With its turnover-plagued offense giving the ball away one, two, three, four times in the first quarter of Saturday night’s game with New Mexico State, LSU’s defense had to dig deep and do its part to keep the Tigers afloat.
Time and again, 17th-ranked LSU handed the ball over to New Mexico State, a 43-point underdog, on a pair of interceptions and two fumbles on their first five possessions.
But each time, the Tigers defense rose and bailed them out, forcing two turnovers of its own — including middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith’s 29-yard interception return for a touchdown that sparked a 63-7 runaway win in Tiger Stadium.
It was anything but a rout in the first quarter thanks to the offensive miscues.
LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings turned the ball over three times — two of them on interceptions after he fumbled to end their first series — all on just 10 snaps.
New Mexico State, however, failed to score a point off them despite having excellent field position in starting the four drives at midfield, the Aggies’ 43 and 36 and LSU’s 40.
Those four series ended with a three-and-out, another punt, a missed 40-yard field goal by Maxwell Johnson and the interception by Beckwith off quarterback Tyler Rogers.
“We left a lot of doubters out there last week,” Beckwith said of LSU’s poor performance in a 34-29 setback to Mississippi State. “Tonight, we wanted to come in and play dominant LSU defense … and that’s what we did.”
At the end of the first quarter, New Mexico State had just 51 yards on 28 plays, with LSU faring only slightly better with 81 yards on 16 snaps.
“The defense played really well in tough situations,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We played well when (New Mexico State’s) offense was freshest, when they had some incentive to play really well.”
The Tigers offense finally got on track late in the first quarter when Jennings cranked up a scoring drive that ended with Terrence Magee’s 11-yard TD run with 2:07 to play in the period.
LSU’s final turnover of the opening period, a fumble by Kenny Hilliard, actually set up Beckwith’s first career touchdown.
After New Mexico State lost 26 yards on a fumble the Aggies recovered, defensive coordinator John Chavis dialed up a blitz with weakside linebacker Kwon Alexander coming free up the middle to get in Rogers’ face.
Under pressure, Rogers tried to unload the ball when defensive end Danielle Hunter got a hand on it. The tipped ball went right to Beckwith, who raced untouched to the end zone to give LSU a 14-0 lead.
“I saw it go up in the air, and I just snatched it and went in for the touchdown,” said Beckwith, who was a quarterback at East Feliciana High.
Beckwith said he thought the touchdown put some life in the Tigers, especially after the uneven start by the offense.
“I think it did,” he said with a smile. “A lot of guys came to me on the sideline and roughed me up a bit.”
New Mexico State had two other chances to get some points while the LSU offense struggled, reaching the Tigers’ 42 both times. But twice, the defense forced the Aggies to punt.
When freshman quarterback Brandon Harris entered the game at the 9:28 mark of the second quarter, it was all over for the visitors.
Harris led his team to seven consecutive touchdown drives, giving his team a 63-7 lead before he departed early in the final period.
The only hiccup for LSU’s defense, which allowed 274 total yards, came with 3:14 to play in the second quarter, when quarterback Andrew Allen bolted up the middle for a 79-yard touchdown — which turned out to be New Mexico State’s only score.
LSU, which got interceptions from Beckwith and cornerback Tre’Davious White and also had fumble recoveries by free safety Jalen Mills and linebacker D.J. Welter, set up another touchdown late in the first half.
With the Tigers leading 35-7 after Harris led a third touchdown drive in a row, NMSU running back Marquette Washington fumbled. Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux forced the ball loose and Mills scooped it up and returned it 36 yards to the Aggies’ 3.
On the next play, Harris capped a frantic nine-minute span with a 3-yard touchdown pass to backup fullback Melvin Jones to give the Tigers a 42-7 lead at halftime.
“We executed our game plan,” White said. “It doesn’t matter what happens with the offense. On any day we’ve got to be ready to go.
“When the offense turns the ball over and you can hear how the crowd reacts, you just have to hang together as a team. When adversity rises, you have to rise above it.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter: @MicklesAdvocate.