BATON ROUGE — If it wasn’t the most efficient victory in recent LSU memory, it might have the gutsiest.
Also the most timely.
But with negativity swirling around the team all week, the No. 9 Tigers shook off another round of mistakes, basically keeping a stubborn nose to the grindstone to wade through one frustration after another to grind out a 23-21 victory over No. 3 South Carolina.
“It was a really a street fight on both sides,” head coach Les Miles said. “I’d like to distance myself from the opponent a little more
“But I think our team understands this kind of game. They rise up and play in tight quarters.”
Maybe they just needed their backs against the wall after falling to Florida last week.
Freshman Jeremy Hill rushed for 124 yards and the two touchdowns that have eluded the Tigers in recent SEC play and the LSU defense kept putting the clamps on the South Carolina offense.
“Our football team, coming off the Florida (loss), just could not bear to do anything but win this week,” Miles said. “It took a whole team.”
It took a lot, that’s for sure.
Apparently LSU’s going rate these days for a two-point victory is:
n An advantage in total yards of 406 to only 211 for South Carolina.
n Controlling the clock for three seconds shy of 37 minutes.
n Converting 11 of 19 first downs — they were only 1 of 13 last week — while holding the Gamecocks to just 3 of 13.
n Holding the ground-oriented Gamecocks, with star Marcus Lattimore, to just 34 rushing yards on 25 carries.
“Tonight we realized why LSU was the preseason No. 1 team,” South Carolina coach and longtime Tiger nemesis Steve Spurrier said. “They’re a big, strong team that can run and stop the run.
“They weren’t that good against Florida, haven’t been that good. But they were real good tonight. Sometimes that happens when a team gets a little fire and energy and they have it. They had it tonight.”
A patchwork offensive line, the Tigers’ fifth different starting combination this year, was missing three original starters but opened up enough room for 258 yards rushing against the SEC’s best second best run defense and, staring at what might be the nation’s top defensive end duo, allowed only one sack of quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
They needed every yard of it. And another well-timed yard here and there might well have made it a comfortable victory.
Instead, the Tigers turned the red zone into their very own Bermuda Triangle, using a variety of mishaps to settle for field goal attempts at the end of four impressive trips inside the 15 — and came away with sqaut on one o them when Drew Alleman misfired from a mere 31 yards out.
“It didn’t matter if they scored or not,” said LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery, a South Carolina native. “Them being out there for long drives gave us time to rest. We had their backs.”
Eric Reid’s interception in the fourth quarter finally set up Alleman’s go-head field goal, 16-14, with 6:37 to play, and moments later Hill finally bypassed the red zone fiascos with a 50-yard touchdown sprint that finally gave the Tigers some breathing room. Hill also had a 7-yard scoring run to cap an impressive drive to open the second half.
“I was hoping all their little field goals might not add up,” Spurrier said. “But I guess that long run (by Hill) ended up being the difference.”
But South Carolina answered with its most impressive drive of the night to pull to within the final margin, and a classic Tiger Stadium crowd couldn’t exhale until the game’s final play when Craig Loston intercepted a last-gasp Hail Mary trying to get the Gamecocks into position for field goal.
“We were ready to play, we have no excuses,” Spurrier said. “They out-played us and out-hit us.”
Miles gave credit to a crowd that harkened back to some of the loudest and most intimidating in Tiger Stadium’s lore.
“Let me tell you,” Miles said. “THAT was Death Valley. That was where opponents’ dreams come to die. It started early, it went late and it was with us all night.”
They might have left earlier in a game the Tigers dominated physically most of the way, but in the first half two bad offensive plays cost the Tigers 11 points and another three got lost when Drew Alleman missed a relative chip field goal from 31-yards out.
Mettenberger’s only bad pass, a telegraphed interception, was returned 70 yards to the LSU 1-yard by Gamecock Jimmy Legree to set up South Carolina’s first score from point-blank range.
But LSU never let up.
“We were three-and-out a lot and they seldom were,” Spurrier said.
“When we rush the football and control the clock and get our snaps and take our defense off the field, we’re a whole different team,” Miles said.
And one with a much different outlook than a week ago.