The James Gang: A Tale of Two Halves
By David Steinle
Contrary to a popular rumor that was circulating around Tiger Stadium during the first half on Saturday night, the LSU defense was present from the start of its Southeastern Conference game against South Carolina.
There in body, but in spirit, there must have been a demon or wicked spirit possessing the 11 young men wearing the white jerseys and gold helmets that were on the Death Valley floor. After all, October is the month for ghosts and monsters to rise from the dead, and combine that with the sometimes-spooky atmosphere created by a night game in Tiger Stadium, there are bound to be cases where truth is stranger than fiction.
LSU came into battle against the Gamecocks as the nation’s leader in total defense, allowing a miserly 207.8 yards per contest, a stunning 46.3 yards fewer than their closest pursuer, Texas, who held the distinction of defensive bridesmaid despite giving up nearly 300 yards rushing to Oklahoma’s Quentin Griffin in the Red River War last week.
With 4:56 remaining in the first half, South Carolina, whose offense will never be mistaken for Florida’s “Fun-and-Gun” in the Steve Spurrier era, or for that matter LSU’s high-flying combination of Davey-to-Reed, had already rolled up 212 total yards, including 139 on the ground against LSU’s third-ranked rushing defense, a unit that allowed 206 yards in the past four weeks combined.
In fact, the Gamecocks’ total in that span was the second highest allowed by LSU in an entire game this season, second only to Virginia Tech’s 166 chewed up by the Lee Suggs-Kevin Jones combination in the opener.
That was the bad news. The good news was that South Carolina had just two touchdowns and a 14-3 lead to show for it. The Gamecocks’ offense was running hot and cold, as quarterback Corey Jenkins led touchdown marches of 80 and 96 yards in the first half, but the other Carolina drives were rather pedestrian, going four and five plays, respectively, before ending in punts each time.
With LSU capturing some momentum before the half by driving to a field goal, combined with halftime adjustments made by coach Nick Saban and the Tiger defensive coaching staff, things figured to get better when the teams emerged from the locker room, but few could have dreamed the dominance exhibited by the Chinese Bandits in the third quarter.
LSU gave up a total of one yard on nine plays in the third quarter, forcing a trio of three-and-outs by the Gamecocks and leaving Lou Holtz ready to get on the bus for the ride to Metro Airport and the charter flight back to Columbia.
In the final 30 minutes, LSU gave up a total of 63 yards and three first downs, and the Gamecocks’ initial first down of the half didn’t come until 92 seconds remained, the longest stretch LSU has gone in a half without giving up a first down since it didn’t allow Bear Bryant’s last Alabama team in 1982 to move the chains the entire first half in the Tigers’ 20-10 watershed win in Birmingham.
LSU’s string of holding opponents to under 250 yards ended as the Gamecocks rolled up 275, but surely Saban and the Tigers aren’t going to complain about this effort against a quality SEC opponent, and when the numbers are crunched by the NCAA in Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon, the Tigers will still be king of the hill in total defense.
LSU will also hold the passing defense crown, as Carolina mustered only 127 yards through the air, only 3.5 yards over the Tigers’ pre-game average.
If LSU’s defense needed another boost, it got one before taking the field for the first time in the second half when quarterback Marcus Randall engineered a 10-play, 58-yard drive that tied the game at 14-14 five minutes into the period.
The Tiger defense then took the field and proceeded to dismantle the Gamecocks’ offense piece-by-piece. The Gamecocks’ first offensive possession of the second half lasted all of one play, as Carolina quarterback Corey Jenkins got greedy by going deep over the middle, only to have Demetrius Hookfin intercept the ball at the LSU 20.
The interception by Hookfin led to a 37-yard field goal by John Corbello that put the Tigers in front for the first time on the evening at 17-14.
The crowd of 91,340 could sense the momentum change was permanent, and they lent deafening vocal support to the Bandits, as the Tigers then held Carolina to a three-and-out on the Gamecocks’ next possession, as Melvin Oliver sacked Jenkins to end the drive and turn the volume up even louder.
LSU took over in Carolina territory and put the game away when Shyrone Carey rushed for a 13-yard touchdown, his first in an LSU uniform, but the Tiger fans were barely settled down before Hookfin sent them into ecstasy again.
Reading Jenkins’ intentions for a short slant pass to Ryan Brewer, the senior cornerback from Kentwood stepped up, stole the pass and sauntered 10 yards to the touchdown that capped an incredible 25-point surge in the third quarter and assured LSU of its first 3-0 start in SEC play since 1987.
The Gamecocks’ misery lasted four more plays in the third quarter, as backup quarterback Dondrial Pinkins threw three incompletions after Hookfin’s score, and Andrew Pinnock picked up two yards on the final play of the period, as LSU outrushed the Gamecocks 164-9 in the second half.