Rewind 2011: The Oregon Game

Tyrann Mathieu strips the ball from Oregon punt returner Kenjon Barner near the goal line in the second quarter. Mathieu would recover the fumble and score in LSU’s 40-27 victory over the Ducks (Ron Jenkins/MCT).

ARLINGTON, TX — After getting beat soundly by LSU Saturday night, Oregon running back LaMichael James said that the Tigers were not faster than the Ducks and that their size had nothing to do with the loss.

Easy to talk after the game.

#4 LSU looked every bit the bigger, stronger and faster team in a 40-27 romp over #3 Oregon before 87,711 at the Cowboys Classic in Arlington.

And had it not been for some really soft prevent defense in the final two minutes that yielded a cheap Oregon touchdown with 13 seconds left, the Tigers would have left Texas having doubled up last year’s national runner-up.

“I don’t think we were ready mentally,” said James, “and we had a lot of underclassmen to deal with who had never played a college football game.”

‘Alot of underclassman’ could be translated to De’Anthony Thomas, a redshirt freshman who fumbled on consecutive carries in the third quarter that gave the Tiger offense prime opportunities to score.

A 16-13 halftime lead was suddenly a 30-13 hole the Ducks could never recover from.

“We had been good in camp (on ball security) but it was not what it needed to be today, not against that team,” coach Chip Kelly said. “You can’t turn the ball over like that. That was the difference in the game.”

“Oregon had self-inflicted wounds that we’ve got to work on,” Duck quarterback and former LSU commit Darron Thomas said. “That’s on everybody. Everybody’s got to clean it up.”

LSU did score 20 points off four Oregon turnovers, and the Ducks committed 12 penalties for 95 yards, but credit must be given where credit is due. The Tigers forced the action and the turnovers.

Tyrann Mathieu, who was named the Most Valuable Defensive Player in LSU’s 41-24 Cotton Bowl victory in this same stadium in January, hit Oregon punt returner Kenjon Barner near the goal line, ripped the ball loose, snatched it from the turf and trotted three yards for a touchdown that put LSU up 9-6 in the second quarter.

De’Anthony Thomas’ woes started when LSU’s 300-plus pound defensive tackle Michael Brockers punched the ball loose from behind as the speedy Thomas ran through the middle. Tiger safety Eric Reid picked up the ball and ran it back to the Ducks’ 21 yard line. Five plays later Michael Ford put LSU up 23-13 with a 5-yard touchdown run.

On the ensuing kickoff, LSU’s Craig Loston flew parallel to the ground in knocking the ball loose from behind and Ron Brooks recovered at the Oregon 41. Six plays later Spencer Ware was running it in from one yard out and the rout was on.

“To me, we played with intensity,” Coach Les Miles said of the defense. “It started on the first play and ended on the last play. And I challenged them, as did our defensive staff. (Defensive coordinator) John Chavis did a great job. We asked them to be ready, and ‘ready’ was a big word. They ran a tempo offense, and it’s constant and it’s fast-paced, and the reality is we were ready.”

Oregon and LaMichael James tried to run away from defensive end Barkevious Mingo, but the speedy end continued to make plays even from the weakside.

James, who rushed for 1,731 yards and won the Doak Walker Award a season ago, was held to 54 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Oregon as a team, known for its high-octane spread offense, could muster only 95 rushing yards on 28 carries. Darron Thomas completed 31 of 54 passes for 240 yards and one touchdown, but much of that came on the final drive when the game had long been decided and LSU was in soft coverage.

“I think those guys were getting frustrated,” Mathieu said. “I didn’t see the LaMichael James that we saw on film. He was hesitant, trying to pick his holes.”

“I think those guys ran the same plays that we were covering in practice,” he said. “It gave us the same look. It definitely gave us an advantage.”

“We definitely knew that the tempo was going to be the best in the nation,” Reid said. “We had a part of practice called ‘Tempo’ where the offense had two huddles. As soon as the offense ran a play, a second offense would run on the field.”

While the defense was dominating, the Tiger offense was doing what it wanted to do: control the clock and the ball. LSU ran the ball 48 times for 175 yards with a stable of backs. Ware led the way with 26 carries for 99 yards and a touchdown. Ford rushed 14 times for 96 yards and two touchdowns. The powerful running attack helped LSU win the time of possession battle 33:04 to 26:56.

Senior quarterback Jarrett Lee, starting for the suspended Jordan Jefferson, completed 10-of-22 for 98 yards and a touchdown. The key was that he didn’t turn the ball over.

“It was a great win for us,” said Lee, whose stats could have been better had his receivers not dropped several passes. “We had a lot on our minds coming into this game, but we knew we just had to stay focused. We played hard. We ran the ball well. We threw the ball well.

“They’re a great football team,” he said. “Give credit to them, but we just played hard and got the ‘W.’”

“Our football team is united,” Miles said. “They play together. You put a ball on a line, they’ll scrap you for it. This is a great group of guys.”

They may not be bigger, faster or stronger than Oregon, at least according to some Oregon players. But indeed, they were great on this night. Great enough.

In Retrospect

LaMichael James’ defiance was indicative of many of the Oregon players’ perspective.  After their 53-30 trouncing of #3 Stanford on the road on November 12, some Ducks were clamoring for a national championship rematch with LSU, claiming that Alabama didn’t deserve another shot as many media pundits were promoting. Many of the same commentators were jumping on the Oregon bandwagon too that week, but it was only for a week. Oregon lost at home to #18 USC at home that Saturday.

Head coach Les Miles of the LSU Tigers celebrates with his team after defeating the Oregon Ducks to open the 2011 season. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America)

As for the Tigers, the game was a national stage to showcase the tenacious identity of the team that would run through the season and a national runner-up finish. It also highlighted the talents of several individual Tigers who would grow in popularity as the season wore on, including Tyrann Mathieu who would be nicknamed the Honey Badger because he ‘takes what he wants,’ and Michael Brockers who would become the 14th pick of the 2012 NFL Draft.

Eric Reid’s reference to ‘Tempo’ actually started in the off-season following the Tigers’ 41-24 Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M. Soon after that game, Miles transformed the Tigers’ entire conditioning program and spring practice to prepare for Oregon’s fast-paced offense, which tries to snap the ball every six to eight seconds.

The Tigers’ performance was maybe more memorable for who was not around than for who was. The Tigers had lost three defensive stars from 2010 in the early rounds of the NFL draft: cornerback and Jim Thorpe award winner Patrick Peterson (No. 5 overall), linebacker Kelvin Sheppard (third round) and defensive tackle Drake Nevis (third round). They were without starting dual-threat quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who had been suspended indefinitely while authorities investigated his role in a bar fight. They were without starting wide receiver and kick returner Russell Shepard, who was suspended for violating NCAA rules. And finally they had to deal with a change in offensive coordinator after Steve Kragthorpe relinquished his duties in August after learning he had Parkinson’s disease. Much attention was given to the Ducks being without star Cliff Harris for the game, but LSU’s resilience shown through and was a precursor of things to come in 2011.

Quote of the night from Les Miles: “I don’t really care if we’re ranked No. 1 or not, to be honest with you. That’s so far away from even really counting. I appreciate the fact that we’re close enough to end up No. 1, and that’s really all I care about. If we continue to play well and do the things we’re capable of doing, we’ll earn our way.”

Indeed, that would prove to happen. Which makes the January 9th debacle all the more painful for Tiger fans.

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