ARLINGTON, Texas -- It's been an unusual offseason for LSU. As the pundits debated all the most popular BCS championship candidates for 2013, they'd mention Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, Texas A&M or Stanford, but rarely would they mention the Tigers. Of course, that wasn't the case inside the LSU locker room.
"Our dream is California," said Tigers defensive tackle Ego Ferguson, referencing the site of this year's national title game (Pasadena). "If you're not playing for California, why play the game?"
Ferguson is one of several first-time LSU starters whose names to this point have remained unfamiliar outside the state of Louisiana, but it's a good bet by season's end that he, Jermauria Rasco, Danielle Hunter, Terrence Magee and a host of others will roll off the tongues of All-SEC selectors and/or NFL talent evaluators. Say hello to Les Miles' 2013 LSU squad, which, in dispatching No. 20 TCU here Saturday night, 37-27, bore a strong resemblance to ... pretty much every other Miles-coached LSU team that's come before it. Considering he had to replace 10 NFL early entrants and eight drafted defensive players from a year ago, this squad can take it as a compliment.
The Tigers physically dominated the Horned Frogs for much of the night, outgaining them 448 to 259 yards and forcing TCU coach Gary Patterson to change quarterbacks midstream. But it would also be unbefitting of a Miles-coached team for LSU to make things easy on themselves, which is why, thanks to a flurry of self-inflicted wounds, the Tigers led by just a field goal midway through the fourth quarter. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger looked poised and crisp early on and threw a decisive 20-yard touchdown late, yet still completed just 50 percent of his passes. The Tigers' defense mostly dominated but also committed costly penalties that helped keep their foe in the game.
"It was a sloppy opener at times for us," said Miles. "Things we could do to improve would have made a very significant difference in this game. All in all, you put up 448 yards on them ... you keep on."
The truth is, LSU should have blown the Horned Frogs out of the building. They were physically superior in almost every area. However, immediately upon scoring their first touchdown, TCU's B.J. Catalon returned the ensuing kickoff for a score. After a 52-yard touchdown run by previously unsung tailback Magee gave LSU its first double-digit lead at 23-10, a roughing the passer penalty by Ferguson on third down kept alive an eventual Horned Frogs touchdown drive. Later, back up by 30-17, tailback Alfred Blue would fumble at his own 6-yard line, setting up TCU for an easy touchdown.
And then there was the classically Miles-esque sequence just before halftime when the Tigers managed to turn third and goal from the 2 into third and goal from the 12 thanks to consecutive delay of game and false start penalties -- coming off a timeout. Following an even stranger sequence in which TCU at one point ran off the field when officials mistakenly declared halftime, the Tigers kicked a field goal to go up 16-10.
But these things happen in season openers. They happened plenty the last time LSU played in the Cowboys Classic, two years ago against Oregon -- though those miscues came primarily by the Ducks. In that highly anticipated 2011 season opener, a stout LSU defense shut down the Ducks' high-flying offense, but a pair of fumbles by De'Anthony Thomas helped the Tigers pull away.
TCU is not Oregon -- the Frogs were just 7-6 last season, though most expect they'll fare better this year in the Big 12 -- but that doesn't mean this opener wasn't encouraging. In fact, the biggest difference from 2011 to 2013 is that the Tigers won't need to rely solely on their defense. At long last, they have a legitimate passing game to go with a deep stable of tailbacks.
In Cam Cameron's first game as LSU offensive coordinator, the strong-armed Mettenberger came out slinging. "TCU does a great job stopping the run," said Miles. "... So the plan was, let's see if they can cover the pass, and we certainly did move the ball through the air very well."
Mettenbeger attempted nearly as many passes in the first half (22) as he averaged per full game last season (27). That he only completed 10 of them was due in part to some fine defense by TCU cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Kevin White, who combined for seven pass break-ups, but also drops by his receivers. At one point, top receiver Odell Beckham Jr. got behind the entire TCU defense. Mettenberger put a perfectly placed ball deep downfield but Beckham couldn't haul it in.
There were a couple questionable throws by the senior quarterback, who finished 16-of-32 for 251 yards, but he had no turnovers and was mostly on the money. He had consecutive completions of 26 and 44 yards on the Tigers' first touchdown drive. And when TCU got within 30-27 with 7:35 left, Mettenberger hit Jarvis Landry on a slant that the receiver turned into a back-breaking 20-yard score.
"It's what people have been saying about Zach forever," Landry said of Mettenberger's renowned arm strength. "He's got all the arm in the world. This year he's putting his mind with his arm."
Cameron, the former college and NFL head coach and longtime quarterback mentor, will get no shortage of credit if the previously inconsistent QB puts together a strong season. Miles commended his new coordinator Saturday night. Asked if this was the type of performance he envisioned from Mettenberger upon making the hire, Miles replied: "Yes, that's exactly right. I think that Zach will have nights like that pretty routinely from this point forward."
Whether their victory over a Big 12 foe is a sign that the Tigers will again contend in the SEC will likely depend on the continued development of Ferguson and all those other first-time starters -- and cutting down on all those mistakes.
"I feel like we could be better," said center Elliott Porter. "We need fewer mistakes, fewer penalties. We could play a little faster. But we did play pretty good. We're only going up from here."
They think they're going all the way to California.