LSU finally comes through, beats Gamecocks

The follow-up is always the toughest.

The most difficult game for any team is invariably the one that comes immediately after a big win. Celebrations are followed by letdowns like night follows day. 

Just ask third-ranked South Carolina after a 23-21 loss at No. 9 LSU on Saturday.

Steve Spurrier knew this fact even before arriving in Baton Rouge, La. Two years ago his Gamecocks upset Alabama, but lost a listless game against Kentucky seven days later.

So it had to worry Spurrier that one week after demolishing Georgia at home and jumping to No. 3 in the polls — the highest ranking a South Carolina team has achieved in the modern era — the Gamecocks had to take on an angry LSU team in the loudest stadium in college football.

“Tonight I realized why LSU was preseason No. 1,” said Spurrier after his Gamecocks were outrushed 258-34 yards. “They can run the ball and stop the run. That was the biggest difference in the game, probably.”
 
Spurrier’s fretting had merit. The Tigers finally played like the team that was ranked high in the preseason polls, beating the Gamecocks in every statistic, including the one that mattered most. 

For the first 30 minutes, the Tigers looked like the team that struggled against Auburn and Towson and lost to Florida — a talented group that could move the ball well between the 20s, but couldn’t score many touchdowns. 

“South Carolina was coming into our house as the third-ranked team in the country and my mom was here to see me play for the first time this season,” LSU defensive end and South Carolina native Sam Montgomery said. “There was so many things to play for other than just the game.”

When the Tigers scored only one field goal in the first half, there was a sense that this was going to be another one of those nights, especially since LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger and the Tigers offense had gained twice as many yards as the Gamecocks and yet trailed 7-3.
But in the second half, things began to work for Les Miles’ squad. The Tigers scored a touchdown in the third quarter and put together an impressive 11-play drive that ended in another field goal to start the fourth.  

That is when South Carolina quarterback Conner Shaw made his first serious mistake in a month. Leading by one point, Shaw forced a pass over the middle that was either a miscommunication or a floater. Either way, the only man with a chance to catch it was LSU safety Eric Reid.

The interception — Shaw’s first in four games and only his third of the season — was a turning point. LSU marched down and scored another field goal to take the lead.

“I don’t know if he got hit in the head tonight or not,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said of Shaw. “Some of his decision-making was a little off. … Connor has played beautifully all year. He had some good plays tonight, but he wasn’t as sharp as he’s been.”

Inspired, the Tigers defense promptly tackled Shaw for a loss, forced an incompletion, and then sacked him 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

On their first offensive play after the punt, Tigers running back Jeremy Hill rushed for 50 yards and a touchdown. Those points and Hill’s overall performance proved to be the difference. While the LSU defense was holding Marcus Lattimore to a paltry 35 yards, Hill rumbled for 124 yards and two touchdowns.

“We didn’t play like we were capable of playing last week against Florida. The entire offense knew that they had to step up and we made that a priority,” Hill said. “At the end, it was a great release and we wanted to celebrate with the students who have supported us throughout the season.”

Shaw drove the Gamecocks down for another score late, and the Gamecocks had one more shot in the final 40 seconds, but it wasn’t enough. The last play was a desperation jump-ball pass that bounced into the hands of LSU’s other safety Craig Loston for Shaw’s second interception of the night. 

For Spurrier, the loss is a disappointment but not a catastrophe. The Gamecocks were always, in his words, “a good team, maybe not a great team, but a good team.” 

And good teams can’t afford to look further than one week down the road. South Carolina travels to Florida next week to face the last remaining undefeated team in the East.  If he can upset his alma mater in the stadium where his name is enshrined on the Ring of Honor in the north end zone, Spurrier will be on a glidepath back to Atlanta for his second SEC Championship Game in three years.

That was always the goal, and it is still within reach. 
 
For LSU, this was a must-win.

The Tigers have underachieved since the first snap of the season, and even though the fans have gotten restless, Les Miles understands that the team’s fate is still in its hands. LSU plays Texas A&M in College Station next week, then have a week off to prepare for what is, yet again, the game of the year against Alabama. 

The Tide travel to Baton Rouge on Nov. 3. And assuming LSU beats Tennessee on the road and Mississippi State at home in the next two weeks, the game in Death Valley will not only be the battle for the SEC West, it could set the stage for another trip to the BCS Championship Game. 

But Miles should warn his team against being overly confident. One decent half of football does not make up for a month of mediocrity. The Aggies will be tough at home, even though the Tigers will be favored.

Still, the toughest game to play is the one the week after a big win.

Spurrier was reminded of that fact this week.

Miles hopes he won’t be next.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.