LSU coach Ed Orgeron called his shot Thursday after practice.
“I think we’re going to play lights out,” Orgeron said. “I really think we’re going to play our best game.”
His team made its coach true to his word.
In a total team win – LSU scored five different ways including the first TD kickoff return in Tiger Stadium since 1981 – the Tigers blasted South Carolina 52-24 on a windy Saturday night.
A socially distanced crowd of 21,855 watched LSU’s running game churn for 276 yards and mesh nicely with true freshman quarterback TJ Finley’s 265 yards passing in his starting debut replacing the injured Myles Brennan.
Though LSU’s defense gave up three plays of 36 yards or more and let South Carolina receivers run free on a couple of occasions where Gamecocks’ quarterback Colin Hill overthrew them, the Tigers (2-2 overall and in the SEC West) got enough consecutive stops to make a difference.
They forced South Carolina placekicker Parker White to attempt four goals and he only made one.
“This was a great overall team effort,” Orgeron said. “TJ did a tremendous job of leading the team. He made good decisions. He was the TJ we saw in camp. (Offensive coordinator) Steve (Ensminger) gave him a good plan. The thing I was most impressed with was he wasn’t nervous. TJ got hot. He was on fire.”
LSU’s defense contributed a TD on true freshman cornerback Eli Ricks’ 45-yard interception return late in the second quarter. Special teams added a 27-yard Cade York first-quarter field goal and Trey Palmer’s spectacular 93-yard TD kickoff return in the third quarter.
Finley completed 17 of 21 passes, including two second quarter TDs to Terrace Marshall Jr. covering 7 and 51 yards. A miscommunication with wide receiver Jaray Jenkins resulted in Finley’s only interception of the night and he made the tackle on the play.
“I entered this game really relaxed,” Finley said. “Coach Steve Ensminger was amazing preparing me for this game. As a group (the quarterbacks) we supported each other.”
Marshall caught six passes for 88 yards, leading six Tigers who made receptions.
Running backs Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr. and shouldered the running load, rushing for 135 yards and 88 yards respectively and each scoring a TD.
LSU’s offensive line played superbly. They didn’t allow a sack and gave the 6-6, 245-pound Finley time to stand tall in the pocket while his receivers worked free.
“Our O-line stepped up big time this game,” Emory said. “We really needed this win.”
After LSU drove 75 yards for a TD on its first possession of the game with Finley scoring on a 1-yard QB sneak, South Carolina answered just 54 seconds later on running back Kevin Harris 45-yard TD jaunt.
Visions of LSU’s out-of-position defense that embarrassed the Tigers in their 45-41 loss at Missouri two weeks ago could have started creeping in.
But South Carolina scored just a field goal in its final five possessions of the first half while LSU scored three TDs and a field goal in its last five possessions for a 31-10 halftime.
It appeared the Gamecocks were on the verge of re-gaining momentum when they cut LSU’s lead to 31-17 on their opening possession of the second half on a Kevin Harris 1-yard TD run.
But Palmer stopped the visitors dead in their tracks on the ensuing kickoff, which he muffed and scrambled to pick up at the South Carolina 7.
The USC coverage team was almost on top of Palmer, who dodged and darted through a small line on the right side next to the LSU sideline. He eventually found a cutback lane at the LSU 40, cut to the far sideline and outraced three Gamecocks to the end zone.
The TD for a 38-17 lead started a run of 21 straight points that put away the sorely needed victory for the Tigers as they head to Auburn next Saturday for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff.