Tigers shrug off sluggish start to improve to 10-0

Perhaps for the first time this season LSU didn’t play like the No. 1 team in the country, but the top-ranked Tigers shook off a pesky Western Kentucky team, 42-9, in a nonconference game during homecoming on Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.

LSU’s play in a game in which it led a six-touchdown underdog by just one touchdown at halftime wasn’t memorable, but the outcome elevated the Tigers to 10-0 for just the third time in school history and first time since the national championship season of 1958.

“10-0 is old news at this point. We’re already on to the next one,” said Tigers coach Les Miles, who won his 100th game as a college head coach, including a 72-17 mark in seven seasons at LSU.

The next one for LSU, 6-0 in the Southeastern Conference, is a league game at Ole Miss next Saturday. Counting the 41-24 victory against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl in January, the Tigers have won 11 consecutive games, tied with No. 2 Oklahoma State for the longest such streak in the country.

The victory Saturday was also noteworthy for the latest chapter in the Tigers’ quarterback narrative as Jordan Jefferson started for the first time this season, and Jarrett Lee, who started the first nine games, was relegated to mop-up duty a week after throwing two interceptions and being relieved by Jefferson for good in the third quarter of a 9-6 overtime victory at then-No. 2 Alabama.

Jefferson completed 8-of-14 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown and he ran five times for 20 yards, but the Tigers’ offense struggled at times behind him and scored just 14 points in the first half against the Hilltoppers.

Lee played the final two possessions and took LSU 82 yards for a touchdown on his first possession in the fourth quarter.

“That was a one-game decision,” Miles said of starting Jefferson. “We’ll go from there. I certainly liked how both quarterbacks played. Jarrett Lee came in, took us down the field and did what we asked him to do. I’m not certain he might not start some other games. Nothing is made in stone in any way.”

Running back Alfred Blue gave the offense a bigger lift than either quarterback could, rushing nine times for a career-high 119 yards and two second-half touchdowns that enabled the Tigers to finally put away from the Hilltoppers, 5-5 and 5-1 in the Sun Belt Conference.

“Western Kentucky gave us their best effort,” Miles said. “I congratulate them. I think they have a good football team. That was not in any way an impassioned effort by us, but our guys did what they needed to do to ensure victory.”

After a taking a 14-7 lead during a lethargic first half on their part, the Tigers showed a little more life in the third quarter. They forced a punt on the first possession and Blue, who didn’t carry the ball in the first half, gave the running game a spark with runs of 15 and 13 yards. Jefferson’s 9-yard pass to Rueben Randle set up Kenny Hilliard’s 1-yard touchdown run.

The Hilltoppers responded with a 73-yard kickoff return by Antonio Andrews to the LSU 26. Boe Brand ran 17 yards on a reverse for a first-and-goal at the 9.

Bobby Rainey, who finished with 85 yards on 28 carries and 15 yards on two receptions, gained 7 yards to the 2, but then the Tigers stiffened. Kadeem Jones was stopped for 1 yard, Kawaun Jakes threw an incompletion, and Jones was stopped for no gain on fourth down by Kevin Minter and Lamin Barrow.

WKU got something out of the opportunity, though, when Jefferson, under pressure from Bo Adebayo on third-and-7, threw an incompletion in the end zone and was called for grounding, resulting in a safety. That left LSU with a 21-9 lead with 5:22 left in the third quarter.

After the ensuing free kick, the defense came up with another big play as linebacker Tahj Jones intercepted Jakes, giving LSU the ball at the WKU 42. After Hilliard lost 3 yards, Blue sprinted through a big hole and sprinted 45 yards for a touchdown and a 28-9 lead with 2:53 left in the third quarter.

On the Tigers’ next possession, Blue broke free for 20 yards and LSU got another 15 yards when the Hilltoppers’ Dexter Haynes was called for a facemask penalty. On the last play of the quarter, Jefferson reversed field away from the pass rush and found Jarvis Landry for a 20-yard completion to the WKU 17.

Blue’s 4-yard touchdown run pushed LSU’s lead to 35-9 with 13:52 left in the game.

The stadium was at least half empty by the time Lee got in the game with 12 minutes remaining, but the fans that remained gave Lee a loud cheer. He led LSU down the field, finishing the drive and the scoring with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Kadron Boone that made it 42-9 with 5:45 left.

Tigers defensive end Barkevious Mingo called LSU’s performance “average — at best.” “We thought we were just going to show up and play,” Mingo said. “They came out and made some plays and caught us off guard. We knew we had to step it up in the second half.”

The Hilltoppers held the ball for 35 minutes and 55 seconds and hung with the Tigers longer than SEC teams such as Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn did.

“I don’t think the score represents how the game went,” Rainey said. “In the first half, we were up there with the number one team in the country. The second half we just didn’t come out with the same intensity we had in the first half.

“All the credit goes to LSU. This is the reason why they are the number one team in the country. They’re a great football team, but I felt like we could have played with them if we had kept the same intensity that we had in the first half.”

Western Kentucky was the sharper team in the early going. LSU received the opening kickoff and Jefferson went in to make his first start since last season’s Cotton Bowl.

After Spencer Ware’s 21-yard run gave the Tigers a first down at the Hilltoppers 45, Jefferson was sacked and guard T-Bob Hebert was called for a personal foul, pushing LSU back to its 33 and leading to a punt.

WKU got a couple of first downs before punting, and the Tigers immediately went deep. Rueben Randle sprinted up the left sideline, Jefferson hit him in stride at the 9, and Randle stepped into the end zone to complete LSU’s longest offensive play of the season.

The Hilltoppers didn’t hit a big play, but continued to outdo the Tigers play-in and play-out. Jakes used his legs and arm to help get WKU even. He had a 13-yard run and completed 3-of-4 passes for 34 yards. That set up Keshawn Sampson’s 2-yard touchdown run that tied the score at 7 after one quarter.

Odell Beckham fumbled on the ensuing kickoff and Vince Williams recovered for the Hilltoppers at the LSU 44, the Tigers’ first lost fumble in eight games. WKU couldn’t get a first down and punted.

LSU continued to sputter offensively, and the Hilltoppers drove into field-goal range, but Casey Tinius was short on a 49-yard kick.

The Tigers put together their first multi-play scoring drive late in the second quarter. Jefferson threw completions of 6 yards to Ware, 29 yards to Beckham, and 24 yards to Chase Clement to set up first-and-goal the WKU 4. The Hilltoppers held Ware to 2 yards on first down and 1 yard on second before Hilliard ran the final yard on third down for a touchdown with 3:32 left in the second quarter.

On the ensuing possession, an interception by Tigers safety Brandon Taylor was negated by an offsides penalty on cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. LSU got the ball back after a punt, and a personal foul penalty on WKU and a 26-yard scramble by Jefferson put the Tigers at the Hilltoppers 42 with nine seconds left and no timeouts. Jefferson launched a pass toward Randle in the end zone, and the ball was tipped just out of Randle’s reach as time expired.

That sent LSU into halftime clinging to a 14-7 edge as it struggled before finally pulling away..

“It’s one of those games that every team has,” Mingo said, “but you still have to correct the mistakes and come out better.”