KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The rockiest part of LSU’s trip to Rocky Top was the turbulence the Tigers experienced during their flight Friday afternoon.
Overall Saturday afternoon, it was smooth sailing for a seventh consecutive week as top-ranked LSU routed Tennessee 38-7 in Neyland Stadium to improve to 7-0 overall and 4-0 in the Southeastern Conference heading into its game against reigning national champion Auburn on Saturday in Tiger Stadium.
The Tigers are 7-0 for the second consecutive season and have won all of their games by at least 13 points. LSU completed a sweep of its opponents from the SEC East for the second consecutive season, a school first. The Tigers beat Florida (41-11) last week and Kentucky (35-7) the week before.
The last time the Tigers came here as the No. 1 team in the country was 1959, when the defending national champions were beaten by the Volunteers 14-13. But so far, history, the opponent and the venue has made little difference to this team.
It has used essentially the same formula week in and week out to overcome the periodic imperfections.
On Saturday, it didn’t matter that the Tigers allowed the worst rushing offense in the SEC to run for 64 yards in the first half, just 21 fewer than its game average. It didn’t matter that they allowed pass receptions of 44, 38, and 21 yards, in addition to a 60-yard kickoff return. It also didn’t matter that the offense needed longer to get on the scoreboard than it had in six previous games.
“I felt like our team did what it needed to do to secure victory,” LSU coach Les Miles said of beating UT (3-3, 0-3). “I don’t know that it was our best game certainly. Our football team continues to improve. We’re a physical group.
“We play very well defensively, and we ask our offense to do a number do things that we need and special teams appear to be getting sharper. We’re not there, but there’s a great incentive for this team to improve.”
LSU followed a familiar and successful script as it played turnover-free football for the fourth consecutive game and increased its turnover margin to plus-13 (16-3). Morris Claiborne and Eric Reid intercepted Matt Simms, who was thrust into the starting position after Tyler Bray suffered a broken thumb in a loss to Georgia last week.
The Tigers rushed for a season-high 260 yards, topping the 238 last week. In addition to Spencer Ware’s 80 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries, reserve quarterback Jordan Jefferson had a season-high 73 yards and a touchdown in his most extensive playing time in the three games since he returned from suspension.
The evolution of Jefferson’s role as a complement to starter Jarrett Lee continued. Jefferson completed just 1 of 3 passes for 8 yards, and Lee completed 10 of 14 for 115 yards and two touchdowns.
“I like using both quarterbacks,” Miles said. “I think that’s what’s best, what we need to do. I think both guys do different things, and we like to do that. We will continue to do that.”
LSU led 17-7 at halftime and followed that with one of its most dominant halves of the season, outscoring the Vols 21-0. The Tigers took the second-half kickoff and drove 66 yards, increasing the lead to 24-7 on Ware’s 1-yard touchdown run.
After a Tennessee punt backed LSU up to its 1-yard line, the Tigers ended any remaining doubt with a 99-yard touchdown drive that Vols coach Derek Dooley, a Tigers assistant from 2000-04, called “a backbreaker.”
Runs of 3 yards by Jefferson, 11 by Ware, 3 by Alfred Blue, and 13 by Kenny Hilliard moved the Tigers out to the 46 by the end of the third quarter.
The drive continued on the ground as Michael Ford netted 9 yards on two runs; Jefferson rushed for 2 and 18 yards; Russell Shepard rushed for 9; Jefferson for 3 and 14; Ware for 3, 12 and a loss of 1; and Jefferson the final 3 for a touchdown. The only two passes on the drive went incomplete, and the Tigers overcame an illegal block penalty.
“I love that,” Reid said. “The offense had that 99-yard drive. That made it easy on the defense. We were extremely fresh. If the offense can do that, we’re going to be hard to beat.”
LSU’s next drive also ended with a touchdown despite the absence of a pass completion. The 65-yard march ended with Shepard taking a lateral from Lee and sprinting 14 yards for a 38-7 lead with 1:35 remaining.
