Professing a goal to keep its newly renovated offense vanilla, LSU saved a lone and critical wrinkle for a late unveiling in Cam Cameron’s debut inside the Tiger Stadium coaches box.
Rather than serve as dictator, Cameron took the title of consultant, while the Tigers quarterbacks saw the keys to a more vertical attack entrusted to their hands and judgment during the LSU Spring Game.
Slow to start and fumbling with the clutch early, quarterback Zach Mettenberger at least kept the unit pointed in the proper lane. The senior piloted the White team to 525 yards on offense, while its defense pitched a shutout and ceded only 208 to the Purple team during a 37-0 shellacking in front of 28,000 fans Saturday.
“It was tough out there,” said Mettenberger, who threw for 236 yards and two touchdowns on 12-of-19 passing before being lifted at the half. “It was the first time I’ve ever done that. It was kind of a slow start, but we turned it around and had a pretty good day.”
Yet LSU coach Les Miles characterized the control more in the vein of handing his signal-callers learner’s permits.
“It’s not the complete keys and the controls as much as it is an exercise that allows you to see what the quarterback thinks,” Miles said. “How he sees the game plan, what he would call and how he would operate things.”
If anything, the first series showed quickly dissipating tremors. Mettenberger guided the offense 72 yards in 11 plays before settling on a 29-yard field goal from Colby Delahoussaye to take a 3-0 lead with 8:01 left in the first quarter.
On his first throw, Mettenberger missed Odell Beckham Jr. on a quick slant before finding him two plays later for a 24-yard pickup to the Purple’s 44-yard line.
Yet Mettenberger misfired to running back Jeremy Hill on a checkdown in the face of pressure, then oscillated back to find Beckham for 12 yards to the 18.
After Hill, who quietly rushed for 102 yards on 13 carries, picked up 6 yards to the 12, Mettenberger tossed back-to-back incompletions, including a slant to redshirt freshman Travin Dural that was broken up in the end zone.
Two consecutive series with three-and-outs cemented a first quarter with just a 3-0 lead. It also brought a consultation between Mettenberger and his pass-catchers.
“We needed a big play to happen for everything to get going,” said Beckham, who rolled up 202 yards and two touchdowns on six catches. “We did start off slow, but Zach, Jarvis and I just kind of got together and we told the offense we need to get going, we need to pick it up.”
Yet, the fifth series proved vital, with Mettenberger connecting on all four throws — five, if you count a 14-yard touchdown pass wiped out by an ineligible receiver penalty — highlighted by a 50-yard completion to the Purple 9 after he dropped a perfect throw to Beckham on a post route.
“It’s certainly something we want to do anyway,” Miles said of pushing the ball vertically. “To continue that philosophy in the regular season is going to be key.”
Three players later, he slotted a perfect throw to tight end Dillon Gordon for a 15-yard touchdown pass and a 9-0 lead after Delahoussaye thumped the PAT off the upright with 6:05 until halftime.
And on the first play of the ensuing series, Mettenberger set his feet and lofted a 79-yard scoring throw to Beckham, who dashed past cornerback Matthew Gibson, for a 16-0 lead with 4:11 left that they carried into half.
“Zach still had the confidence and trust in us to attack deep,” said Landry, who added 132 yards on six catches. “That’s what he did, and you could see Odell excels in the area with his speed.”
For a defense facing the task of replacing seven starters, Saturday proved a boost to morale, even with starters in end Jermauria Rasco, cornerback Jalen Mills and free safety Ronald Martin sidelined with injuries.
“We’re just trying prove a lot of doubters wrong,” junior defensive tackle Ego Ferguson said. “They say we couldn’t handle it, say we’re not good enough. I’m just trying to shock the world this year.”
While freshman Anthony Jennings, who started and passed for 98 yards on 8-for-21 passing, showed poise, the Purple team only drive into the red zone once. Yet, it wasn’t Jennings or Hayden Rettig that led a foray to White’s 6. No, it was back-up Brad Kragthorpe, whose pass into the end zone was picked off by Craig Loston with 13:53 left in the fourth quarter.
Junior Terrance Magee rushed for 61 yards on 12 carries, while Jennings chipped in 26 yards on seven carries, including a 15-yard carry on a broken play after a roll out where he shimmied by oncoming linebackers.
But even with a depleted stock at defensive end, tackles Ferguson and Anthony Johnson were able to spearhead a group that notched three sacks, including two from freshman Danielle Hunter in Rasco’s stead, and four tackles for loss.
“Those are my big babies,” Loston said. “I’m the older one, and those guys do a good job of clogging up the middle. As long as we hold everybody accountable (and) they do their jobs, we should be fine.”
Hunter paced the White team with eight tackles, while Ferguson and Barrow added seven apiece. Aside from his interception, Loston wrapped up six tackles, too. Meanwhile, sophomore Kwon Alexander proved he should see plenty of time in the linebacker rotation with seven tackles for the Purple team.
Might it also be a sign the disruptive force of John Chavis’ defense might be inside at the point of attack?
“We’re going to be really good inside, and we’ll get back Jermauria Rasco and then four defensive ends from the freshman class,” Miles said. “What’s going to happen to us is we’re going to improve dramatically in that spot.”
And in the evaluation process to back up Mettenberger, sophomore Stephen Rivers offered up a solid test score, coming on in relief to pile up of 185 yards and two touchdowns on 7 of 10 passing with the first team. It was a far cry from three scrimmages where he completed just 40 percent of his passes.
Only three plays into his first drive at the helm, Rivers found Dural for a 45-yard touchdown and a 23-0 lead with 11:00 left in the third quarter and a running clock ticking away.
A series later, Rivers and the White marched 78 yards in 10 plays to extend the lead to 30-0 on J.C. Copeland’s 6-yard scoring run. And after Loston’s interception, went 97 yards in 14 plays to cap the scoring on Rivers’ 21-yard touchdown pass to Beckham.
Working the rail signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans, the choking start appeared only a shoulder to pull away from, too.
“That’s just spring,” Rivers said. ‘Its going to look a bit rusty at times. At the end, we started clicking better and staying more loose. It’s only going to get better from here.”