LSU's Jefferson looks to bounce back vs. Bulldogs
Jordan Jefferson has been waiting all week for a shot at redemption.
That may seem odd for a quarterback on an undefeated, 15th-ranked team coming off a 24-point road win. But at Vanderbilt last weekend, LSU (2-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) rolled to a 27-3 triumph even as Jefferson labored through one of the worst performances of his career, going 8 of 20 for 96 yards with one interception and no touchdowns.
''I had plenty of opportunities to complete passes and they just fell short on me,'' said Jefferson, who is 11-5 as a starter. ''All my reads were correct. If I get the ball up a couple more inches, it's a totally different game for me.''
Dominant defense and a powerful running game were more than enough to compensate for LSU's anemic aerial attack against the Commodores. LSU coach Les Miles isn't sure whether that formula will be as effective in the Tigers' home opener Saturday night against Mississippi State (1-1, 0-1). Although the Bulldogs have lost 10 straight to LSU, they nearly won last year's meeting and played Auburn tough in a 17-14 loss last week.
''We play a much better football team in a Mississippi State team that is 1-1, and we understand that the challenge is much more significant,'' Miles said.
Last year in Starkville, Miss., LSU profited from four Mississippi State turnovers and still needed a dramatic goal line stand to escape with a 30-26 victory. That result left Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen not so much discouraged as optimistic about how competitive his team had become, and what they might accomplish with some fine-tuning in areas such as ball security.
''We played them really well last year,'' Mullen said. ''I sound like a broken record at times - I think we were minus-four turnover ratio, made critical mistakes and lost the game. Hopefully we get those things cleaned up.''
The Bulldogs kept that game close in large part by allowing only 30 yards rushing on 31 LSU carries. In essence, they tried to force Jefferson, then a first-year starter, to beat them.
Jefferson wound up with one of the best statistical performances of his career, going 15 of 28 for 233 yards, no interceptions and two touchdowns, including 58-yard scoring strike to Brandon LaFell.
''They packed the box in last year, so they left a lot of things open on the field,'' Jefferson said. ''Hopefully they do the same thing this week and I can redeem myself and put a lot of yards on the board.''
Jefferson has yet to throw for more than 250 yards in a game. Now in his junior year and second year as a starter, more is expected of him. LSU hired former Florida receivers coach Billy Gonzales as the Tigers' new passing game coordinator. Meanwhile, Russell Shepard, who is one of the best athletes on the team, gave up on becoming a quarterback to join Terrence Toliver and Rueben Randle in a highly respected receiving corps.
If Jefferson fails to progress, Miles could turn to fellow junior Jarrett Lee, who started eight games as a freshman and has averaged more yards per start (230) than Jefferson (177) during their careers. However, Jefferson is the better scrambler and has demonstrated better ball security. It remains to be seen whether Lee, who was intercepted 16 times in 2008, has learned to sharply reduce risky throws.
At this point, LSU's offense has been carried by its ground game. Even Shepard's two longest scores - of 50 and 30 yards - came on end runs.
LSU is averaging 221 yards rushing, led by Stevan Ridley, who gained a career-best 159 yards at Vanderbilt, highlighted by his 65-yard TD.
''We're just so close, but at the same time so far away, from having a great offense,'' Ridley said. ''One thing we focused on all summer ... was running the football. I know that coach Miles wants to do that.''
Mississippi State also has been running the ball well, and doing so by committee. Nine players, including option quarterback Chris Relf, have helped the Bulldogs average 157 yards rushing.
Relf shares snaps at quarterback with Tyler Russell, and together they've averaged 250 yards through the air.
Mullen said he expects to keep his quarterback rotation about the same, even though Relf's scrambling ability will be at a premium if Mississippi State is to win in Tiger Stadium for the first time since 1991.
LSU's defensive line has been menacing, helping the Tigers pile up 10 sacks already, including six last weekend.
''They're going to come out there and push us to our limits,'' Mississippi State left tackle Derek Sherrod said, ''just like we're going to push them to theirs.''