- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- As the Golden Band from Tigerland struck up LSU’s alma mater following the Tigers' dramatic 23-21 win over South Carolina, quarterback Zach Mettenberger and offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa couldn’t find enough people to hug.
With ear-to-ear grins, rosy cheeks and victory sweat running down their faces, the two stood a few yards from the mob of players raising their fists and helmets to the sky with each note that blared from above, and savored the moment, as gorilla-sized weights slid off their backs.
A week after their inept offense helped produce LSU’s first loss of the season, all seemed forgotten.
“Really, that’s what we should have been doing all year,” said Mettenberger, who finished Saturday night with 148 yards on 12-of-25 passing. “We knew we could do it.”
The Tigers didn’t do it with much style, but a week after being pushed around by Florida, LSU was the more physical team and grinded like the Tigers did in 2011.
The game plan that buried LSU in the Swamp benefited the Tigers on Saturday, as they wore out South Carolina’s defense by running 78 plays -- 28 more than last week -- which amounted to 406 yards. LSU pounded South Carolina’s vaunted defensive front with 258 rushing yards, with three running backs running up double-digit carry totals.
In a game in which the Tigers’ backs were firmly against the wall and any chance of winning the SEC West -- let alone winning the entire league -- would have been dashed with a loss, LSU stood tall with the kind of rugged offense and smothering defense that pushed it to 13 wins last season.
“Out team understands these type games,” coach Les Miles said.
“When we play like that, we are pretty good.”
LSU still has issues when it comes to consistently throwing the ball downfield, but it’s going to be tough to beat these Tigers when they run like that. The running game finally put this game into manageable third downs, as the Tigers converted seven of their first 10 third downs and finished the game 11-of-19 on third down.
Last week, the Tigers converted one of 13 third downs.
“The defense played great, and the offense got better,” Miles said.
And this was a total team effort. On Friday, there was a players-only meeting called. Feelings were aired out, and players left re-energized and focused, wide receiver Jarvis Landry said. It motivated a team in what was essentially a must-win situation.
“It really touched the hearts of the men that were in the room and it showed today,” Landry said.
“It was something that was overdue.”
Players said it was a chance for this group to come together more as a unit, and it showed most in how the offensive line played. Three underclassmen -- La'el Collins, Trai Turner and Vadal Alexander -- started, and left tackle Alex Hurst wasn’t even in the building as he deals with personal issues. Against one of the league’s best fronts, the makeshift line overpowered the Gamecocks.
It also showed in running back Jeremy Hill, the talented freshman who has seen limited action. With the Tiger Stadium lights beaming down and his team’s season in the balance, Hill served up the play of the day with his 50-yard touchdown run that gave LSU its late 23-21 lead in the fourth quarter. He nearly finished off the Gamecocks with that run, and finished the day with 124 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries.
“We kind of wore those guys down,” Hill said. “As the game went on, they got tired, so we just kept running downhill, hitting them hard, and eventually we were going to break one. That’s kind of what I did.”
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney seemed to agree.
“Some guys came out to play, but some guys didn’t,” he said. “It may have been because of injuries. It may be because they were scared.”
On Saturday, LSU’s offense delivered the blows, and the defense cleaned up the rest.
“They were just demolishing South Carolina’s defense,” linebacker Kevin Minter said. “You can’t help but feed off of something like that.”
And that’s the way LSU has to play from here on out. The passing game is what it is, but the offensive line’s grit and the running game’s power will propel this team to its goals because it knows the defense will always have its back.
This was the game LSU needed, and it’s the type of game the Tigers intend to keep having.
“We gotta win out. That’s the big thing that we all know,” Landry said. “Every game for us is a national championship to us. It’s that type of mentality that we’re going to take every Saturday from here on out.”