LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, December 29, 2012 7:26 PMATLANTA — On the surface, LSU’s defense has the tough chore in Monday’s Chick-fil-A Bowl, trying to slow down the Clemson’s wheeling-and-dealing spread attack, a scary contraption orchestrated by the ACC Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Tahj Boyd.
But the offense will have to do its part, too.
The last time LSU played Clemson, the Tigers won 10-7 right here in the 1996 Peach Bowl. The only other meeting was a 7-0 LSU victory in 1959 Sugar Bowl.
That was last century.
This new-age Clemson team can hiccup and score more points than both those games combined.
But, it may be a fair fight.
LSU’s offensive numbers still won’t dazzle anybody — certainly not a Clemson team averaging 518 yards and 42 points a game — but this season’s work in progress has, in fact, made steady progress.
Coaches and players pointed to two turning points — oddly, against two of the three best defenses the Tigers played.
But the Tigers finally patched together an offensive line the stable of running backs could be proud of in a 23-21 victory over South Carolina.
Two weeks later the quarterback Zach Mettenberger was always touted to be finally came on line, albeit in a heartbreaking 21-17 loss to then-No. 1 Alabama.
“That was the turning point to me,” offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa said. “From then on, our offensive numbers were different, our plays per games approached 80, 90.”
The Tigers, finally showing the balance head coach Les Miles always preaches, averaged 33 points and almost 400 yards over the final three games.
Teams do evolve.
But you’ve seen better looking dumpster fires than the LSU offense that lost to Florida 14-6, easily the low point of the season.
LSU’s offense was a wreck, mostly in the offensive line where three of the five starters were missing for the Florida game. It capped an opening to the season against lesser competition where the Tigers kept mixing and matching up front, mostly seemingly hoping some linemen would get well.
None of the missing ever did come back — although former starting right guard Josh Williford will be back for Monday’s game.
But it wasn’t until LSU seemed to accept that it would just play with what the Tigers had that things began to turn around.
Sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk was an easy choice to step in, although it took an adjustment for him to play the all-important left tackle spot after Chris Faulk was lost in August.
But it also left freshmen to be forced into action when Vadal Alexander took over at right tackle and Trae Turner at right guard.
The early returns at Florida weren’t favorable.
“You could see it in their eyes when they were thrown out there,” Studrawa said. “It’s not just them — it’s any young guy ... the question (he has) is ‘do I belong?’ ”
It had the potential to get ugly when the Tigers hosted South Carolina’s active defensive front the next week.
Instead, the Tigers dominated the line of scrimmage and rushed for 258 yards.
“We went back and watched the (Florida) film and saw more self-inflicted wounds than anything else,” Studrawa said. “There were no excuses.
“Every guy that watched that film said: I could have done something to make it better and they all took it upon themselves, took it as a challenge ... said I’m not going to play like that.”
After South Carolina, LSU suddenly had a young offensive line capable of playing with anybody.
“They had to get out there and have some success and dominate some people,” Studrawa said. “Their confidence level has come on since then and they feel like they belong. They walk a little different, carry themselves with a different mentality, walk with their chest out a little more.”
All they needed then was the Mettenberger they’d seen in practice, not the same quarterback who struggled through most of the first nine games.
Again, Alabama would not have been a likely candidate for Mettenberger’s true breakout game.
All he did was throw for a career-best 298 yards and LSU rang up 435 total yards, the most the Tigers had in an SEC game.
“That Alabama game, for us, I think our quarterback and our skill positions grew up in that game.
“Our entire offense, the ability to throw the ball downfield, to convert third downs, confidence in the running game, that was the turning point to me.”