MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — In the first quarter of Saturday night’s game, LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne was flagged for a personal foul. In the second quarter, he was burned for a touchdown.
“The first half, I knew I was stinking up the place,” Claiborne said.
That was the first half.
Claiborne skunked West Virginia’s kickoff coverage unit with about one minute remaining in the third quarter, the gold-clad home crowd at Milan Puskar Stadium buzzing like yellow jackets and LSU’s 20-point halftime lead suddenly down to six.
The return covered 99 yards, featured a pair of broken tackles and had an immeasurable hand in second-ranked LSU’s harder-than-the-score, 47-21 victory over No. 16 West Virginia.
“That return was right on time,” coach Les Miles said.
And it reversed what, for Claiborne, had the makings of night to forget.
On the second play of West Virginia’s second possession, Claiborne cost LSU 15 yards when he got mixed up with a Mountaineers receiver in some post-whistle activity, keeping alive a drive Tyrann Mathieu ultimately ended with a forced fumble.
Later, after the Tigers had built a 13-0 cushion, West Virginia faced a second-and-10 from the LSU 20.
Geno Smith completed a pass to Stedman Bailey near the left sideline. Claiborne converged to make the tackle, but whiffed. Bailey cruised into the end zone.
“He self-characterized his first half as terrible,” Miles said of Claiborne, “and he said, ‘I knew I’d come back.’ That’s the mark of our team, the style of team that we are.”
Claiborne’s comeback helped stymie West Virginia’s.
The Mountaineers were rolling, the crowd rocking, after Dustin Garrison plunged in from 1 yard out to complete a 14-0 run and pull West Virginia within 27-21 with 1:16 left in the third quarter.
Sixteen seconds later, LSU’s lead was back to 13.
Claiborne fielded a Corey Smith kickoff at his own 1, got a couple of key blocks from Alfred Blue and Lamin Barrow and hit a seam on the left side. He broke a couple of tackles before reaching midfield and was off to the races down the left sideline.
As the cheers turned to silence, Claiborne completed the longest kickoff return by an LSU player since Eric Martin went the full 100 against Kentucky in 1981.
“He definitely stole the momentum back for us,” LSU safety Eric Reid said. “It turned the game in our favor.”
The visitors added 13 points in the fourth quarter while holding West Virginia scoreless.
Instead of catching LSU in what they hoped might be a heart-stopping rally, the Mountaineers watched Claiborne and the Tigers race away.
“We knew we had to do something,” Claiborne said.