BATON ROUGE, La. -- When LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger went onto the field for pregame warmups, two South Carolina players greeted him with some trash talk.
"We're coming for you, eight," a Gamecocks defensive back yapped, referring to Mettenberger's jersey number.
Then South Carolina's all-world defensive end Jadeveon Clowney added some foreboding words of his own: "You ain't going to finish the game."
Mettenberger did finish the game as the Tigers outslugged South Carolina, 23-21. LSU did what LSU does best: survive, baffle, endure and inspire as much confusion as confidence.
But by escaping this grueling SEC slugfest with a win, LSU did more than simply rebound from last week's loss against Florida. It re-inserted itself into the national-title race, and, once again, made its meeting with Alabama in Baton Rouge Nov. 3 the most tantalizing date on the college football calendar. 'Bama has yet to be punched in the mouth, and LSU's defensive front showed Saturday that they'd be happy to take the first swing.
As for Mettenberger, his pedestrian performance won't silence his quarry of critics. But he did get the last word on Clowney and the boys. "They definitely had a few choice words to say to me," he said in a quiet moment outside the LSU locker room, stressing that he relayed the PG-rated version of Clowney's quotes. "My guess is that they're looking dumb with the loss."
The defining play of the Tigers victory came with just more than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, when freshman tailback Jeremy Hill -- who emerged from the moth balls and into stardom Saturday night -- ran 50 yards for an LSU score. But it wasn't just the nifty touchdown that left an impression; it was how easily Hill seemed to run through a winded South Carolina defense. Mettenberger relished how LSU dominated the Gamecocks' front, especially the man who had threatened him before the game.
"If you watch the film, you can tell Clowney was gassed at times," Mettenberger said.
LSU won't be mounting a Heisman campaign for Mettenberger after his 12-of-25 performance. And after tossing one horrific interception and zero touchdown passes, he was aware of how his effort would likely be received. "Media and fans are going to blast me," he said, "but I executed a lot of big third downs to keep the chains moving and got the win and that's the most important thing."
Still, Mettenberger avoiding melting down like his counterpart, South Carolina's Connor Shaw. Shaw threw a ghastly interception late in the third quarter that led to LSU taking the lead for good.
In fact, Spurrier said after the game that he consistently asked quarterbacks coach G.A. Magnus, "Did [Shaw] get hit in the head somewhere?" Spurrier went on to explain, "some of his decision making was a little off."
The key to the game, however, was LSU's work in the trenches. The Tigers' defensive line smothered All-America tailback Marcus Lattimore, who gained just 35 yards on 13 carries. Clowney and his defensive mates entered the game with a combined 22 sacks, and they managed just one against a makeshift LSU offensive line.
"Our offense put it down their throat," LSU linebacker Kevin Minter said.
LSU offensive lineman Josh Dworaczyk did a commendable job blocking Clowney, and Clowney's outside Heisman chances likely died as he flailed at Hill on his touchdown run. Meanwhile, the veteran Dworaczyk rumbled down the field to meet Hill in the end zone.
"Who can be the first one to celebrate?" he said. "I was running as hard as I could. I think my knee brace was falling off. It was a
The late, great Beano Cook perhaps best summed up the aura of a night game in Baton Rouge best: "Dracula and LSU football are at their best after the sun goes down."
LSU coach Les Miles couldn't have agreed more. After the game, he said that this was the first time LSU played to its potential all year. He credited the environment, which was rabid in its quieter moments and unhinged in its best.
"That was Death Valley," Miles said in his typical elongated enunciation. "That was the place where opponents dreams come to die. It started early and went late and was with us the whole night."
But this wouldn't be a Miles-led LSU team if a victory wasn't accompanied by a bevy of baffling moments. The Tigers' passing game still looks prehistoric. Miles burned two second-half timeouts as if they were kindling. And the pleasant emergence of tailback Jeremy Hill came with a question: Why had he collected only two SEC carries entering the game if he was capable of running for 124 yards and two touchdowns against an elite defense?
Perhaps the most puzzling question related to the decline of Brad Wing, who has gone from the country's biggest special teams weapon to a liability. In four punts, he failed to pin South Carolina inside its 20-yard line. A cult hero in 2011, Wing looks like another ordinary punter this season.
Next week, LSU travels next to Texas A&M for a classic clash of styles. And given the Tigers' inconsistency to date -- and the Aggies' offensive firepower -- nothing is guaranteed. But the main takeaway is this: LSU still has enough haymakers to make Alabama uncomfortable in its perceived joyride to the SEC title.
"Anyone is curious how they'll respond," LSU kicker Drew Alleman said of the untested Crimson Tide. "They're going to be getting in the meat of their season in the SEC. You never know in the SEC."
The Tigers finally have some momentum, some offensive hope and a bit of long-overdue confidence. So take a cue from Clowney: Don't provoke LSU as it attempts to defend its SEC title.