ARLINGTON, Texas -- As he walked off the postgame podium, Les Miles spotted Missy Cameron at the back of the room.
“Way to go Mrs. Cameron,” Miles hollered across the room to the wife of his offensive coordinator before flashing the thumbs up.
Forgive Miles his excitement. The LSU coach has won many different ways during his tenure in Baton Rouge. Crazy trick plays. Unconventional clock management. Powerful running games. And, above all, tough defense.
But Miles is not accustomed to winning the way his Tigers did in its opener at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas -- through the air on the arm of a cool, collected quarterback, which is precisely how LSU defeated TCU 37-27 Saturday night.
Miles was pumped afterward, but hardly surprised. After all, this is what he envisioned when he brought in his longtime buddy Cam Cameron to call plays and tutor Zach Mettenberger, who unleashed perhaps his finest performance as the Tigers’ quarterback.
“Exactly right,” Miles said.
“And I think that Zach will have nights like that pretty routinely from this point forward.”
If so, LSU could be one compelling team to watch this season. And, just maybe, a dark horse contender in the SEC and beyond.
“Tonight we wanted to come out and send a message that LSU is still here,” said Alfred Blue, who along with Terrence Magee showed that the Tigers have running backs other than suspended teammate Jeremy Hill. “And that we’re a dominant football team.”
Dominating Big 12 defenses has hardly been any way for an offense to send a message to anyone. But TCU coach Gary Patterson has been fielding top-notch defenses for more than a decade, and the Frogs appeared formidable again on that side of the ball, with or without All-American defensive end Devonte Fields, who like Hill sat out the game with a suspension.
Patterson had his defense selling out to stop LSU’s run, which in the past would force Miles to turn the game into a slugfest in the trenches.
Miles didn’t have to resort to that Saturday.
“TCU does a great job stopping the run because they commit so many people to the run,” Miles said. “They’ll walk safeties down and place people indiscriminately and back out and again -- it’s a very good concept.
“So the plan was to see if they can cover the pass, and certainly we did move the ball through the air very well.”
Mettenberger looked at ease in Cameron’s scheme, completing 16 of 32 passes for 251 yards. With TCU crowding the box, the Tigers took shots downfield early and often, contributing to the low completion percentage. Mettenberger completed seven passes of 14 yards or longer, including a 44-yard strike to Beckham that set up the Tigers’ first touchdown.
“Cam opening up this system,” Beckham said. “I’m just excited to see it.”
When LSU needed a completion, Mettenberger stood in the pocket and delivered there, too. As a result, the Tigers converted 13-of-19 third-down attempts to effectively wear out the Horned Frogs’ defense in the second half.
“Those were the major differences,” Miles said. “We’re throwing the ball for bigger plays. We’re being able to convert on third downs. I think that’s one of the real successes of the offense at this point.”
The biggest success of Cameron’s offense seemed to manifest itself in Mettenberger’s game. In 2012, Mettenberger had the second-worst quarterback rating in the red zone in the country, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The Tigers continued to struggle in the red zone early Saturday, settling for three short field goals when they could have jumped to a big lead. But when the game was on the line, Mettenberger had the chops and the precision to put it away. Facing third-and-5 with just over six minutes left, Mettenberger tossed a first-down strike to Jarvis Landry, who shed his defender and dashed 20 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.
“Coach Cameron has done a great job with the offense,” Mettenberger said, “and he has a game plan to make sure that we get our playmakers the ball.”
Mettenberger got the ball to Beckham and Landry, and he avoiding committing turnovers. He also took only two sacks, and calmly threw the ball away when he needed to.
“I feel like it’s a weight off his shoulders,” Beckham said. “He’s more like himself right now and he’s comfortable. He knows he’s going to make some amazing plays.”
“Zach’s come a long way,” Blue said. “He’s developing into a great quarterback, a great leader on this offense.
“It’s why I think we’re going to have a great year.”