“That’s our style of play,” guard Will Blackwell said. “As long as we can hold on to the ball and control the clock, that’s what we want to do.”
The Tigers possessed the ball nearly 17 minutes more than Tennessee in the game and had it twice as long as the Vols in the second half.
“We knew they were going to come out in the second half and try us again,” Vols defensive lineman Marlon Walls said. “It was a test of our manhood. I think in the first half we did OK, then we got relaxed. We knew what was coming. We knew that they were going to run the ball at us and pretty much run the ball the whole time.”
Though the running game was dominant with seven players getting carries and the team averaging 5.0 yards per rush, the passing game contributed 115 yards and two touchdowns.
“You just have to work hard in practice and watch film and see what’s working against (the opponent),” Lee said, “and we had a lot that worked against them tonight.”
Tennessee easily held its own on both lines of scrimmages during a scoreless first quarter. It was the first time this season and the first time in 32 quarters dating to last season that the Tigers played a scoreless period.
But the quarter ended with LSU on the verge of scoring thanks to a spectacular play by Claiborne. The Volunteers had a first down at the LSU 42 when Simms lofted a long pass to Da’Rick Rogers, who was running stride for stride with Claiborne as they approached the LSU goal line.
Claiborne reached up in stride and snared the pass away from Rogers at the 6 and turned upfield. He found lots of running room and zig-zagged his way to the Tennessee 5 before finally being tackled.
Miles called that play “a gathering of momentum.”
Ware was stopped for no gain on the final play of the quarter, ending the scoring streak but merely postponing the score. On the first play of the second quarter, Lee zipped a 5-yard touchdown pass to Rueben Randle and a 7-0 lead as the Tigers scored first for the seventh consecutive game.
LSU forced a three-and-out on the next possession and took over at the Vols’ 36 after a punt. A 12-yard completion from Lee to Randle got the drive going before Jefferson replaced Lee. Jefferson ran for 9 and 2 yards before being sacked for a 3-yard loss. He kept again for 2 yards before Lee returned on third-and-11 from the 13. Lee tossed a swing pass to Ware against the blitz, and Ware followed the blocking of Randle, Blackwell, and tackle Chris Faulk on his way to the end zone for a 14-0 lead.
Tennessee seemed on the verge of fading away before finding an offensive spark late in the second quarter.
Rogers got inside of cornerback Tyrann Mathieu on a slant route to catch a pass from Simms and fought off Mathieu’s attempt to strip the ball free on his way to a 44-yard gain that woke up the crowd, which was announced as being 101,822. Tauren Poole, whose availability was in question before the game because of a hamstring injury, carried the ball on six consecutive plays, leading to a third-and-goal at the Tigers’ 8.
Simms went after Mathieu again and again had success as Mathieu was called for pass interference, giving Tennessee a first down at the 2. Poole ran the ball in on the next play to make it 14-7 with 2:24 left.
“Their players are on scholarship too; they play football too,” Reid said. “It’s not like we’re going to shut everybody down. It’s not like we’re going to stop every play. They did a good job. In certain areas of the game they were able to move the ball.
“They came out intense and very physical. We just had to settle down and read our keys better and tackle the ball.”
Poole finished with 70 yards on 19 carries, just 17 yards on five carries in the second half.
LSU responded after the ensuing kickoff with an 11-yard run by Ware and a 45-yard completion from Lee to Randle. That gave the Tigers a first-and-goal at the 10.
Ware gained 2 before Lee hit Deangelo Peterson, who was tackled just short of the goal line. Jefferson returned and tried to sneak in as he had done on fourth down on his first play of the season two weeks ago against Kentucky, but he was stopped for no gain. Miles sent in Drew Alleman, who kicked an 18-yard field goal, giving LSU a 17-7 halftime lead.
After that, the Volunteers ran just 19 more plays and gained just 66 more yards.
“We just keep doing what the coaches ask us to do no matter what the score is,” Reid said. “We go into the second half like it’s 0-0, and we don’t stop. We don’t let up.”