MORGANTOWN, WV — It is a West Virginia tradition after landmark victories to set on fire couches in neighborhoods across the town, something city officials feared going into the LSU game Saturday night.
But there will be no charges for such transgressions. The only thing that got lit up Saturday night was the Mountaineers.
Junior Morris Claiborne stunted a West Virginia rally with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and third-ranked LSU torched the No. 16 Mountaineers 47-21 in front of 62,056 raucous fans at Milan Puskar Stadium.
“When we stepped on the field, that crowd got jacked,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “It was like they having a football party, and they invited us. That return by Mo was right on time. “
LSU (4-0) has now beaten three ranked opponents on the year, all of them away from Tiger Stadium and on primetime television. West Virginia dropped to 3-1.
The Tigers hushed the crowd early and often in the first half, completely dominating the home team, 27-7. But Rueben Randle dropped a sure touchdown pass and Drew Alleman missed the subsequent 30-yard field goal that would have perhaps deflated West Virginia’s hopes early in the third quarter.
The stroke of luck seemed to fuel the Mountaineers. Quarterback Geno Smith, who was 38-of-65 for 463 yards–all school records–led West Virginia on two long yardage drives to cut the lead to 27-21 with 1:16 left to play in the third quarter.
It was as close as the Mountaineers would get. On the subsequent kickoff, Claiborne quieted the storm with the longest kickoff return by an LSU player since Eric Martin ran one back 100 yards against Kentucky in 1981.
“We knew we had to do something,” said Claiborne, who scored the first touchdown of his career on the play. “It just so happened we broke the kickoff.”
It was LSU breaking the Mountaineers backs in the first half. Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu set up a score just before halftime with a brilliant interception–his second turnover recovery of the half. Reading Smith’s eyes while blitzing off the corner, he rerouted his direction and deflected the pass high in the air. After finding and catching it, he returned it 16 yards to the Mountaineer 1-yard line.
“I said he was the best player on the field in their first three games,” West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “And he was the best player on the field tonight.”
It was the most points scored on the road by the Tigers in the first half of a game since they piled up 27 on their way to a 40-14 victory at Arkansas in 2004.
For the game, LSU quarterback Lee completed 16-of-28 for 180 yards and three touchdowns, including a beauty of a play-action pass to Odell Beckham Jr. in the first half. Spencer Ware gained 92 yards on 23 carries, and tailback Michael Ford gained another 82 on 12 carries with touchdown runs of 22 and 15 yards.
“There was a piece in time where we misfired on offense, (when we could have) put the game out of reach,” Miles said, “so the defense had to go out and play. And they did well. I’m very satisfied with our defensive performance.”
‘Well’ might be an overstatement, as the Tiger D was challenged by the record-breaking Smith and his fast receivers all night. Tavon Austin caught 11 passes for 187 yards and Stedman Bailey caught eight for 115. The Mountaineers gained 231 yards in the third quarter alone on their way to outgaining the Tigers, 533-366.
“I know we weren’t perfect, but it didn’t make any difference,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We overcame that adversity, turned to somebody else to make a play and that’s the mark of a true team.
“I think there’s a real confidence in our football team no matter what the environment is, we’re capable. We can play. It took a full team to win.”
“They were a smarter football team than we were,” said Holgorsen. “We had four turnovers and they had none. We had twice as many penalties (10-5), and the special teams were completely one-sided, so those three things pretty much got them the victory.”
Geno Smith’s huge night was used by media talking heads for the rest of the season to illustrate why this or that quarterback would have a field day against LSU’s defense.
It never worked out that way again, of course, as the Tiger D finished second in the nation in total defense and was a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. As usual, the media “experts” overlooked one glaring fact in their mentioning of Smith’s 463 yards: At 65 pass attempts — far beyond any number most quarterbacks put up in the NFL much less in college — his average yards-per-attempt was 7.1.
And up big for much of the game, LSU’s pass defense may have been a little softer than usual, as it was for the last drive in the Oregon game.
No, the LSU defense was not at its best in Morgantown. They did give up 533 yards, after all. But a little context and what Miles and Holgorsen both pointed out–that LSU uses all three phases of the game to win–is what some of the talking heads didn’t want you to know as they continued to doubt LSU all season.