- Andrea Adelson, College Football
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- LSU coach Les Miles could feel it. His players could feel it. The West Virginia crowd, once silent, rose up into a chorus of roars.
They waved their gold towels furiously. This was the momentum shift they had waited for all game long. West Virginia had just closed the gap on No. 2 LSU to 27-21 with 1:16 to play in the third quarter -- the closest the Mountaineers had come to the Tigers since early in the second quarter. West Virginia has been a team of fits and starts this season -- so perhaps this was it. Perhaps the Mountaineers were about to begin their roll.
Corey Smith kicked off. Morris Claiborne fielded the ball at the 1. Ahead of him, he saw blockers line up. Claiborne knew he had to redeem himself from what he called a terrible first half -- he got beat on a touchdown, got flagged for a personal foul. He was fighting a cold, too, his raspy voice a dead giveaway.
He took off, a few steps here a few steps there. Alluding one tackler here, another there. And then he was off. In the span of 16 seconds, the West Virginia crowd fell silent again. The Mountaineers players hung their heads. Claiborne returned the kick 99 yards, and LSU romped 47-21 on Saturday night. LSU ended the game with 21 unanswered points, an emphatic answer to yet another challenge thrown their way.
"We knew we had to do something," Claiborne said. "It just so happens we broke the kick."
The Tigers sit 4-0 today, having beaten three ranked teams on the road. They have withstood the strongest test of any team in the country, with a quarterback thrown into the starting job just before the season began. These Tigers are resilient, yes. But they are also unquestionably good, able to beat teams in a variety of ways. Whatever it takes to win.
"Our guys seem to answer the bell, enjoy a competitive environment." Miles said. "I feel comfortable going on the road and playing with this team. I think if we continue to improve, continue to do the things we're capable of, somewhere down the road, we'll stake a claim on something important."
West Virginia and its fans came ready to play. Miles described the raucous scene in Morgantown this way, "They were having a football party and invited us. I knew our guys would show up."
Play got chippy early on with a few personal fouls. LSU running back Spencer Ware said the West Virginia players were talking trash, and that served as extra motivation. But the gulf between the best team in the SEC and what many believed was the best team in the Big East was apparent almost from the outset.
The Mountaineers punted on their first drive, and LSU scored on its first drive, easily marching down the field. West Virginia has the type of offense that can serve it well in a shootout. But it does not have the type of team that can survive four turnovers. There is not a team out there that is likely to survive that.
LSU turned those mistakes into 21 points. West Virginia was forced to pass because it faced such big deficits throughout the game. Geno Smith threw a school record 65 times, completing 38 of his passes for 463 yards and two touchdowns. Tavon Austin made a huge impression on Miles, with 187 yards receiving on 11 catches. But the Mountaineers had 22 runs, an imbalance that cannot be ignored.
"There were a couple of times I thought we had momentum," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "We did some good things offensively and defensively, but you can't beat a good team by doing that. You can talk about 500 yards if you want to, but the only thing I'm going to talk about tomorrow is four turnovers. Three out of our four games we had zero turnovers."
Special teams were a killer, too. On Claiborne's kickoff return, Holgorsen said, "We just didn't block anybody, it's plain and simple. We didn't tackle."
In addition to that, LSU punter Brad Wing averaged 48.7 yards a punt and landed all six of his punts inside the West Virginia 10-yard line. West Virginia had 10 penalties for 73 yards, double what LSU had. When you make so many mistakes, you are going to have a hard time beating anybody, let alone the No. 2 team in the nation.
Speaking of that ranking, a case can be made for LSU to be No. 1 with the stretch of ranked teams it has beaten on the road. It was a popular post-game question, one that everybody deflected.
"I don't know. I can't say," LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee said. "We've beaten some good teams so I think we're up there. We've just got to keep working hard each and every week. We're up there for sure."
The goal is not to be No. 1. But to be No. 1 at the end of the season. Miles loves the road identity of this team, and he knows it will only serve it well as the heart of SEC play approaches. The Tigers have answered all their tests for now. But there will be plenty more down the road.
"I like the position we're in," Miles said. "I don't think we're the best team in the country. There's that hope and that want and desire for this team."