Zach Mettenberger could afford to miss a few throws in a less-than-dazzling first start.
That was apparent from the moment Kenny Hilliard’s 6-foot, 231-pound frame burst through the right side of the line and rumbled away from the North Texas defense for a 38-yard score on LSU’s opening series.
Hilliard rushed for 141 yards and two touchdowns, and the No. 3 Tigers opened their season with a 41-14 victory over the Mean Green on Saturday night.
”Imperfect, but with reason to smile,” LSU coach Les Miles said. ”We’re going to have very, very good tailback play.”
While the heavily favored Tigers were never threatened, their performance did not always thrill a Death Valley crowd that eagerly awaited evidence that LSU’s passing game would be much improved with Mettenberger under center.
Mettenberger, who was briefly sidelined by a vicious sack, was 19 of 26 for 192 yards, an interception and a touchdown. But LSU didn’t really need to throw in a game decided by its swarming defense and a running game that accounted for 316 yards, including 123 by Blue.
”Mettenberger took a punch in the mouth and got up,” Miles said. ”That’s one of those things that you have to learn to get the ball out and to recognize the defense being played. Overall I liked him and I liked his composure. … He’ll learn to take what that defense is giving him, rather than pressing.”
Derek Thompson completed only 8 of 21 passes, but two passes were scoring strikes of 80 and 15 yards to Brelan Chancellor.
North Texas coach Dan McCarney, a former defensive line coach at Florida, gushed about LSU’s talent and speed, but also made sure his players understood that he expects more from them.
”I just thought we’d hang in there better,” McCarney said. ”We’re not accepting losing. … It’s not a good job 41-14. It’s inexcusable.”
LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr., taking over punt return duties after 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu dismissal on Aug. 10, ran one back 70 yards for a score.
”The best way to describe it was that I felt in a really good rhythm,” Beckham said. ”There were tremendous blocks and everybody did exactly what they were supposed to do … just as we scripted it in practice.”
Beckham nearly had two returns for scores, but his 76-yard runback was negated by Jarvis Landry’s illegal block.
Landry made up for it with eight catches for 82 yards, including two diving receptions.
Hilliard’s second TD came from 5 yards out, and LSU finished with a whopping 508 yards of offense, its most in a game since 2007.
North Texas gained 219 total yards, with 76 on the ground.
”That’s a fast, physical well-coached defense – as usual at LSU,” McCarney said.
The game was played only four days after south Louisiana was struck by tropical weather from Isaac, which was briefly strong enough Wednesday to be classified as a hurricane. LSU had to alter its practice schedule and it was not certain whether the game would be played until late Thursday afternoon, after Tiger Stadium had been inspected and authorities deemed the community fit to host a game drawing more than 90,000 fans.
Some signs of the storm still lingered, including waters stains on interior walls of the stadium and a malfunctioning video board about the south end zone, where a large banner commemorating LSU’s three national championships was damaged.
With LSU a six-touchdown favorite, most of the hype surrounding the opener involved Mettenberger, whose passing ability had drawn high praise throughout August camp.
The Tiger Stadium crowd roared when Mettenberger was announced in the starting lineup, but they were gasping late in the first quarter when blitzing cornerback Hilbert Jackson put Mettenberger flat on his back and appeared to give the quarterback whiplash.
Mettenberger left the game for a series while backup Stephen Rivers, brother of NFL QB Philip Rivers, led LSU on a five-play scoring drive that ended with Hilliard’s second TD.
When Mettenberger returned, he hardly looked sharp, particularly when he tried to fit a pass into a tight spot along the North Texas goal line and was intercepted by a diving Zac Whitfield. The play spoiled a scoring chance set up by Hilliard’s 60-yard run.
With Washington coming to town next week, the Tigers readily acknowledged they would have to do better.
”Coming off of a game like this we know that we have a lot to still work on. Everybody knows that,” Mettenberger said. ”It’s not like we have four preseason games like in the NFL and it is not like high school when we get a jamboree. It’s tough, but your first game is your first game. … We got this first one underneath our belt and we came out with a win.”
North Texas never truly threatened, but Chancellor’s 80-yard score on a crossing route, which made it 24-7, was the longest TD given up by LSU’s defense in more than a season. The completion gave Thompson 106 yards passing in the first half, compared to Mettenberger’s 97.
Mettenberger’s touchdown toss came early in the fourth quarter, when he rifled a throw over the middle to Kadron Boone. The junior receiver caught it in stride and ran away from the pursuit for the 34-yard score.