LSU true freshman quarterback TJ Finley remembered the jabs he took at the expense of his teammates.
That was more than 10 months ago when the 6-foot-6, Finley arrived at LSU as an early enrollee out of Ponchatoula High School weighing 265 pounds.
“It was an embarrassing number. I was huge,” Finley said. “A lot of the guys messed with me and said I would move to D-tackle. I kind of took that to heart.”
Finley, who has trimmed down more than 20 pounds, also took his first collegiate start with the same amount of will and dedication, accounting for 289 yards total offense and three touchdowns to spark LSU to a convincing 52-24 victory Saturday over South Carolina before a Tiger Stadium crowd of 21,855.
Finley led an offense that scored on six of its eight drives with him taking his first collegiate snaps in place of injured starter Myles Brennan.
Finley completed 17 of 21 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns. He suffered one interception but hustled on the play with a touchdown-saving tackle and wound up limiting the Gamecocks to three points.
He was just the third true freshman, a group that includes current LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger in 1972, to get the start in his college debut.
“TJ showed a lot of confidence throughout camp,” LSU head football coach Ed Orgeron said. “He lost some weight. I thought he did a tremendous job of leading the team. He has a tremendous arm. He can scramble and made some plays on the run. He made some good decisions. He made the interception, but we were going to be patient. I thought he did a phenomenal job.”
LSU (2-2 overall, 2-2 SEC West) built a 31-10 halftime lead and relied more on its running game in the second half led by sophomores Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr.
Davis-Price topped the Tigers with 22 carries for 135 yards and a touchdown with Emery adding 18 attempts for 88 yards and a touchdown.
LSU ran 75 plays for 541 total yards, including rushing the ball 53 times for 277 yards, and controlling the clock for 37 minutes, 34 seconds.
The Tigers also never punted.
“We had to get that nasty gut feeling out of us,” said Emery, referring the team’s 45-41 loss to Missouri three Saturdays ago. “We really needed this win. For South Carolina to beat Auburn (30-22) and us to beat South Carolina is a huge boost going into Auburn week. It was an important week and we stayed focus throughout practice. I had no doubt going into this game that we were going to win.”
Finley couldn’t have delivered a more complete performance in place of Brennan who suffered a torn abdomen at Missouri. He directed the Tigers to lengthy scoring drives in his first three series that provided the home team with a 17-7 lead at the 11:14 mark of the second quarter.
“He was on fire,” Orgeron said. “I was planning on playing TJ the first quarter and playing Max (Johnson) the second quarter if I could and see who the best one was and stay in the game. TJ got hot.”
LSU’s scoring sources weren’t limited to just its offense.
Freshman cornerback Eli Ricks registered his first career pick-6, getting inside position on USC receiver Jalen Brooks and returning Hill’s pass attempt for a 45-yard touchdown that extended LSU’s lead to 31-10.
USC (2-3, 2-3 SEC East) reduced that margin to 14 points on the strength of a 9-play, 74-yard drive that Kevin Harris finished with a 1-yard score on third-and-goal.
However, sophomore Trey Palmer, who had returned a punt for a score last season, added a kickoff return for a score to his resume’ that helped LSU re-establish its momentum and ignited a stretch of 21 unanswered points and 52-17 cushion.
After initially muffing the kickoff, Palmer picked the ball up off the turf at the 7-yard line, broke out of a tackle at his own 40, cut back across the field and sped down USC’s sideline en route to the 93-yard scoring play and 38-17 lead. He became the first LSU player to return a kickoff for a touchdown in Tiger Stadium since Eric Martin did it against Kentucky Oct. 17, 1981.
“This is a total team effort,” Orgeron said. “I’ve got to thank the coaching staff. They worked tireless hours to get our guys ready. Were we perfect, no? We’ve got a lot of things to shore up on defense, especially in our coverage. Guys running wide open and we still need to fix it. I thought our pass rush was outstanding led by B.J. Ojulari with three sacks.”
Finley helped LSU’s offense set the tone from its opening drive, engineering a 16-play, 75-yard drive that consumed more than seven minutes for a 7-0 lead. He accounted for seven plays and 27 yards on the drive with a 1-yard TD sneak.
After USC tied the game at 7-7 on Harris’ 45-yard scoring burst, Finley led LSU on a 10-play scoring drive with Cade York kicking a 27-yard field goal which proved to be the Tigers’ go-ahead score.
LSU added scoring drives of 10 and 9 plays, enjoying a season’s best performance with 8-of-10 third-down conversions, to establish a 15-minute advantage over USC in time of possession.
The first of Finley’s two touchdowns to Terrace Marshall Jr. – a 7-yard corner route – made it 17-7 when USC got as close as 17-10 on a field goal (17-10) that came after Finley’s interception.
The Tigers gained control with consecutive touchdowns over a one-minute span with Finley connecting in the middle of the field with Marshall, who turned an intermediate gain into a 51-yard scoring run which was followed a minute later by Ricks’ interception return with 2:43 to go before halftime for a 21-point advantage.
“This is a big win for LSU, for this team,” said Finley, who wasn’t sacked vs. USC. “Now, I’m focused on Auburn.”