In a rare opening matchup of top-five teams, both missing key players, Jarrett Lee admirably directed LSU’s offense in place of suspended quarterback Jordan Jefferson.
Being without standout cornerback-punt returner Cliff Harris was more than mistake-prone and third-ranked Oregon could overcome.
The Ducks’ fill-in punt returner had a fumble that led directly to an LSU touchdown and Lee’s touchdown pass came against the defensive back playing in Harris’ spot in the fourth-ranked Tigers’ 40-27 victory Saturday night.
”I asked them to put to the perimeter all the things that could be considered distractions,” LSU coach Les Miles said. ”I enjoyed Jarrett Lee’s gutty effort. I liked how the offense did the things they needed to do.”
Already without the suspended Harris, the Ducks made things even harder on themselves with four turnovers — three that LSU converted into 20 points while building a 30-13 lead.
Highly touted freshman De’Anthony Thomas fumbled on consecutive touches late in the third quarter, one on a rushing attempt and then on the ensuing kickoff, and the Tigers took control with touchdown runs from Michael Ford and Spencer Ware in a span of less than 3 1/2 minutes.
”Those are self-inflicted wounds,” coach Chip Kelly said. ”The drops, the turnovers and the penalties are the things that really killed us. Against a team like that, you’re not going to win the game.”
Harris, who can be found on most preseason All-America teams, was suspended in June after police caught him driving 118 mph, and also having a suspended license at the time.
The Tigers were also without receiver Russell Shepard, who was suspended for at least this game because he discussed another NCAA inquiry with a teammate. He was third in receiving and fourth in rushing for LSU last season.
Besides the legitimate national title hopes both teams had, they had a tie in ongoing NCAA investigations into their dealings with Willie Lyles, who ran a Houston-based service that provided scouting reports of high school players.
And this was the first season-opening game of top-five teams on a neutral field since 1984, when Jimmy Johnson won his debut as coach of Miami against an Auburn squad featuring Bo Jackson a year before he won the Heisman Trophy. There was a crowd of 87,711 at Cowboys Stadium, where LSU played its second consecutive game.
The Tigers ended their 2010 season on the Dallas Cowboys’ home field in January with a 41-24 victory over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl when Jefferson passed for three touchdowns and ran for another score.
But Jefferson is now suspended indefinitely, as is reserve linebacker Josh Johns, because they are facing felony charges of second degree battery stemming from a bar fight near campus last month.
Plenty of subplots in this one.
”We’ve had a lot on our minds as team coming into this game,” Lee said. ”It’s not something that we wanted to happen. But you have to put that to the side and move forward.”
Lee’s 10th career start, his first since a win over Louisiana Tech in 2009, was far from spectacular. The senior completed only 10 of 22 passes for 98 yards, but didn’t have an interception and appeared steady throughout the game.
The lone LSU turnover came when Lee stepped up toward the line to point out a pending blitz, at the same time the ball was snapped behind him. That set up Rob Beard’s second field goal to give Oregon a 6-3 lead.
Oregon, which lost to Auburn in the BCS national championship game last season, has consecutive losses for the first time since they losing its last three regular-season games in 2007.
”This is going to show the character of this team, how hard we’re going to come back and play after this loss,” Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas said. ”The offense had self-inflicted wounds all game.”
LSU took a 16-13 lead just before halftime, going ahead to stay, on Rueben Randle’s 10-yard TD catch from Lee.
Randle caught the ball in the front corner of the end zone over freshman cornerback Terrance Mitchell — in the spot Harris would have been playing on defense.
The other LSU touchdown before halftime came when fill-in punt returner Barner fielded a punt inside the 5, took a couple of steps backs. That’s when Tyrann Mathieu stripped the ball away, scooped it up after it bounced on the turf and took a couple of steps into the end zone.
LSU has won 34 consecutive nonconference games, the longest such streak in the nation, including all 23 in the regular season under seventh-year coach Miles.
”Our football team is united. They play together,” Miles said. ”You put a ball on the line and they’ll scrap you for it.”
Ware had 26 carries for 99 yards while Fort had 14 runs for 98 yards and two TDs, his second on a 16-yard run in the fourth quarter.
LaMichael James had one of the worst games at Oregon, even though he scored a touchdown for the 12th time his last 13 games. James had 18 carries for 54 yards, only five more than he had against Auburn in the national title game.
”I don’t think we were ready mentally. We have a lot of underclassmen and people who’ve never played in a college football game,” James said. ”It was difficult.”
De’Anthony Thomas, who scored on a 4-yard run in the final minute, had his first fumble when big defensive end Sam Montgomery reached in and stripped the ball away. The ball popped directly into the hands of safety Eric Reid.
After Ford’s 5-yard TD, Craig Loston punched the ball out of Thomas’ hands, setting up Ware’s 1-yard TD that made it 30-10 after Mitchell was called for pass interference in the end zone.
Darron Thomas was 31-of-54 passing for 240 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a game the Texas native considered ”bigger than the national championship.” Thomas went to Oregon instead of LSU after Miles wouldn’t promise that he could play quarterback.