After LSU lost at Florida last week, another loss against undefeated South Carolina on Saturday night would have almost certainly ended the Tigers’ dream of playing for the BCS championship and made a second consecutive Southeastern Conference title highly unlikely.
The LSU coaches knew it, the players knew it and the 92,734 fans in Tiger Stadium knew it.
And it showed.
The Tigers added a wrinkle to their stagnant offense by lining up running back Spencer Ware under center. A patchwork offensive line outperformed the third-ranked Gamecocks’ heralded defensive line, bringing the running game to life after LSU had just 42 yards against Florida. Freshman Jeremy Hill had his first 100-yard rushing game and scored on runs of 7 and 50 yards.
The defense stymied South Carolina’s offense for most of the game, and safety Eric Reid came up with a game-turning interception.
It all delighted a rollicking crowd that watched the ninth-ranked Tigers hold off the Gamecocks 23-21 and extend their school-record home winning streak to 22 games. LSU avoided what would have been just the second set of consecutive losses in coach Les Miles’ eight season as he coached his 100th game with the Tigers.
LSU (6-1, 2-1 SEC) visits Texas A&M next Saturday.
“Our football team, coming off the Florida game, could not bring itself to do anything but win this week,” Miles said. “The team responded. They’re committed to each other. They expressed that (Friday night) at a team meeting. That’s how it’s supposed to be.
“The defense played great, the offense got better and the special teams did their part. It was a team victory.”
The Tigers dominated the statistics, outgaining the Gamecocks 406-211, accumulating 22 first downs and allowing 14, and possessing the ball for 36 minutes, 57 seconds compared to 23:03 for South Carolina (6-1, 4-1).
“I think we executed a lot better,” quarterback Zach Mettenberger said. “That showed on the scoreboard and in the yards we put out. Really, that’s what we should have been doing all year because we knew we could do it.”
Still, LSU was trailing 14-13 midway through the fourth quarter, settling for Drew Alleman field goals of 23 and 20 yards after 16-play drives and watching Alleman miss one from 32.
“I was hoping all their little field goals wouldn’t add up,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.
They looked like they might not, until Connor Shaw, who fought through four sacks to throw two touchdowns, rolled left and threw an off-balance pass that floated to Reid at the Tigers’ 49. Reid brought the ball back to the Gamecocks’ 22 and was shaken up on the play but returned. That led to Alleman’s 22-yard field goal and a 16-14 lead with 6:37 left.
“Eric Reid’s interception was just what we needed,” Miles said.
So was Hill’s 50-yard touchdown sprint, which seemed to put the game away. It gave the Tigers a 23-14 lead with 5:03 left, and Hill finished with 124 yards on 17 carries.
“I think we kind of wore those guys down,” Hill said. “They got tired as the game wore on, so we just kept running downhill, just hitting them hard, and eventually we were going to break one.”
But Shaw brought South Carolina back and threw a 1-yard touchdown to Bruce Ellington that trimmed LSU’s lead to 23-21 with 1:41 left.
Adam Yates’ onside kick bounded out of bounds, and LSU burned more time off the clock, but couldn’t get a first down. The Tigers punted to South Carolina, which took over at its 20 with 35 seconds left.
Shaw completed a couple of short passes for 12 yards before lofting the ball upfield. Tharold Simon, whose interception on the last play similarly sealed a two-point victory at Auburn on Sept. 22, broke up the pass and Loston intercepted as time ran out.
“Tonight, I realized why LSU was preseason No. 1,” Spurrier said. “They’re a big, strong team. They can run the ball and stop the run. That was the biggest difference in the game probably.”
The Tigers had 258 yards on 53 carries. That’s 58 more rushing yards than their total yards against Florida. They had three more running plays than they had total plays against Florida.
LSU had 22 first downs, 15 on the ground, after running for just one last week.
The Tigers trailed 7-3 at halftime, but took the second-half kickoff and drove 69 yards to their first touchdown against an SEC opponent in six quarters. Kenny Hilliard’s 17-yard run produce a first down at the South Carolina 30. Two plays later, Hill ran 9 yards to a first down at the 7, then he ran the final 7 yards to put LSU ahead.
Ace Sanders’ 50-yard punt return gave the Gamecocks good field position at their 46, and Shaw took advantage. He kept on the option for 17 yards, then lofted a 30-yard completion to Justice Cunningham to the Tigers’ 2. Marcus Lattimore scored from there, giving the Gamecocks a 14-10 lead they took into the fourth quarter.
LSU, which didn;t get in the end zone at all and was shut out in the second half a week earlier scored 13 points in the final 10:17, though it didn’t put the game away until the clock ran out.
“It was really a street fight on both sides,” Miles said. “I’d like to distance myself from the opponent a bit more.’
LSU, which converted just 1-of-13 third downs a week ago, was nearly perfect on third downs in a 16-play march on its first possession. The Tigers converted five consecutive third downs, mixing runs and short passes and spotting Ware in at quarterback.
But just as it did on its opening possession against Florida, LSU bogged down near the goal line. On third-and-goal from the 2, Hilliard was stopped for 1 yard.
Miles sent the field-goal team on the field, then called timeout. Miles kept the field-goal unit and the offense around him until the officials signaled it was time to resume play. The offense ran out with Ware under center, but freshman right tackle Vadal Alexander committed a false start and the play was blown dead. Alleman kicked a 23-yard field goal.
LSU’s next possession looked promising after a swing pass from Mettenberger to Hill on third-and-10 produced 21 yards and a first down at the Gamecocks 37. Two plays later, Mettenberger tried to lead Jarvis Landry on a slant-in. Jimmy Legree jumped in front of Landry, intercepted the pass and sprinted 70 yards to the Tigers’ 1 before being tackled by Hill.
Two plays later, Show flipped a 2-yard scoring pass to Sanders, who had slipped past Loston. That gave South Carolina a 7-3 lead six seconds into the second quarter.
LSU squandered another scoring opportunity midway through the quarter. The Tigers drove to the Gamecocks’ 15, and on second-and-10 Mettenberger had Landry open on the left side but overthrew him. The possession ended with Alleman missing a 32-yard field goal wide left.
His miss wasn’t the only imperfection for LSU, but the Tigers made up for it with passion and determination.
“Sometimes a team gets a little bit more fire and energy,” Spurrier said. “They had it tonight. No question about it.”