HOUSTON — It was finesse against force, razzle-dazzle against relentless pressure, sleight of hand against size and strength.
You knew coming in that this Texas Bowl between LSU and Texas Tech would be a captivating contrast in styles. But, given the way this season has gone for the Tigers, you just didn’t know exactly how it would turn out.
Oh, that old black magic from the Red Raiders had LSU’s defense in its spell Tuesday night. Texas Tech’s all-black-clad offense, led by a slippery eel named Pat Mahomes, showed off some Houdini-class wizardry that had to leave the Tigers with their tongues hanging out as he scrambled to one locked-water-tank escape after another.
“That quarterback can give you headaches, now,” LSU coach Les Miles said.
Eventually though, reality prevailed.
The prestige belonged to LSU, which gradually, perhaps inevitably, drew Texas Tech into its clutches. The result was a hard-fought but redemptive 56-27 victory before a packed, tortilla-throwing crowd (on the Texas Tech side) at NRG Stadium.
What a long, strange trip it has been for these LSU Tigers. The ups, the downs, the uncertainty, the dominance, the being dominated. The oddity of the first canceled game since World War I and the strangeness of a “road” home game because of flooding in South Carolina. From Leonard Fournette looking like a lead-pipe Heisman Trophy cinch at the end of October to not even being invited to New York for the Heisman ceremony to looking every bit Heisman-worthy on an NFL field where one day soon he will be plying his trade.
Fournette was faultless: 212 yards and four touchdowns on 29 carries, plus a 44-yard touchdown catch thrown in for good measure as he fueled an LSU offense that rolled to a stunning 638 yards.
“I’d say tonight was ... productive,” the game’s MVP said. The man whose talent is so over the top sure can be a master of understatement.
Offense was the story of this game coming in for both teams. For Texas Tech, it was its standing as one of the nation’s very best teams at scoring and moving the ball. For LSU, it was the question of what alterations Miles may make to his offense after getting what looked like an 11th-game reprieve to return as LSU’s coach in 2016.
If you’ve been clamoring for a change to LSU’s offense — everyone this side of Dalai Lama seems to be down on the Tigers’ conservative ways — you probably weren’t figuring on a change of scenery.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron moved from the coaches box to the sideline, apparently at quarterback Brandon Harris’ request. Whether it’s a permanent shift or not — by cutting out the middle man the Tigers certainly cut out their vexing inclination for delay-of-game penalties — but it didn’t harm the Tigers’ ability to match and eventually overmatch Texas Tech big play for big play.
Maybe the switch to the sideline made Cameron realize D.J. Chark was down there, too. Chark got his first touch of the season — run or pass — as he answered Tech’s big bomb from Mahomes to Jakeem Grant with a 79-yard end-around run for a score and what was then a 21-6 LSU lead.
As the game wore on, a clear pattern emerged. The Tigers were the more physical team, pounding on the Red Raiders on offense and defense. Texas Tech was the more finesse team, its receivers cutting graceful patterns through the LSU defense even though Mahomes was often running for his life. The Tigers forced Tech into numerous third-and-Mahomes situations, dragging him to the ground on occasion while on others he slipped away like a phantom.
Eventually, though, the game seemed to turn on a big play by, of all people, oft-maligned safety Rickey Jefferson. With Tech driving on LSU, charged with momentum down only 28-20 in the third, he cradled a tipped Mahomes pass at the goal line and ran it back to the 22. Four plays later, Fournette was back in the end zone on a 4-yard run for a 35-20 lead.
Texas Tech’s confidence seemed to crack a little at that point. Brandon Harris soon added a touchdown on a 26-yard keeper just before the third quarter expired to send LSU to the fourth up 42-20 and well on its way to not only a bowl victory but the highest-scoring bowl win in school history.
In a season marked by wrong turns, the Tigers finished the right way. They have a lot of work to do but a lot to work with to be regarded as a national contender in 2016.
“I think it’s the right turn,” Miles said. “I think you can see the program is being manned by quality young men. They’re looking for the success.
“When you have a strong of losses, they could say, ‘Forget this year.’ They didn’t forget this year. That’s character. That to me is maybe the strength of this program.”
Strength that was on display here Tuesday night.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.