STARKVILLE — So much for the label of game manager to describe Jarrett Lee.
And so much for a trap game and hostile crowd on the road in the SEC opener.
The senior quarterback showed that he can be more than just a caretaker of the LSU offense as the third-ranked Tigers stuffed No. 25 Mississippi State 19-6 before 56,924 rowdy fans at Davis Wade Stadium.
“This was a great environment to play in,” LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo said. “This was a quality win we notched on our belt. We’ve got to keep moving forward from this.
“It was loud and hostile. It caused some problems for our offense. We just had to calm the crowd down by playing better.”
Play better they did as the game went on, and now LSU has won 19 of its last 20 meetings against Mississippi State.
Lee completed 21-of-27 passes for 213 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown strike to Rueben Randle that put LSU up 16-6 in the fourth quarter.
“I’m just trying to be smart,” Lee said. “I’m trying to keep the ball and help us win.”
Spencer Ware led all rushers with 107 yards on 22 carries, and Michael Ford added 50 yards on 13 carries. Ware gained 73 of his total in the second half on 12 carries, after the LSU offensive line had worn down the MSU defense.
“It’s clicking right now,” Lee said. “The offensive line is blocking well. Everything’s working. We’ve just got to make sure we keep it going.”
The Tiger defense was stifling all night, limiting the SEC’s leading rushing team to just 52 yards on 34 carries.
“They came in averaging 300 yards rushing, and we came in trying to dominate and stop the run game,” said LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers, who had three of LSU’s 15 tackles for loss, including a sack. “We were flying to the ball. Everyone was doing their assignments, doing what we need to do to win.”
The Tigers (3-0, 1-0) outgained the Bulldogs (1-2, 0-2) 361 to 193. They have yet to allow 100 yards rushing to a team and have kept two consecutive opponents out of the endzone.
Tyrann Mathieu piled up 10 tackles and cornerback Morris Claiborne picked off two passes.
“We don’t want anybody to score on us,” said Brockers.
LSU kicker Drew Alleman handled much of the scoring early and kept the Tigers just ahead until the Lee-to-Randle back-breaker. He made field goals of 21, 42, 41 and 29 yards.
Randle continued to show why he was the nation’s top receiver coming out of high school three years ago, catching six passes for 98 yards. He caught several slant passes from Lee, a route that actually would set up the touchdown play.
“We set it up earlier with the little knife route we ran,” said Randle, who faked the inside slant and cut to the end zone to get wide open. “We knew they were going to be aggressive the next time we ran it. We ran a little fake and it was open.
“We did a great job managing the game in a really hostile place. We just stayed focused trying to box everything out and play football.”
“We have to keep grinding away. We’re trying to build a championship program,” said MSU coach Dan Mullen. “We’re playing championship teams. We played the defending national champs (Auburn last week), and then just played the best team in the nation.”
Actually the Tigers are still ranked only third in the country. But Mullen may be on to something. The Tigers may very well be the team to beat this year, especially if Lee continues to be the game manager, er, general he has been so far.
Lee, infamous for being among the nation’s leaders with 16 interceptions as a freshman in 2008 with seven of those being returned for touchdowns, got off to such a great start in 2011 that many Tiger fans were starting to hope that Jordan Jefferson wouldn’t return to the lineup.
“He’s just improving every week,” offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa said after the MSU game. “His footwork is better. He’s done everything we’ve asked. He’s not throwing interceptions. He’s not missing many receivers. He’s just been on.”
Lee was closing in on the 30-year-old school record of 137 consecutive passes without an interception before he threw his first with 10:08 left to play in the game. Johnthan Banks ended Lee’s string at 131 at the MSU 43 and LSU holding a 16-6 lead.
The key, though, and an aspect of the chemistry of this team that would show through most of the year until it slowly started to disintegrate the more Jefferson played late in the year, was that the LSU defense had Lee’s back. The crowd knew that a touchdown drive would pull the Bulldogs within striking distance again, and the game would again be in doubt.
Junior defensive end Lavar Edwards made sure that doubt was quickly erased.
On first down, Edwards tackled Vick Ballard for a five-yard loss. Then quarterback Tyler Russell threw two incompletions, the second coming under pressure from Edwards. The Bulldogs were forced to punt, deflating the crowd’s hopes and almost assuring that tonight would not be a Thursday night upset on ESPN.
The defense on that possession was a precursor of a trend the Tigers followed throughout the season. Of the Tigers’ eight turnovers in the regular season, only four led to points for the opposition and they yielded a total of just 16 points. It was one of those team stats that helped get the Tigers to New Orleans.