In some ways LSU’s first game as the No. 1 team in The Associated Press poll this season was less impressive than the previous four, but that certainly didn’t apply to the defense.
The Tigers defense was back to its dominating self in a 35-7 victory against Kentucky on Saturday in Tiger Stadium after allowing 463 passing yards and 533 total yards in a 47-21 victory at West Virginia the previous week. LSU held the Wildcats to 89 rushing yards, 66 passing yards, 155 total yards and 2.4 yards per play.
“Last week, we didn’t play LSU defense,” safety Brandon Taylor said. “This week, we had to come back and redeem ourselves and play LSU defense.”
The Tigers (5-0) improved to 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference heading into a key league game against No. 12 Florida on Saturday in Tiger Stadium. The Wildcats, who lost to the Gators 48-10 last week, are 2-3 and 0-2.
“Coach talked mainly about re-identifying who we are to the nation, re-identifying ourselves as to the style of defense that we play,” defensive end Sam Montgomery said. “We came out, and we said to ourselves that we want to get a shutout. We don’t want to give up any big yards; we want to shove this team into the dirt. That’s what we aimed to do.”
LSU did everything it aimed to do except get the shutout, which was lost when Morgan Newton threw a 4-yard touchdown to Matt Roark to complete the scoring with 4:22 left to play. By that time, the defense was a mixture of first-, second-, and third-teamers.
Kentucky’s first five possessions were three-and-outs, its first seven ended with punts and its eighth ended when the first half expired.
“In the first quarter, we had like five three-and-outs,” Taylor said, “and when we didn’t, we were kind of mad.”
The Wildcats didn’t get a first down until late in the second quarter and didn’t complete a pass until their 10th attempt.
“I really felt like our defense came out and set the tone for the day,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We played an intense football game from start to finish. We gave up very few plays. Ultimately, over time it allows an offense to stay patient and do the things they need to do to throw the ball throughout the game and not be in a hole.”
The defense’s early dominance enabled the offense to overcame a sluggish start. The reshuffled offensive line, which saw Will Blackwell move from right guard to left guard to replace injured T-Bob Hebert and Josh Williford start at right guard, opened very few holes in the first half as 124 of the Tigers’ 201 first-half yards came through the air.
Eventually, the Tigers were able to run the ball better and achieve their typical balance, finishing with 179 yards rushing and 169 passing. The running game was carried by Alfred Blue (72 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries) after starter Spencer Ware was sidelined by a slight hamstring pull.
“We feel like any time we can get between 170 and 200 (rushing yards) we’ll be all right and fortunately we did that today,” Blackwell said. “(The defense’s dominance) keeps us from getting down on ourselves and getting frustrated.
“When you get frustrated, you make mistakes. Any time your defense can shut them down like that, it makes things easier for you.”
Things got easier in the second half after LSU struggled to a 14-0 halftime lead. The Wildcats changed quarterbacks to start the second half, switching from Newton to Maxwell Smith, but it didn’t matter as they went three-and-out.
Blue carried twice for 13 yards and freshman Terrence Magee, seeing his first action of the season, carried twice for 5 yards as the Tigers began the half with a commitment to the run. Jarrett Lee’s 22-yard completion to Russell Shepard helped set up Blue’s 1-yard touchdown run and a 21-0 lead.
On the ensuing possession, cornerback Tyrann Mathieu sacked Smith, causing a fumble, and scooped the ball up and ran 23 yards for a touchdown and a 28-0 lead. LSU made it 35-0 when Magee ran 1 yard for a touchdown with 10:39 left in the game.
“Our offense cannot do that to our defense,” Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. “We cannot go three and out, three and out, and three and out and put our defense in a tough situation to go up against a talented team over and over.”
The Tigers failed to score on their first possession for the first time this season, but they put together a scoring drive on their second. Facing a fourth-and-goal from the Wildcats’ 1, Miles sent in Jordan Jefferson for his first play since being reinstated Wednesday night. Jefferson was projected to be the starting quarterback before being arrested and suspended before the reinstatement came after he was charged with a misdemeanor rather than a felony in connection with an bar fight in August.
Jefferson was greeted by a mixture of boos and cheers. The noise turned to all cheers when he sneaked 1 yard for a touchdown.
LSU’s next three possessions ended in punts before Lee threw a 52-yard touchdown pass to Odell Beckham, who caught the ball at the Kentucky 37 and avoided five defenders as he zig-zagged his way to the end zone.
“The offensive line gave Jarrett plenty of time to throw it,” said Beckham, who caught a 52-yard touchdown from Lee last week. “He threw it perfectly toward the sideline so the DB couldn’t come and get it. As I landed, I spun and I just saw open field. There was a heavy flow this way, so I tried to cut back on a few people and get to the end zone. I just tried to make some people miss.
“I just like being in the open field and making moves. It just feels natural to me. But I was gassed at the end.”
By that time the Kentucky defense was getting gassed, and the Wildcats offense seemed to be running on empty all day.
“We got chewed out after the West Virginia game for giving up so many yards,” safety Eric Reid said, “so we knew that we had to bounce back today and we did it. During practice this week, we made sure we stayed sound in our keys. We didn’t get our eyes in the backfield as a secondary, so we focused more and executed the game plan.”
Montgomery, who led the Tigers with six tackles, two for loss and 1.5 sacks, said the defense re-established the identity that was missing in West Virginia.
“That identity,” he said, “is a team that is going to be tough to run against, a team that can get to the quarterback, a team that can play the draws, a team that can play the screens, a team that is very disciplined, a team that plays quick, crazy and dominant.”
Miles, though, said he didn’t think the defensive effort was any more inspired than he’s used to.
“I felt that our defense played very well,” he said. “I don’t know that they played impassioned defense today; I just think that they did the things that they always do. They’re an intense group, and that’s how they come to play. I think you’ll see better play next week.”