The second-half dominance No. 20 LSU displayed in its 41-7 victory Saturday over Vanderbilt was something senior safety JaCoby Stevens would rather become the norm than the exception.
It’s a standard of performance Stevens is already accustomed to as a member of last season’s national championship team, but hopes gained some traction during the Tigers’ 20-0 showing in the second half of their first Southeastern Conference road game in Nashville.
“When we come back and get a W like we did, not only was it (not) a close game, but we dominated on both sides of the ball,” said Stevens, who had a team-high 11 tackles. “That’s something this team needs to get used to and go back and look at how we practiced throughout the week and keep doing that. Be consistent and keep building on it.”
LSU (1-1, 1-1 in SEC West) was looking to make amends for a season-opening 44-34 home loss to Mississippi State. The Tigers, playing without All-American cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., yielded 623 yards passing and five touchdowns in a stunning defeat to open a season delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
With Stingley back in the lineup, the Baton Rouge native not only didn’t allow a catch but amassed 92 yards on punt returns that LSU’s offense turned into 10 points.
“Derek makes a huge difference,” Stevens said. “I keep saying he’s the best corner in the nation. Guys think twice about throwing the ball his way and that hesitation gives our front four time to get there. Our front four played lights out.”
Junior quarterback Myles Brennan completed 23 of 37 passes for 337 yards with a career-high four touchdowns and one interception. He completed passes to 11 different receivers with Terrace Marshall Jr. and Jontre’ Kirklin each hauling in two touchdowns.
“We went out and we performed the way that we know how to perform,” said Brennan, who wasn’t sacked. “It wasn’t perfect by any means, but I definitely saw improvement.”
LSU outgained Vanderbilt (0-2, 0-2 SEC East) 498-266, answering head coach Ed Orgeron’s call for improvement in the running game.
With starting running back Chris Curry out with an injury, sophomore John Emery Jr. enjoyed a career-best outing. He had 103 yards and a touchdown in 12 carries to spark a running game which garnered 161 yards on 32 carries.
“All week, guys wanted to get better,” Orgeron said. “There were a lot less mistakes in this football game than the first.”
LSU kept its foot on the accelerator in the third quarter and scored on three straight possessions to take a commanding 34-7 lead with 46 seconds left. The Tigers capped that stretch with a gadget play on first down when Tyrion Davis-Price took a handoff and pitched back to Brennan for a 29-yard touchdown pass on a flea-flicker to Kirklin who got his feet in bounds near the end line.
Placekicker Cade York extended LSU’s lead to 27-7 with consecutive field goals of 53 (a career high) and 31 yards, respectively, the second of which was set up by Stingley’s 49-yard punt return to Vandy’s 20-yard line.
Brennan’s fourth touchdown needed a key 22-yard completion to Racey McMath on third-and-10 to maintain possession. Davis-Price kept twice for 12 yards when he took a straight-ahead handoff, turned and underhanded a pass back to Brennan who found Kirklin in stride for the senior receiver’s first career multiple touchdown game.
Emery put the finishing touches on his career-best night, converting Todd Harris’ interception into a 12-yard TD run around the outside which capped LSU’s scoring with 8:11 remaining in the game.
The Tigers, who outgained the Commodores 240-63 in the second half, scored the last 27 points of the game.
LSU’s defense, which registered eight tackles for loss and three sacks, limited Vandy quarterback Ken Seals to 11 of 25 passing for 113 yards and a touchdown. The Tigers also had a pair of interceptions from Harris and Elias Ricks.
“I thought they (LSU) played solid all the way around,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “They were prepared. Those coaches had that team ready to play.”
Vanderbilt threatened to steal some momentum right before halftime with LSU holding a 21-7 lead. Commodores’ freshman Donovan Kaufman, a Archbishop Rummel graduate, returned a kickoff 58 yards to the Tigers’ 42-yard line, but came up empty when Pierson Cooke pushed a 22-yard field goal attempt wide to the left with 16 seconds left before halftime.
LSU jumped out to a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, scoring on its first possession of the game with the additional score coming on the fourth play of the second period.
Brennan found Kirklin (3 receptions for 65 yards, 2 TDs) for the first of their two touchdown connections on a 28-yard tunnel screen. Key blocks from offensive linemen Cam Wire, who made his first career start, and Ed Ingram cleared the path for a TD and a 7-0 lead.
Stingley made his presence felt on special teams, returning a punt return for 27 yards into Vanderbilt territory at the 38-yard line and Brennan found Marshall in front of a pair of defensive backs for a 16-yard TD score at the 12:28 mark.
Brennan suffered his only mistake of the game with LSU threatening to distance itself from Vanderbilt early in the second quarter. His pass attempt was behind McMath and went into the hands of opposing cornerback Randall Haynie at the Commodores’ 42-yard line.
It led to a 8-yard TD pass from Seals to tight end Bresnahan, reducing LSU’s lead to 14-7 with 5:07 left before halftime.
LSU immediately answered with a swift 3-play, 75-yard drive which Brennan capped with a 51-yard TD pass to Marshall, who got by two defenders on the catch at the 25-yard line and outraced another for a two-touchdown lead with 4:12 remaining before halftime.
“We took it a day at a time, and we improved on something every single day,” Brennan said. “And that’s what’s important for this team. Like Coach O says, we’re an ascendant football team. We’re going to get better every single day and every single week.”