LSU’s first game-week preparations were disrupted by Hurricane Isaac and the Tigers’ first game didn’t go as smoothly as they would have liked either.
Whether one had anything to do with the other is a matter of conjecture, but LSU’s 41-14 victory against North Texas, a 43-point underdog, on Saturday night in Tiger Stadium left coach Les Miles and his staff plenty of clean-up work to do before facing a more challenging opponent in Washington at home next Saturday.
“I can’t put it on the missed day of practice,” Miles said. “You do things the right way. If you don’t have a day of practice, you’re expected to do that anyway. I expect that we will have real quality improvement for our second game.”
Zach Mettenberger’s debut as the Tigers’ new starting quarterback wasn’t as transformational for the offense as many in the announced crowd of 92,059 might have hoped. The junior, who left the game for one series in the first half after being hit hard on a sack by Hilbert Jackson, completed 19 of 26 passes for 192 yards but he likely cost LSU points when he threw an interception to Zac Whitfield just in front of the Mean Green end zone. That prevented the Tigers from increasing a 24-7 lead with 1:03 left before halftime.
“I liked Mettenberger,” Miles said. “He got punched in the mouth and got up. I liked his composure. He’ll learn to take what the defense is giving him more than pressing. We can correct that.”
The first game in the post-Tyrann Mathieu era showed the Tigers still have playmakers in the secondary and on punt returns as Eric Reid had an interception and Odell Beckham Jr. returned a punt 70 yards for a second-quarter touchdown, but both of those areas were spotty as well.
Brelan Chancellor found a hole in the Tigers secondary, snared a pass from Derek Thompson and outran Reid and Craig Loston for an 80-yard touchdown that made the game somewhat interesting after the Tigers had scored the first 24 points.
Beckham’s touchdown came shortly after Jarvis Landry’s block in the back penalty negated what had appeared to be a 76-yard Beckham return for a touchdown.
Speaking of penalties, the Tigers were penalized 10 times for 55 yards, including an ineligible receiver downfield infraction on guard Josh Williford that wiped out a 30-yard touchdown pass from Mettenberger to Russell Shepard at the end of the third quarter. That didn’t have a lasting impact though as Mettenberger started the fourth quarter with a 34-yard touchdown pass to Kadron Boone.
Another special-teams breakdown occurred when usually reliable Drew Alleman was wide right on a 34-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter. That ended a streak of 11 consecutive made field goals by Alleman, including a 44-yarder on his first try Saturday. He bounced back to make a 30-yarder for the only points of the third quarter.
His miss and Mettenberger’s interception were the reasons LSU failed to score on two of its five trips inside the North Texas 20.
“I thought our defense really gutted it up and gritted it up at times,” Mean Green coach Dan McCarney said.
Despite all the sloppiness, there were many elements of LSU’s performance that were reminiscent of its 13-0 march to the BCS title game last season. The running game showed power and depth as Kenny Hilliard ran for 141 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. Alfred Blue added 123 yards on 16 carries as he and Hilliard became the first running back tandem to each gain 100 yards for LSU in an opener since Dalton Hilliard, Kenny’s uncle, and Garry James did the same against Oregon State in 1982. The Tigers had 508 yards of total offense.
“We had over 500 yards of total offense,” Mettenberger said. “That’s something to be proud of. As sloppy as we were offensively, to put up that many yards is good.”
The defense held North Texas to 219 yards and forced two turnovers.
“When you think you have them, you don’t,” McCarney said of the Tiger defenders. “When you think you have them cut off, you don’t. When you think you’ve sustained a block, you haven’t.”
Thompson completed 8-of-21 passes, but added a second touchdown, a 15-yarder, to Chancellor in the fourth.
“The two touchdowns were both my fault,” Reid said. “I put us in a bad position and allowed the receivers to get open. I tried to undercut the route, but I should have stayed on top like I was supposed to. It would have prevented the touchdowns.”
McCarney didn’t seem to notice the Tigers’ imperfections.
“We lost to an outstanding football team,” he said. “LSU’s got talent, they’ve got experience, they’re deep, they’re well coached.”
And presumably capable of much better than the No. 3 team in the country showed Saturday.
“It’s not like the NFL where you get four preseason games,” Mettenberger said. “It’s not like high school where we get jamborees or a scrimmage. It’s tough to go out there and play your first game.”
With things calm in the Gulf of Mexico, the Tigers should be able to look forward to a more normal week as they prepare for the Huskies and game number two.
“The offense, defense and special teams all had a chance to play dominant at times, but they also had some sloppy play in an opener,” Miles said. “I think we’re going to get better, and we have that opportunity. It was imperfect, but when you win you have a reason to smile.”
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