MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Maybe it’s Top 25 opposition that brings out the best in the second-ranked LSU Tigers.
Or maybe it’s the ABC and ESPN cameras and crew as well as a national stage.
Or maybe it’s just the Tigers who bring out the best in themselves.
LSU finished off the first month of the season with a sparkling 4-0 record after a 47-21 victory against No. 16 West Virginia in a nonconference game Saturday night in sold-out Milan Puskar Stadium.
To view a gallery of photos from the LSU/West Virginia game, click here:
Though the Tigers looked vulnerable for the first time — letting a 27-7 cushion shrink to 27-21 briefly late in the third quarter before pulling away — LSU put away the Mountaineers (3-1) just as it did No. 25 Mississippi State nine days earlier, outmanned Northwestern State five days before that, and preseason No. 3 Oregon in the Sept. 3 season opener.
The Tigers will try to start off October just as impressively as they finished September — a month in which they have won 21 consecutive games — when they play Kentucky in an SEC game Saturday morning in Tiger Stadium. West Virginia dropped to 0-16 all-time against teams ranked No. 1 or No. 2.
LSU, which defeated the Mountaineers, 20-14, last season in Baton Rouge, had familiar leaders in quarterback Jarrett Lee, who tied a career-high with three touchdown passes being an efficient 16-for-28 for 180 yards), and defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu (a forced fumble, fumble recovery and an interception) and Morris Claiborne (a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, tying for third-longest in school history, in a game-changing play late in the third quarter).
The Tigers overcame a record performance by Mountaineers quarterback Geno Smith, who had school-bests of 463 yards, 38 completions and 65 attempts in addition to throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions. Tavon Austin caught 11 passes for 187 yards and Stedman Bailey caught eight for 115.
“I know we weren’t perfect, but it didn’t make any difference,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We overcame that adversity, turned to somebody else to make a play and that’s the mark of a true team.
“I think there’s a real confidence in our football team no matter what the environment is, we’re capable. We can play. It took a full team to win.”
LSU had a 27-7 halftime lead and a chance to increase it on the first possession of the third quarter, but Rueben Randle dropped what would have been Lee’s fourth touchdown pass on third down and Drew Alleman was wide left on a subsequent 30-yard field goal attempt.
“There was a piece in time where we misfired on offense, (when we could have) put the game out of reach,” Miles said, “so the defense had to go out and play. And they did well. I’m very satisfied with our defensive performance.”
The Tigers’ missed opportunity seemed to spark the Mountaineers, and on the next play Tavon Austin took a shovel pass from Smith and ran 38 yards to the Tigers 42, breathing life back into the crowd.
Smith threw a 10-yard completion to Austin and a 16-yarder to Tyler Urban before connecting with Urban on a 12-yard touchdown. That cut the LSU lead to 27-14 with 8:40 remaining in the third quarter.
West Virginia forced a Tigers punt and drove from its 7 to the LSU 46 before stalling and punting. But the Mountaineers got the ball back at their 10 after forcing another punt and Austin took a shovel pass and ran 72 yards to the Tigers 18.
On third-and-12, Smith completed a 19-yard pass to Dustin Garrison, who followed with a 1-yard touchdown run to make it 27-21.
But Claiborne took the ensuing kickoff and ran 99 yards for a touchdown to give LSU a 34-21 lead entering the fourth quarter.
The Tigers increased the lead to 40-21 when Michael Ford ran 15 yards for a touchdown with 9:55 left in the game, and Alfred Blue completed the scoring on an 18-yard touchdown run with 3:03 left.
“Morris Claiborne’s return was right on time,” Miles said, “and we were able to finish it off.”
For the third time in as many road games, LSU’s opponent went three-and-out on the game’s first possession, getting penalized along the way. In West Virginia’s case it was a personal foul penalty on Joe Madsen, setting the tone for a penalty-plagued first half.
LSU took over at its 42 after the punt and Lee went to work. On third-and-8 he threw an 11-yard pass to Randle for a first down at the Mountaineers 40. On third-and-16, Lee threw a 30-yard completion to Odell Beckham for a first down at the West Virginia 16. Two plays later, Lee and Randle teamed up for an 11-yard touchdown pass.
The Tigers got the ball on the next possession when Mathieu took the ball away from Brad Starks after a pass completion. LSU started at midfield, but punted after three plays.
LSU got another chance at midfield when the Mountaineers’ next possession ended with Brandon Taylor intercepting Smith. Seven plays later, Ford ran 22 yards for a touchdown. The Tigers botched the point-after attempt, leaving the Tigers with a 13-0 lead with 1:49 left in the first quarter.
West Virginia went to a no-huddle offense and found its first good offensive rhythm. Smith completed 7-of-10 passes for 76 yards, including a 20-yarder to Stedman Bailey for a touchdown that cut the lead to 13-7 with 12:30 left in the second quarter. That was the first touchdown allowed by the Tigers since the fourth quarter of the season opener.
LSU quickly pushed the lead back to 13 when Lee threw a 52-yard touchdown pass to Beckham.
The Mountaineers were struggling to get to halftime with no further damage, but Mathieu inflicted more when he intercepted Smith and returned the ball to the West Virginia 1 with 37 seconds left. Two players later, Lee tied his career-high for touchdown passes in a game when he threw his third, a 1-yarder to Chase Clement.
That sent the Tigers into halftime with a 27-7 lead. It was the most points scored by LSU in a first half on the road since it had 27 on its way to a 40-14 victory at Arkansas in 2004.
Despite a sloppy third quarter in which the Mountaineers gained 231 yards on their way to outgaining the Tigers, 533-366, for the game, LSU won going away.
“They were a smarter football team than we were,” West Virginia first-year coach Dana Holgorsen said of the Tigers. “We had four turnovers and they had none. We had twice as many penalties (10-5), and the special teams were completely one-sided, so those three things pretty much got them the victory.”