSU offense.
"Ideally, you'd like to have that quarterback in the game that gives a great advantage with him in the game and the ball in his hand as he dispenses it in the pass as well," Miles said. "We really think Zach (Mettenberger) is that guy. We're not so prone to discard him for a mobile quarterback. We just need to make sure we get the ball to the guy that has it coming, who by strategy the defense has left not as well covered. We need to catch it and advance the ball. If we do those things, we'll be fine."
LSU has several threats at running back. They lost starter Alfred Blue in the third game of the season to a knee injury. Blue left as the leading rusher with 40 carries and second on the team with 270 yards and two touchdowns. Bruiser Kenny Hilliard now leads the team in attempts, yards, and touchdowns. He has 58 carries for 382 yards and six scores, averaging nearly seven yards per carry. Michael Ford and Spencer Ware each has 40+ carries and Ford has a pair of scores. LSU is only successful when it is balanced, but the last two games against Towson and Florida are the only games where the Tigers had more passing yards than rushing yards.
"I don't think we've gotten there yet," Miles said. "I'm not ready to say that we're not going to be a really good football team here in the future. It's just that we need to do the things that we can do and do them extremely well. We need to execute them at a high level and make our opponents deal with it. It's about us and about what we want to do, not necessarily about our opponent."
On the other side of the ball, LSU has been a lockdown defense for most of the season. LSU trails only Alabama in total defense in the SEC, and is just two points per game behind South Carolina's defense. The Tigers are third in rushing defense in the conference and leads in passing defense. The Tigers did suffer another injury in the Florida game when Kwon Alexander went out with a broken ankle. Alexander, a linebacker, had 11 tackles, a pass deflection, a pass breakup, and two fumble recoveries. He played in all six games and started two.
"The good news is Luke (Muncie) is back. Kwon (Alexander) will probably be gone for the remainder of the regular season," Miles said. "He may make it back for the bowl game. That's a shame, because he was really, really playing well. We enjoyed his participation in that game. The time of Luke Muncie's return is the opportunity to get some of the younger guys ready. They'll have to be where we're at."
Kevin Minter, another Tiger linebacker, had the game of his life against the Gators. Minter had 20 tackles, just one shy of the school record held by Al Richardson. Richardson had 21 tackles in 1982 against South Carolina.
"Kevin Minter had a great game and a career number of tackles," Miles said. "He had two sacks, 20 tackles and one forced fumble. He was the SEC Player of the Week. If he had not missed a series or two, he might have set an LSU record for most tackles. I thought the defensive line got to the quarterback. I thought that they made plays and gave us every opportunity at victory."
LSU has been hit by a rash of injuries throughout the season that includes J.C. Copeland, Chris Faulk, Muncie, and Alexander among them. While injuries are part of the game, when it happens to key players it impacts the team.
"There are a number of guys that are not there," Miles said. "What we've always tried to do is instill the responsibility to that guy when he takes the place of a quality player, so that he plays that position with the responsibility and to the level of the guy that had it. We're counting on our guys to play the position well, period. When they step in and they're no longer a backup, they're a starter. The good news is that we have recruited well. I think that given some time, there are some young guys that will be in a position to play at a very high level. That's important."
South Carolina will be walking into a hornets nest when it walks into Death Valley Saturday night. Carolina is coming off of a signature win and will have a target on their chests, while LSU is coming back from their first regular season loss in a year and a half, hungry for a big win.
"The good news is that our football team has always really responded personally," Miles said. "They recognize that it's not the feeling we're used to having. They recognize that we work too hard to finish second. They're going to look forward to preparing for this opponent that's certainly it's a quality opponent and one that our team will be challenged to prepare for."
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