RABALAIS: Lee accepts challenge and excels

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STARKVILLE, Miss. - Sometimes, past performances don’t count for much.

The book on Mississippi State’s defense coming into Thursday’s game with LSU was that its sieve-like rush defense was a piece of raw meat waived in front of the Tigers. If Auburn carved up the Bulldogs on the ground last week, LSU would mash State as flat as a cornfield.

You have to say this for State: rumors about its lack of defense after last Saturday’s 41-34 loss to Auburn proved false.

The Bulldogs were tough and physical and often outnumbered LSU’s running game by stacking the box with seven, eight, even nine defenders.

State got what it wanted: it made Jarrett Lee beat it by throwing the ball.

Dare given, dare accepted.

It was more than a decent gamble. The memory of his seven “pick sixes” as a redshirt freshman in 2008 still haunt his legacy as Tiger quarterback and still permeate LSU’s offensive thinking when he’s in the game. It is, most certainly, part of the reason why Lee wasn’t able to permanently unseat Jordan Jefferson as the Tigers’ starter until Jefferson was forcibly removed from the picture.

It was a tough situation in which to ask Lee to succeed. Coming off that Auburn loss, the Bulldogs were backed into a desperate corner as they tried to avoid starting Southeastern Conference play 0-2. State’s defense was physical. The volume in little Davis Wade Stadium, amped up by the den of tens of thousands of cowbells, went to 11. It was the kind of atmosphere that has put so many higher-ranked teams like No. 3 LSU on upset alert on Thursday nights like this.

And, oh yes, did we tell you that LSU needed to depend on Lee for its very offensive life?

Into this maelstrom, this pit, Lee ventured and not just survived, but flourished. He took the passing opportunities that State’s boxed-set defense gave the Tigers, nipping with a pass in the flat here to Odell Beckham, a toss there to another freshman Jarvis Landry. All the while, Lee had an eye deep for Rueben Randle, who he found with several big passes to tilt field position to LSU’s favor and finally, in the fourth quarter, for a 19-yard pass that was the only time either team found the end zone.

Sure, Lee followed up that possession with an interception, his first since last year’s Tennessee game, but that is a small blemish on a chrome-plated cowbell of a performance: 21 of 27 for 213 yards.

It may not have been the best you’ve ever seen, but it is certainly the best Calen Jarrett Lee has ever done in an LSU uniform.

Now at 3-0 with their SEC opener behind them and Lee as their field general, the Tigers move forward to another tough road test Sept. 24 at West Virginia.

The Mountaineers will likely again dare Lee to beat them with his arm.

Dare already accepted.