BATON ROUGE — There is a reason Tiger fans hate morning kickoffs. And for most of the morning and afternoon, LSU seemed disinterested in their game against Kentucky.
Yet the Tigers still won by 28.
Jordan Jefferson returned to score a rushing touchdown and Jarrett Lee passed for 169 yards and a touchdown as top-ranked LSU cruised past the Wildcats 35-7 before 92,660 at Tiger Stadium.
LSU improved to 5-0 overall and 2-0 in Southeastern Conference play. Kentucky fell to 2-3 overall, 0-2 in the SEC.
Les Miles seemed content to play vanilla football a week before the Tigers’ showdown with No. 12 Florida. The offense stayed conservative, and he relied heavily on backup running backs Alfred Blue and Terrence Magee in the rushing attack. Jordan Jefferson, back from his four-game suspension, scored his 10th career rushing touchdown on a 4th and 1 at the goal line and ran for 29 yards on four carries.
“This is a long season,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We just won our fifth game. The opportunity to win them all — the opportunity to be an improved team at different times in the season — will need every skill and every collective ability and attribute of our team.”
“When Jordan Jefferson scored that touchdown, and (starting quarterback) Jarrett Lee celebrated, that’s when I knew right then, that the word ‘team’ means so much more,” LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery said. “Jordan’s been through a whole lot, so now he can tell the story of how, ‘I went through this, bounced back, came back on the team, and now we’re all a big family again.'”
Jefferson, despite being the starting quarterback since the 2008 Chick-Fil-A Bowl, heard the boos from some in attendance because of his alleged role in a bar fight and his subsequent suspension. Jefferson was reinstated back onto the team this week after a grand jury reduced charges to a misdemeanor.
“We know he can come in and make plays, he’s won big ball games for us before, so it’s not an issue at all,” Lee said. “We’re happy to have him back. He’s got a great attitude. He’s a great person. If he needs to come in and make a play for us, the team is OK with that.”
Lee remained the starter and played much of the game, hitting Odell Beckham Jr. for their second touchdown connection of 50-plus yards in two games.
It was a spectacular catch and run by Beckham Jr., who made five Wildcat defenders whiff on their tackle attempts while he zigzagged from one sideline to near the other. By the time he completed the play to give LSU a 14-0 lead, the crowd and Tiger team seemed more awake after sleepwalking through the first quarter of LSU’s first morning game since a 10 am opener against Appalachian State.
“I just wanted to get into the open field and make people miss,” Beckham said in an understatement.
The Tigers outgained Kentucky 348-155, with much of that 155 coming on a meaningless fourth quarter touchdown drive when LSU was already leading 35-0 and had mixed in a number of second- and third-teamers. The Wildcats could amass only 45 yards in the first half.
“Last week, we didn’t play LSU defense,” safety Brandon Taylor said, a week after the Tiger D gave up 463 passing yards to Geno Smith and West Virginia. “This week, we had to come back and redeem ourselves and play LSU defense.”
Wildcats starting quarterback Morgan Newton sputtered early and often on his way to a 2-for-11 effort in the first half, when he was sacked three times. Kentucky coach Joker Phillips inserted freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith into the game in the second half, but Smith could do nothing to penetrate a motivated Tiger defense.
“We just thought we needed a spark and wanted to give Morgan a chance to sit back and watch the game from a distance,” Phillips said.
In all LSU’s defense collected five sacks, with Montgomery in on two of them. The Tiger defense registered 10 total tackles for loss, for a total of 34 yards.
Tyrann Mathieu got to Smith first, blitzing off the corner, flying through the air, and stripping the ball loose from behind just as several LSU defenders converged on Smith. While Smith lay prostrate on the ground, Mathieu, who has shown an incredible penchant for taking the ball from opponents, scooped up the ball and returned it 23 yards for a 28-0 lead.
It was the third forced fumble this season for the true sophomore, and the second he has returned for a score. The “Honey Badger,” a nickname attributed to Mathieu because of a YouTube clip of a predatory animal, later forced another fumble, the ninth of his career, two more than the previous LSU record.
“We have a scheme going into every game and luckily right now it has involved me blitzing the quarterback a lot and getting the chance to make a bunch of plays. Every time I get the chance to blitz I am going to go get them.”
Beating their opponents by an average of 25.2 points per game, the entire LSU team right now seems intent on blitzing every opponent they play, both morning and night.
There were two sub-stories underlying this game. One was Jordan Jefferson. The other was the opponent LSU was playing for the first time in five years.
In that 2007 game against the Wildcats, LSU lost in triple overtime, just one week after its epic victory over Florida as the No. 1 team in the nation. The loss in Lexington was the latest in a long string of games the LSU program had experienced after the exhilarating thrill of a big victory. Another recent example is the loss to lowly Ole Miss at home in 1997 just one week after the No. 14 Tigers shocked No. 1 Florida, 28-21.
Some fans were worried about this latest Kentucky game having an 11:21 am kickoff and the fact that it followed such a big victory on the road at West Virginia. But LSU showed that it was capable of not being sky-high for a game emotionally and still achieving victory. It is a growing trait of the LSU Tigers under Les Miles, something Gerry DiNardo talked about in his tenure but could never find success with. DiNardo was right, a team can’t be sky-high for every game. But his mistake was that he actually said it to the media. His players heard it and played one of the worst games of the DiNardo era against Ole Miss, a game that also had a morning kickoff.
LSU didn’t blow Kentucky away in 2011 but the score was still a blowout. It may have been evidence of this team’s specialness more than any single big game they won all year.
The second sub-headline was the return of Jordan Jefferson. The Tiger Stadium crowd was the subject of criticism from Miles, the team, and many in the media for their hostile reaction to Jefferson when he entered the game early on the one-yard-line. It is never good to boo one of your own players, but looking back at Jefferson’s increasing share and ultimate takeover of the offense just a few games later, it is justifiable now to consider the possibility that this is what the Tiger faithful was afraid of the whole time, even as early as this, the Kentucky game. Critics of the boos assumed fans were upset because of the investigation surrounding Jefferson’s role in the bar fight, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that people were booing the mere chance–and eventual reality–that Les Miles would hand the reins back over to a quarterback many felt couldn’t lead the team to its potential.
Sadly this mere chance-turned-reality seemed all-too prophetic on Jan. 9 in the Superdome.