LSU running back Kenny Hilliard salutes the Tiger fans after scoring a touchdown against North Texas during the first half Saturday in Baton Rouge. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, September 01, 2012 11:46 PM
By Scooter Hobbs / American PressBATON ROUGE — LSU started the new season in impressive fashion Saturday.
It was the finish of the No. 3-ranked Tigers’ opening night that might still need some work.
Not that the middle was much to shout about either as the Tigers — and a lethargic Tiger Stadium crowd — went through the motions of a 41-14 victory over North Texas.
The game was never in doubt, much to the non-dazzlement of a fairly subdued crowd even though the Tigers’ 508 total yards was more than they gained in any game last year while going 13-1 with a dozen double-digit victories.
“Not too bad,” LSU head coach Les Miles said. “Rushed for 300 yards, threw for close to 200.”
But even he had a disclaimer.
“It was kind of like — offense, defense, special teams — we had the opportunity to play dominant at times,” Miles said. “But we just really had some sloppy play for an opener.
“That’s kind of the way I look at it.”
“First-game jitters I guess you could say,” LSU defensive end KeeKee Mingo said. “All in all it was a sloppy showing and we must improve next week.”
All three elements had their moments for sure.
Odell Beckham made the fans further forget the loss of Tyrann Mathieu with a 70-yard touchdown punt return.
North Texas spent most of the night trying desperately to get back to the line of scrimmage.
The LSU offense scored easily on its first drive, had two running backs rush for over 100 yards and — long after most of them had evacuated — the fans finally got to see what they came for when new messiah quarterback Zach Mettenberger rocketed a 34-yard scoring pass over the middle for his first touchdown pass of the season.
“Over 500 yards of total offense is something to be proud of,” Mettenberger said after finishing his long-awaited debut 19 of 26 for 192 yards and one costly interception. “For as sloppy as we were offensively and to have as many pre-snap mistakes as we had, to get that many yards offensively is really good.”
Mettenberger, however, rarely went deep as had been promised all spring for the new offense.
“The issue there,” Miles said, “is that we made them defend the field horizontally and keep them off the running game, When you widen them up horizontally, it also makes the vertical passing game.”
There were rough spots.
Beckham also had a 76-yard punt return nullified by a silly penalty, the defense paid for their only two real mistakes of the game with touchdowns, and the offense was a lot better in the middle of the field than it was in the red zone.
“We can coach better than that,” Miles said. “Imperfect, but reason to smile.”
LSU scored impressively on its first possession, jumped to a 21-0 lead on the first play of the second quarter, upped it to 24-0 moments later, and it appeared the mega-runaway was on.
Then the doldrums set in.
The Tigers got just three points out three straight trips inside the Mean Green 15-yard line on a rare missed field goal by Drew Alleman, a forced-throw interception by Mettenberger and some apparent confusion to open the second half that forced them to settle for a field goal.
That wasted a lot of the Tigers’ 316 yards rushing, with Kenny Hilliard picking up 141 and two touchdowns on just 13 carries with Alfred Blue adding 125 on just 16 carries. Even seldom used fullback J.C. Copeland, who had never gained a yard in two previous seasons, got 33 on just four carries, including the game’s last touchdown on a 5-yard run.
“If we line up and make some simple adjustments, we probably add 70 yards to our total,” Miles said.
LSU’s defense spent most of the night picking up where last year’s dominant unit was.
“I know what a national championship defense looks like,” North Texas coach Dan McCarney said. “ The Tigers sure have one of those again next year.
“They just don’t stay blocked very long. When you think you have them, you don’t. When you think you have them cut off, you don’t. When you think you’ve sustained a block you haven’t. That’s what I saw.”
But just when the Tigers thought North Texas was nothing to worry about, the Mean Green burned the Tigers for an 80-yard, out-of-nowhere touchdown pass and another from 15 yards out, both on third-and-long plays.
“Frankly, I know the guy that made the mistakes there, and I think he’s very correctable,” Miles said.
“The two touchdowns were my fault,” All-American safety Eric Reid said. “I put myself in a bad position and put us in a bad place. Thankfully we were able to overcome that and still get the win. It is something that we will adjust I promise.”
“The first game is never going to be perfect,” defensive tackle Bennie Logan said. “The good thing is it was the first game and not the last, so we will be able to go look at the film and correct our mistakes.”