Last week, in the wake of a 14-6 loss at Florida, LSU had to take stock of itself.
For the first time in three years, it was preparing to play a week after a loss. But more significantly, it was reacting to getting beat at its own game.
The Gators had run the ball effectively, prevented the Tigers from doing so and worn down LSU in a battle of attrition.
On top of that, the Tigers’ offensive line was missing three starters as No. 3 South Carolina was on its way to town with an elite running back, Marcus Lattimore, and a star-studded defensive front. The Gamecocks play LSU’s game as well as Florida did if not better.
There was good reason for outsiders to question whether these Tigers, at this moment, were capable of being the type of team they were designed to be, before injuries and inexperience and a maddening lack of execution got in the way.
But coach Les Miles and his staff built this team a certain way. They have a crystal-clear understanding of what this team is.
It’s not a team that’s suddenly going to ride the arm of Zach Mettenberger more than the legs of a stable of talented running backs. It’s not a team that’s going to spread the defense around with a whole bunch of wide receivers more than it’s going to go right at a defense with a whole bunch of blockers.
Though LSU added a wrinkle to its offense by putting Spencer Ware under center for a change of pace, the Tigers focused on being the Tigers. The reaction to the Florida loss was not to change who they were; it was to rededicate themselves to being a better version of who they are.
Yes, left tackle Chris Faulk is gone for the season, and that’s a big loss. Yes, right guard Josh Williford has a concussion and wasn’t be able to play against the Gamecocks. Yes, tackle Alex Hurst is out of the equation for the short term, and perhaps much longer, because of an undisclosed issue. Yes, starting halfback Alfred Blue is gone, likely for the season.
You can take all those players away — and theoretically even more — and it still doesn’t change who LSU is. So what if a true freshman (Vadal Alexander) is replacing Hurst at right tackle, and a redshirt freshman (Trai Turner) is replacing Willford at right guard, and a senior who has played guard almost his entire career (Josh Dworaczyk) is replacing Faulk at left tackle?
So what if the primary replacement for Blue (Ware) isn’t feeling well and has to leave the game for an extended period to receive medical treatment?
None of that changes who the Tigers are. They rallied the replacements and went about their business.
They rushed for 258 yards, more than twice as many as any of South Carolina’s six previous opponents could muster. They rushed for 216 more yards than they had against Florida and ran more running plays (53) than they ran offensive plays (50) against Florida. They ran for 15 first downs, 14 more than they ran for against Florida.
They used a running back-by-committee approach that was reminiscent of last season’s approach. Freshman Jeremy Hill of Redemptorist went from bit player to lead dog, rushing 17 times for 124 yards and both touchdowns and gaining 21 yards on his only pass reception.
But he wasn’t alone.
Ware had 59 tough yards on 14 carries and gained 27 yards on his lone catch. Kenny Hilliard chipped in 41 yards on 10 rushes, and Michael Ford sped his way to 41 change-of-pace yards on seven carries.
All of that production made it easier for Mettenberger and the defense. The running game produced more manageable third downs, and the Tigers converted 11 of 19 after converting 1 of 13 against Florida.
LSU’s defense was on the field for more than 37 minutes at Florida, which took a toll that was evident on the Gators’ two long touchdown drives. Against South Carolina, LSU’s defense was on the field for barely 23 minutes, and it was the Gamecocks who were fatigued.
“When we rush the football and control the clock, get our snaps and keep the defense off of the field, we’re a whole different team,” Miles said.
Still, the Tigers have issues. Mettenberger and Jarvis Landry failed to connect on an interception that gave the Gamecocks seven points and could have turned the game permanently in South Carolina’s favor. Drew Alleman missed a 32-yard field goal, and punter Brad Wing probably had his worst game as a Tiger.
Too often, LSU called timeouts because it was confused or about to get a delay-of-game penalty or both, and Alexander false-started on the goal line.
So there’s more work to do, for sure.
But the most important thing, coming out of this game, is that LSU can still beat a really good team by just being who it is.