LSU’s string of three nonconference games to start the season made it clear that North Texas, Washington and Idaho aren’t ready to compete in the Southeastern Conference.
What’s less clear is whether the Tigers are ready to successfully defend their SEC title. LSU had its third consecutive lopsided victory when it beat the Vandals 63-14 on Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.
LSU swept the homestand by a combined score of 145-31, but much like the 42-14 victory against North Texas in the opener, the victory Saturday was an uneven performance.
Still, LSU set the FBS record for consecutive nonconference regular-season victories (40) and the school record for consecutive home victories (20).
The Tigers used a series of big plays to subdue the outmanned Vandals, but threw in just enough breakdowns to keep the game competitive for longer than it otherwise would have been.
The Tigers led just 21-14 late in the second quarter before getting a touchdown right before halftime, then overwhelming Idaho (0-3) in the second half.
The defense had four interceptions and returned two for touchdowns in a game for the first time in 21 years, but also gave up two touchdown passes to wide-open receivers.
LSU opened up its passing game and Zach Mettenberger responded with 17 completions in 22 attempts for a season-high 222 yards — but for the second time in three weeks, he threw an interception near the opponent’s goal line. This one was returned 94 yards by Gary Walker to set up Idaho’s first touchdown, cutting the Tigers’ early lead to 14-7.
Kenny Hilliard had his third consecutive two-touchdown game and second 100-yard rushing game as the offense amassed 454 yards with near-perfect balance (232 rushing yards to complement Mettenberger’s passing).
But the Tigers were penalized eight times for 58 yards, including an illegal substitution infraction that pushed them out of field-goal range. LSU has been penalized 23 times in three games.
The Tigers take to the road for the first time this season when they visit Auburn in their SEC opener on Saturday.
“We weren’t perfect,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “Everybody can see we can be a dominant football team at times. In all three phases, at different times, we were dominant in this game. That’s the good piece. We need to eliminate some mistakes. We’ll learn from it and be better for it.”
LSU seemed to begin the second half determined to put the game away after it failed to do so in the second quarter. Lavar Edwards’ 23-yard interception return for a touchdown on Idaho’s first possession of the third quarter started the onslaught, which continued with touchdown runs of 71 yards and 1 yard by Hilliard and 4 and 8 yards by freshman Jeremy Hill, who made his first appearance in a game.
“We were upset with how we were playing, and they were playing harder than us,” Hilliard said. “This is our game and our stadium, and no one will come in and take that away from us. We had that in our hearts and just played ball.”
LSU held the Vandals to 92 second-half yards on 32 plays. Idaho’s seven possessions after halftime ended with four punts, two interceptions and the expiration of the game clock.
“Our offense going against that defense is going to have some issues being able to move the ball and make some plays,” Idaho coach Robb Akey said. “They’re going to make a lot of plays against a lot of folks.”
LSU began the game as though this one would be in hand by halftime. Its first possession ended with Mettenberger throwing a 17-yard touchdown pass to Kadron Boone, his third scoring catch in as many games.
The Tigers got the ball back two plays later when Jalen Collins broke up Dominique Blackman’s pass and Ronald Martin intercepted at the Idaho 30. Six plays after that, Alfred Blue ran 3 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
LSU seemed poised to add to its lead on the second play of the second quarter, but Mettenberger threw a pass that was intercepted by Walker at the Vandals’ 1. Walker ran all the way to the Tigers’ 5, where he was finally run down by Odell Beckham Jr.
Two plays later, Blackman threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to uncovered tight end Michael LaGron.
Suddenly, the third consecutive blowout was on hold.
Collins and Martin teamed up again to give LSU another two-touchdown lead. Martin broke up another pass that landed in Martin’s hands, and Martin sprinted 45 yards for a touchdown.
The Vandals came right back, putting together an 81-yard drive that ended with Blackman throwing a 22-yard touchdown to Jahrie Level, who got behind cornerback Tharold Simon.
The Tigers’ offense sputtered as Mettenberger was sacked on consecutive plays, forcing a punt, but the defense gave it another helping hand.
LSU backed Idaho up to its 2 and the Tigers took over at the 39 after a punt. Mettenberger threw a 9-yard completion to Blue, a 23-yarder to Shepard and a 7-yard touchdown to Jarvis Landry for a 28-14 halftime lead.
After that the margin continued to grow and grow, masking the few blemishes.
“The good news is we can raise our level of play,” Miles said. “We’re going to need to reach that level routinely from this point on.”