Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd works against LSU during the first half of the Chick-fil-A Bowl Monday in Atlanta. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 01, 2013 8:45 PM
ATLANTA — LSU’s often frustrating season came to a bitter end on the final play of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, when Clemson’s Chandler Catazzaro calmly booted a 37-yard field goal to beat the Tigers 25-24.
Or, maybe it could be traced to the fourth-and-16 that Clemson converted at the beginning of the game-winning drive.
Then again, LSU could have put the game away with a first down on its final offensive drive, which started hopefully with an 8-yard pass completion on first down but ended with two straight incompletions by Zach Mettenberger.
But, LSU head coach Les Miles had a simpler explanation.
“We couldn’t protect our passer,” he said after losing a bowl game for the third time in four years despite never trailing until the clock struck double-zero.
“We just could not protect tonight, and that was really the mark of the game.
“If that (pass protection) was a strong part of tonight, this would have been a completely different game. That’s the part that needs fixing.”
Clemson, which came in with a suspect defense, sacked Mettenberger six times and often times had him on the run — never his forte — including the second-and-two situation where he overthrew a wide-open Jarvis Landry for what likely would have been a game-clinching first down.
The pressure on Mettenberger kept him from further exploiting a Clemson secondary that had given up yards in big gulps most of the season.
Mettenberger, when given time, completed the first eight attempts he managed to get off and finished 14 of 23 for 120 yards.
“There for a while, we’d get a first down, get sacked, get a first down and get sacked,” Miles said.
Miles also said it also had a trickle down effect on a running game that finished with just 99 yards, even though running back Jeremy Hill had 124 by himself.
“When you can’t protect your passer then it becomes very difficult to run because, frankly, there’s an extra man in the box (clogging up the run) because you’re not throwing the ball.
“If we protect our passer, hit a few (completions), now they have to play some coverage, the running game comes to life and it’s just a different game.”
It never really happened.
Hill, who had a 17-yard touchdown run on LSU’s second offensive play of the game, broke off a 57-yard scoring run on the LSU’s first play of the second half.
But for the remainder of the game, LSU managed just two more first downs, none in the fourth quarter when Clemson had 12 and outgained LSU 160 yards to ... one yard.
“I can’t blame Zach,” Miles said. “I thought Zach played really, really hard but, frankly, he was under duress from the first series on.
“It a tough thing to figure that our pass protection was as poor as it was. We felt like we had guys that could protect. Really, it wasn’t a numbers issue. It was just guys beating guys. We had a nice plan, we just couldn’t execute it because we couldn’t protect our quarterback.”
Miles had high praise for his defense, which was forced to go 100 plays against Clemson’s up-tempo, wide-open offense and didn’t get much rest with nine three-and-outs from its offense.
“They played their butts off,’ Miles said. “Those young men (on defense) are spent. They gave everything they had out there. Our football team played so well on defense (and) I thought we had an edge on special teams.”
But after holding Clemson scoreless on only one first down in the third quarter while the offense couldn’t capitalize on chances to put the game away, the LSU defense finally wore down in the fourth quarter as Clemson scored the game’s final 12 points.
Four different LSU players had to leave the game with cramps on Clemson’s final, game-winning field goal drive, which began on the Clemson 20-yard line.
“What a miserable event for them,” Miles said. “They gave everything they had out there.”