Jefferson handling pressure as LSU starting quarterback

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLINGLSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson breaks away on his 48-yard  touchdown run in the fourth quarter as Arkansas' Alfred Davis pursues. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLINGLSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson breaks away on his 48-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter as Arkansas' Alfred Davis pursues.

LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson enjoyed his most significant playing time in the Tigers’ 41-17 victory against Arkansas on Friday since he helped lead the way in a 41-24 victory against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl last season.

Jefferson, making his third consecutive start since replacing Jarrett Lee as the No. 1-ranked Tigers’ top quarterback, participated in 70 snaps. He passed for a season-high 208 yards and a touchdown and ran for 53 yards and a touchdown as he accumulated more yards than the No. 3-ranked Razorbacks (261-254), who led the Southeastern Conference in total offense (463 yards per game).

The Tigers fell behind 14-0 midway through the second quarter as Jefferson and the offense sputtered, but they got on track with a 14-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that triggered a 41-3 onslaught the rest of the way.

“He was handling the duress pretty comfortably,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “They got to him early, and we needed to make some adjustments in our protections. Beyond that we really felt he had settled in and was really playing well.”

Jefferson has been off limits to local reporters for the last two months, but ESPN aired a brief on-the-field, postgame interview after Friday’s game, the second such interview he has done, the other coming after the win at Alabama on Nov. 5.

“Football is all about patience,” Jefferson said. “We had to be patient. ￉ It was a great victory for us. It’s finally starting to unfold for us.”

After being suspended for the first four games in the wake of his arrest in connection with a bar fight, Jefferson, a senior from Destrehan, has gradually reclaimed the starting position that was unquestionably his before the arrest.

He played just seven snaps in his debut against Kentucky on Oct. 1 and didn’t throw a pass, but gradually assumed a bigger role in relief of Lee leading up to the showdown against the No. 2 Crimson Tide. Lee threw two interceptions in that game and was relieved by Jefferson for good early in the third quarter. Jefferson went on to help the Tigers grind out a 9-6 overtime victory.

Jefferson has started all three games since, and Lee was relegated to mop-up duty against Western Kentucky on Nov. 12 and against the Razorbacks on Friday.

“His leadership, his want for his team and how he plays gives us the opportunity (to win),” Miles said of Jefferson. “When the quarterback is under duress, he is that guy. He handles that well.”

One situation that Jefferson didn’t handle well came on the first possession of the third quarter as LSU was trying to add to a 21-14 lead.

He had just moved the Tigers into scoring range with one of his more skillful plays of the game. Jefferson rolled right, keeping the pass rush at bay, and patiently waited for Rueben Randle to get free, then flipped the ball to Randle for a 38-yard gain to Arkansas 17.

On the next play, Jefferson rolled right again, but this time he tried to force the ball to tight end Mitch Joseph, who was bracketed by two defenders. Tramain Thomas intercepted for the Razorbacks, who drove to a field goal to get within four points.

“He got a little ambitious,” Miles said. “He made that play on a scramble and threw that deep ball and got us down in there before the game was out of hand. He ran a little (bootleg), and he threw it in there a little bit. He was making plays throughout the day but was a little ambitious there.”

The interception was the first thrown this season by Jefferson, who has thrown 70 passes. He has completed 64.3 percent of his passes, two points higher than Lee’s completion percentage. Lee has 14 touchdown passes compared to five for Jefferson. Lee’s passer rating is 108.8, and Lee’s is 81.8.

Jefferson is the Tigers’ fourth-leading rusher, having gained 253 yards (an average of 4.6) and scored three touchdowns on 55 attempts. His 48-yard touchdown run Friday helped cement undefeated LSU’s 12th victory this season.

LSU’s record is 23-7 in games Jefferson has started in his career, the best for any active quarterback in the SEC. The Tigers will play Georgia in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday in the Georgia Dome. A victory would assure the Tigers of going to New Orleans to play in the BCS Championship Game Jan. 9.

So Jefferson has a chance to help the Tigers win an SEC Championship and possibly a BCS Championship. He regained the starting position in the slugfest at Alabama, which enabled the Tigers to strengthen their hold on the No. 1 spot in the country, which they had attained in his absence.

“I like playing competitive games that are going to keep everyone on their toes,” Jefferson was quoted as saying in a article in LSU’s game program for the Arkansas game. “You never know what is going to happen.”

Jefferson’s senior season has been proof of that. He has become the all-time leading rusher among LSU quarterbacks, and he has a chance to become the first Tigers quarterback to start four bowl games.

“A lot of great quarterbacks come through here,” Jefferson said in the LSU program article, “and to have the opportunity to be in the record books is really something special and something I strived to get.”