ATLANTA — The highlights from Monday night’s Chick-fil-A Bowl will show Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd gashing the LSU defense and leading his Tigers to nine points in the final five minutes for a 25-24 victory.
But the LSU offense will have to shoulder its share of the blame.
The Tigers of Les Miles were never able to consistently move the chains against a Clemson defense that gave up 24.9 points per game in the regular season. Nor were they able to provide a pivotal first down after taking possession with less than three minutes left and LSU nursing a two-point lead.
“They made it tough for us by stacking eight or nine guys in the box,” LSU running back Jeremy Hill said. “When you see that lineup, you know it will be tough to get yards. But we left some plays out there. We didn’t convert third downs, and put our defense on the spot. Late in the game, we had good position but just didn’t execute.”
Hill was the biggest bright spot for LSU on a night when the Tigers managed only 219 yards of offense.
The former Redemptorist High School star finished with 124 yards on 12 carries. But more than half of his yards came on his two scoring runs, a 17-yarder on the heels of a Craig Loston fumble recovery and later a 57-yard jaunt after Michael Ford opened the second half with a 43-yard kickoff return.
As a team, LSU had 120 yards passing and only 99 rushing.
Miles pointed to the offensive line’s inability to protect quarterback Zach Mettenberger as the undoing of his offense.
Mettenberger was sacked six times, plus rushed into one intentional grounding.
“When you can’t protect your passer, it becomes hard to run,” Miles said. “If we protect the passer a little bit, the running game comes to life.”
LSU’s failures on offense put the weight of the game on a defense that hardly got a water break.
Clemson ran 100 plays Monday to LSU’s 48, gained 445 yards to LSU’s 219 and had 32 first downs to LSU’s nine. Clemson picked up eight first downs on 18 tries. LSU was 3-for-13.
On two occasions, LSU had the ball with the lead and was in position to back Clemson into a corner.
Mettenberger’s interception on first-and-10 from the Clemson 44 — one play after Odell Beckham corralled a Mettenberger pass for a 26-yard gain — kept LSU from adding to a 14-13 lead in the final minute of the first half.
After an Eric Reid fumble recovery at the Clemson 29 with 7:34 left in the third quarter, LSU inched all the way to the 3 before settling for a short Drew Alleman field goal and a 24-13 advantage.
Then came LSU’s final possession of the night.
Clemson had pulled within two, but couldn’t convert the two-point try and pooched the kickoff hoping for a recovery. LSU took over up 24-22 with 2:43 left, seemingly one first down away from icing victory.
Clemson had all three timeouts remaining. It never had to use one. Miles had Mettenberger pass on three straight downs — an 8-yard completion to Kadron Boone followed by two incompletions.
“We were not running the football,” Miles said. “We were in a position where they outnumbered us in the run.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he couldn’t fault Miles for throwing the ball.
“I think he was trying to win the game,” Swinney said. “I know he felt he needed to get a first down.”
The performance in the bowl game put a damper on what had been a late-season resurgence by Mettenberger and the LSU offense.
“A lot of things didn’t go our way tonight,” Mettenberger said. “But trust me when I tell you, you’re going to see a totally different animal next year.”
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