Hilliard leads No. 3 LSU over North Texas, 41-14
Originally published September 1, 2012 at 9:39 p.m., updated September 1, 2012 at 10:31 p.m.
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue rewarded Les Miles' decision to designate them as LSU's top two running backs in the season opener, and they more than compensated for any shortcomings associated with Zach Mettenberger's first start.
Hilliard rushed for 141 yards and two touchdowns, and No. 3 LSU opened its season with a 41-14 victory over North Texas on Saturday night.
While the heavily favored Tigers were never threatened, their performance did not always thrill a Death Valley crowd that eagerly awaited evidence that LSU's passing game would be much improved with Mettenberger under center.
Mettenberger, who was briefly sidelined by a vicious sack, was 19 of 26 for 192 yards, an interception and a touchdown. But LSU didn't really need to throw in a game decided by its overwhelming defense and a running game that accounted for 316 yards, including 123 by Blue.
Derek Thompson completed only 8 of 21 passes, but two passes were scoring strikes of 80 and 15 yards to Brelan Chancellor.
Odell Beckham Jr., taking over punt return duties after 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed on Aug. 10, ran one back 70 yards for a score. He nearly had two returns for scores, but his 76-yard runback was negated by Jarvis Landry's illegal block.
Landry made up for it with eight catches for 82 yards, including two diving receptions, one of which he hauled in with one hand.
Blue and Hilliard were elevated on the depth chart after Miles said they had a better August camp than last seasons' top two rushers, Michael Ford and Spencer Ware.
Ware, slowed by a thigh injury, did not play. Ford rushed eight times for 50 yards as LSU finished with more than 500 yards of offense.
North Texas gained 219 total yards, with 76 on the ground.
The game was played only four days after south Louisiana was struck by tropical weather from Isaac, which was briefly strong enough Wednesday to be classified as a hurricane. LSU had to alter its practice schedule and it was not certain whether the game would be played until late Thursday afternoon, after Tiger Stadium had been inspected and authorities deemed the community fit to host a game drawing more than 90,000 fans.
Some signs of the storm still lingered, including waters stains on interior walls of the stadium and a malfunctioning video board about the south end zone, where a large banner commemorating LSU's three national championships was torn up.
With LSU a six-touchdown favorite, most of the hype surrounding the opener involved Mettenberger, whose passing ability had drawn high praise from coaches since August camp began.
The Tiger Stadium crowd roared when Mettenberger was announced in the starting lineup, but they were gasping late in the first quarter when blitzing cornerback Hilbert Jackson put Mettenberger flat on his back and appeared to give the quarterback whiplash.
Mettenberger left the game for a series while backup Stephen Rivers, brother of NFL QB Philip Rivers, led LSU on a five-play scoring drive that ended with Hilliard's second TD.
Mettenberger returned a series later, but hardly seemed sharp when he tried to fit a pass into a tight spot along the North Texas goal line and was intercepted by a diving Zac Whitfield. The play spoiled a scoring chance set up by Hilliard's 60-yard run.
North Texas never truly threatened, but Chancellor's 80-yard score on a crossing route, which made it 24-7, was the longest TD given up by LSU's defense in more than a season. The completion gave Thompson 106 yards passing in the first half, compared to Mettenberger's 97.
Mettenberger's touchdown toss came early in the fourth quarter, when he rifled a throw over the middle to Kadron Boone. The junior receiver caught it in stride and ran away from the pursuit for the 34-yard score.
LSU took and early and ultimately insurmountable lead on the strength of its running game and defense.
The Mean Green did not have a first down on its first five series.
The Tigers found the end zone on their opening series on Hilliard's 38-yard run, then went up 14-0 on what would have been Beckham's punt return. Hilliard's third TD on a 5-yard run made it 21-0 early in the second quarter.