ARLINGTON, Texas - After a lengthy buildup centered around a litany of off-the-field issues, the long-awaited battle between No. 4 LSU and No. 3 Oregon was decided by the most common of on-the-field issues.
The Tigers took the ball way four times and gave it away just once. They committed just five penalties for 47 yards, and the Ducks committed 12 for 95. They won both battles in the trenches, getting into the backfield to slow down Oregon’s hurry-up offense and pushing Oregon’s defense front backward to open holes for the running backs and create a comfort zone for quarterback Jarrett Lee.
Whether the disparity in play was in any way related to off-the-field issues faced by both teams in recent months is unknown and immaterial.
What is known was spelled out clear as day on the Cowboys Stadium scoreboard at the end of the Cowboys Classic on Saturday night: LSU 40, Oregon 27.
“Our football team is united,” Tigers coach Les Miles said. “They play together. You put a ball on a line, they’ll scrap you for it. This is a great group of guys.”
The Tigers did pretty much everything they wanted to do against the Ducks.
They ran the ball 48 times for 175 yards and did it with multiple ball carriers. Spencer Ware rushed 26 times for 99 yards and a touchdown. Michael Ford rushed 14 times for 96 yards and two touchdowns. That helped them keep the ball way from Oregon’s high-scoring offense as LSU possessed the ball for 33 minutes and four seconds, compared to 26:56 for Oregon.
LSU strong defensive line and speedy pursuit kept the Ducks running game in check as Oregon rushed for just 95 yards on 28 carries. LaMichael James, the leading rusher in the country last season was beaten up and held to 54 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.
“To me, we played with intensity, Miles said of the defense. “It started on the first play and ended on the last play. And I challenged them, as did our defensive staff. (Defensive coordinator) John Chavis did a great job. We asked them to be ready, and ?ready’ was a big word. They ran a tempo offense, and it’s constant and it’s fast-paced, and the reality is we were ready.”
The running game and the defense made things easier for Lee, a fifth-year senior from Brenham, Texas, who was thrust into the starter’s role eight days before the game when starting quarterback was suspended indefinitely after being charged with second-degree battery.
“It was a great win for us,” said Lee, who improved to 6-4 as a starter as LSU. “We had a lot on our minds coming into this game, but we knew we just had to stay focused. We played hard (Saturday night). We ran the ball well. We threw the ball well. We just stayed focused. They’re a great football team. Give credit to them, but we just played hard and got the ?W.’”
Lee’s statistics were modest - he completed 10-of-22 for 98 yards and a touchdown - but he was hampered by several drops by his receivers and didn’t turn the ball over.
“He did the things we needed to do to win, and he made some plays,” Miles said of Lee. “And he made some plays when we really needed to have them. It’s all a process he’ll have to go through. But he can play better than he did today.”
Both offenses sputtered during a first half that ended with LSU holding a 16-13 lead. It stayed that way until the Tigers defense jump-started the offense with a pair of takeaways that came as almost as fast at the Ducks’ offensive snaps.
Michael Brockers forced a fumble by De’Anthony Thomas and Eric Reid picked up the ball and set LSU up at the Ducks’ 21. Five plays later Ford ran 5 yards for a touchdown and a 23-13 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, Craig Loston knocked the ball loose from Thomas again and Ron Brooks recovered for the Tigers at the Oregon 41. Six plays later, Ware ran 1 yard for a touchdown and a 30-13 lead.
Drew Alleman’s 32-yard field goal made it 33-13 before the Ducks scored on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Darron Thomas to Jush Huff to make it 33-20 with 9:14 left in the game.
After Oregon turned the ball over on downs on its next possession, LSU drove to Ford’s 16-yard touchdown run that made it 40-20 with 2:52 left. De’Anthony Thomas’ 4-yard touchdown run completed the scoring with 13 seconds left.
LSU spent countless hours practicing for Oregon’s hurry-up offense, which tries to snap the ball every six to eight seconds. But the Ducks slowed themselves down plenty on the games’ first possession, committing a holding penalty while returning the opening kickoff. They also were penalized for clipping and two personal fouls in their first four plays from scrimmage, leading to a punt that gave the Tigers the ball at the Oregon 39.
Two runs by Ware yielded a first down, but his third ended with a fumble that LSU recovered for no gain. On third-and-8, Lee attempted his first pass and put in position for Alfred Blue to catch it but it bounced off his hands. Blue likely would have been tackled short of the first down.
That brought on Alleman who made a 44-yard field goal in his first attempt since he was at Acadiana High School, giving the Tigers a 3-0 lead.
The field position turned in the Ducks favor but they didn’t maximize their opportunities. A 30-yard punt game them a first down at midfield and they reached the 11 before stalling and tying the score on Rob Beard’s 29-yard field goal.
On LSU’s next possession, the ball got away on a snap to Lee in shotgun formation and Oregon’s Kenjon Barner recovered at the Tigers 29. Again LSU’s defense kept Oregon out of the end zone and Beard’s 30-yard field goal gave the Ducks a 6-3 lead after the first quarter.
LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, who named the Most Valuable Defensive Player of the Tigers’ 41-24 victory against Texas A&M here in January, made a big play on special teams. Barner fielded Wing’s punt near his goal line and Mathieu hit him, ripped the ball loose, picked it up and ran three yards for a touchdown. Alleman was wide left on the extra points, leaving LSU with a 9-6 lead.
The Ducks found their offensive rhythm for the first time early in the first quarter, holding the ball for an uncharacteristically long period of time - 19 plays and seven minutes, 41 seconds ? to drive 79 yards. They converted five third downs into third downs, the last one being helped by a personal foul penalty on Loston, giving Oregon a first-and-goal at the 4. Two plays later, LaMichael James ran 3 yards for a touchdown and a 13-9 lead.
LSU responded with its best drive of the half, moving at a faster pace than Oregon. The Tigers converted three third downs of their own into first downs, the final coming on a 10-yard scoring pass from Lee to Rueben Randle, who had been uninvolved in the passing game up to that point. Lee flipped a pass toward the goal line and Randle out-positioned Terrance Mitchell to catch the pass for a touchdown that sent LSU into halftime with a 16-13 edge.