On his team’s 34-yard line with just 1 minute, 19 seconds left until halftime Saturday, LSU quarterback Brandon Harris gave the ball to running back Leonard Fournette.
Of course he did, right?
The Tigers wouldn’t try to chuck it down the field with less than 80 seconds left in the half. That’s not this team’s or coach Les Miles’ M.O.
Only, they did. Harris didn’t hand off to Fournette — he threw a 15-yard pass to him. And then Harris threw again and again and again. He attempted nine consecutive passes — one a spike to stop the clock — and marched LSU to the South Carolina 12-yard line for a half-ending field goal and a seven-point lead.
The three points weren’t as significant as the message sent by Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
“We know, when we have to have the passing game, we’re going to be there,” receiver Malachi Dupre said after LSU’s 45-24 win over South Carolina. “I feel like we have a long way to go, but at the same time I feel the performance today, against an SEC opponent, is going to open some people’s eyes and realize we can be balanced.”
LSU, ranked No. 6 nationally and 5-0 for the first time since 2012, flashed a passing game not seen in this program since Zach Mettenberger departed. Harris’ 28 attempts and 18 completions were the most by a quarterback since Mettenberger did it in a 2013 game at Ole Miss. That’s a span of 22 games — nearly two full seasons.
His 228 passing yards were the most in nearly a year. It dwarfed the sluggish numbers the Tigers put up in the first four games: 382 passing yards, a 95.5-yard average.
That 80-yard, 4-for-15 performance against Eastern Michigan last week seemed so long ago when Harris walked into the postgame interview room. For the first time in a month, Harris was made available to speak with reporters after Miles lifted a media ban on his sophomore passer.
He had something to say to all of those who thought, after the first month, that LSU couldn’t pass.
“We hadn’t trailed in a game (until falling behind 3-0 to South Carolina),” Harris said. “That stuff doesn’t bother anybody in this facility, anybody that’s over there in football (operations). We don’t go over to the coach and say, ‘Look, we need to pass the ball more.’ It’s been a winning formula. We’re 5-0. We’ve done everything we’ve had to do.
“I can understand if we’re 0-5 and not doing anything and the run’s getting stuffed every time. When you got four great running backs on top of (fullbacks) JD Moore and Bry’Kiethon (Mouton) … it’s not much I can argue with. I like the production. I like what Cam’s doing. Everybody around here knows I can throw the football. Nobody is around here questioning that. If we couldn’t throw the football, I can understand why everybody is saying that. We had balance today.”
That’s important with No. 8 Florida (6-0, 4-0) coming to town Saturday for a top-10 showdown in Tiger Stadium. The Gators are 12th nationally in stopping the run. They allow less than 100 rushing yards per game and have given up three rushing scores in six outings.
Harris knows what he might be asked to do.
“Listen,” he said, “when it’s called, and I’m almost positive it will be called next week, when we have to throw the ball and sling it against other teams that may try to come out and think they can stop Leonard — but you’ve seen with eight, nine, 10 in the box, he can still run it and take it for 80 (yards) — if they call us and they tell us we have to do this, I think we’ll do it and we won’t have a problem with it.”
LSU (5-0, 3-0) entered the game against South Carolina (2-4, 0-4) having run the ball 75 percent of the time in its first four games. The split Saturday — 54 rushes and 28 passes — dropped that number to 72.8 percent run.
The Tigers aren’t developing into a high-flying aerial attack, but Cameron’s and Miles’ willingness to toss the ball around, especially on that last drive of the first half, showed their confidence in Harris and a receiving corps that dropped about five passes a week ago.
Dural dropped about three passes in that game, and Dupre dropped at least one — which would have been a touchdown. Trey Quinn and John Diarse started in place of those two against South Carolina, but Dural and Dupre entered on the third play and finished with a combined 10 receptions.
“I think last week was an unusual piece,” Miles said after Saturday’s game.
“I didn’t let last week’s performance hinder our work ethic this week,” Dupre said. “Each day at practice, I feel like I practiced to the best of my ability, had good practices this week, very confident. I knew my performance today was going to be on my performances I had in practice this week, so I felt like each day I need to go to work, and I did that, felt comfortable coming into this game today.”
Even Fournette got involved in the passing frenzy. He entered the game with two receptions in four games; he had three for 25 yards Saturday, including a 15-yarder on that final drive of the first half.
His catch-and-run sparked the two-minute drill. Harris hit Dupre twice on that drive and then found Tyron Johnson, setting up Trent Domingue for his 29-yarder.
“The two-minute drill, it’s a thing we practice Mondays and Thursdays,” Harris said. “We’re constantly talking about it every single day — whether it’s a touchdown to win the game or what the case may be. Got points before halftime. It was important.”
More important, maybe: The Gators — not to mention fans, media and other teams — saw that the Tigers can throw the ball.
“I’d rather win and be 5-0 rather than having 45 pass attempts,” Harris said. “Now, if I was asked to do that, the stuff that you see all of these other guys in the country doing, I would do it and we wouldn’t have a problem doing it. I’m asked to manage the game. I’m a game manager because I manage the game. … Every quarterback in the country is a game manager.
“You’re putting everybody into situations, getting everybody lined up and you’re snapping the ball. If that’s winning and we’re 5-0, I’ll take it rather than being 4-1. Some of these other guys who throw it 60 times a game, they’re not 5-0. We’re fine with the formula.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv.