COLLEGE STATION, Texas — LSU went on the road for the third time this season, and for the third time found itself in a dogfight against a Southeastern Conference opponent.
After narrowly defeating Auburn (12-10) and coming up short against Florida (14-6), the sixth-ranked Tigers faced their largest deficit of the season, but scored 24 consecutive points to hold off No. 20 Texas A&M 24-19 on Saturday afternoon at Kyle Field.
LSU finally corralled Johnny Manziel, the Aggies’ Houdini-like quarterback, and came up with a pretty good escape act of its own. The Tigers forced five turnovers to overcome several harmful penalties and an erratic offensive performance to improve to 7-1 and 3-1 in the SEC. A&M is 5-2 and 2-2.
Though for the second consecutive game LSU allowed a late touchdown drive to turn a seemingly secure two-score lead into a shaky one-score lead, it held on to win for the second consecutive game.
“Football is not an easy game by any means,” said LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who completed just 11 of 29 for a mere 97 yards, but who had his first SEC touchdown pass and didn’t commit a turnover for the first time this season. “I think everybody has the mentality that in the SEC it’s going to be a four-quarter game most of the time, and fortunately we made enough plays.”
The Tigers reached the two-thirds mark of the season still having a lot of wrinkles to iron out. They were penalized a season-worst 13 times (for 102 yards), and five of the Aggies’ 26 first downs came courtesy of LSU penalties.
Still, the Tigers head into an open date essentially where they hoped to be all along — in position to take control of the SEC West when they play No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 3 in Tiger Stadium.
“We’d like to have gotten (the loss to Florida) back,” offensive lineman Josh Dworaczyk said, “but the first thing for us is always winning the West, and it’s right out there in front of us.”
Jalen Collins, Kevin Minter and Tharold Simon each had an interception against Manziel as LSU gradually slowed down an offense that had more yards by halftime (256) than South Carolina finished with (211) in the Tigers’ 23-21 victory a week earlier.
Simon, whose interception on the final play sealed the victory at Auburn and whose deflection on the last play became an interception by Craig Loston that ended the victory against South Carolina, put the exclamation point on the end of this one as well.
The Aggies had the ball at their 21 with one second remaining when Manziel threw a pass to Uzoma Nwachukwu, who started a series of seven laterals that kept the ball alive from side to side until Simon blasted Ryan Swope, who fumbled. Barkevious Mingo fell on the ball for the Tigers’ season-high fifth takeaway.
“They are known for a big-time defense that gets the ball back to their offense and gives them a lot of scoring opportunities,” A&M offensive lineman Patrick Lewis said of the Tigers. “We had a lot of turnovers, and their offense generated points. They’re a disciplined team. Unfortunately, we fell victim to that today by giving them the ball back, and they capitalized on it.”
Turnovers seemed to help the Tigers shake off some cobwebs after they fell behind 12-0 not long after the 11 a.m. kickoff.
Collins started the turnaround when his interception gave LSU the ball at its 42. A pass interference call against Toney Hurd Jr. on third down set the subsequent drive in motion.
On fourth-and-1 at the Aggies’ 33, running back Spencer Ware took a snap from under center and flipped a pitchout to Michael Ford for a 13-yard run. On the next play, Ford sprinted 20 yards for a touchdown.
Another takeaway followed by another touchdown gave LSU a 14-12 halftime lead. Ronald Martin knocked the ball loose from Ben Malena, and Lamin Barrow recovered for the Tigers at the A&M 40. Jeremy Hill’s 3-yard run converted a fourth-and-2, leading to Mettenberger’s 29-yard touchdown pass to Boone, who dove to catch the pass between two defenders.
“They were playing up, so we felt we could get them with a double move,” Boone said. “They were packing the box to take away the run, so we knew we had to make a play at the receiver position.
“I just ran my route and made my adjustment. I don’t think I had to lay out too much. My whole thing was trying to get into the end zone.”
After a scoreless third quarter, A&M missed an opportunity to take the lead when Taylor Bertolet was wide right on a 52-yard field goal. Drew Alleman’s 28-yarder gave LSU a 17-12 lead.
Trey Williams returned the ensuing kickoff 76 yards to the Tigers’ 16. The defense held, and Bertolet was wide right on a 33-yarder, the first time an LSU opponent has failed to score this season when reaching the Tigers 20.
Simon’s interception preceded Hill’s 47-yard touchdown run which gave LSU a 24-12 lead with 3:12 left much as his 50-yard touchdown had given the Tigers a 23-14 lead with 5:03 left last week.
“It was a defense we had been running all game,” said A&M linebacker Jonathan Stewart, a Shreveport native. “The ball went straight up the middle. It was a straight ‘A’ gap. A couple guys got misaligned, and another couple guys couldn’t get off their block and make the plays. It was a collective mistake by the whole defense.”
Just as it had against the Gamecocks, LSU allowed A&M to drive to a late touchdown. Malena rushed 5 yards for a touchdown with 1:17 left, but Odell Beckham Jr. secured an onside kick for the Tigers, who ran the clock down to 10 seconds before Manziel returned to the field.
The leading rusher in the SEC, Manziel finished with a season-low 27 yards on 17 carries. He completed 29 of 56 for 276 yards.
LSU had more success against Manziel after switching from its base four-man front to its “Mustang” three-man front in the second quarter.
“We wanted to pressure them a little more, and it’s easier to pressure them out of our Mustang package,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said. “You’ve got more speed on the field and certainly that was a big benefit for us.
“Even when we went with our smaller personnel, there’s a way you can rush (Manziel) and be effective. But you’re not going to be completely effective. He’s a great football player.
Manziel passed for 32 yards and Malena ran for 41 as the Aggies became the first LSU opponent to score a touchdown on its first possession. Christine Michael’s 2-yard run made it 6-0 and Bertolet missed the extra point.
All but five of the 66 yards gained on A&M’s next possession came via Manziel’s arm or legs, as Bertolet kicked a 32-yard field goal that made the score 9-0, surpassing the eight-point deficit the Tigers faced at Florida. The deficit grew to 12-0 on Bertolet’s 50-yard kick with 7:24 left in the second quarter.
But this time LSU, which scored the first nine points at Auburn and the first six at Florida, made the turnaround.
“We felt like it was only a matter of time before we got on track,” Tigers coach Les Miles said. “We recognize that we can win on the road in a hostile environment.
“We recognize that we have a tremendous opponent coming up, and we look forward to playing them. We can’t wait. Here we go.”