Tigers win third straight, dominating New Mexico

CAIN WAS ABLE:  LSU running back Noah Cain Jr. breaks free from New Mexico defenders on a 49-yard touchdown run Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE – In the final tune-up before the bulk of the SEC schedule arrives, LSU pitched a 38-0 shutout against New Mexico Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.

LSU head coach Brian Kelly spent most of the week preaching the consistency he wanted to see in his team before the Tigers (3-1) see the likes of Tennessee, Florida and Alabama.

In some aspects, he found that consistency Saturday night. In others, the search goes on.

The Tigers’ offense racked up 633 yards, including 414 yards passing between two quarterbacks, both of whom performed admirably against the Lobos (2-2).

The defense didn’t allow a score,  and gave up only two first downs, although missing two of its most dynamic players in BJ Ojulari and Major Burns. Burns, Kelly said, will miss three to six weeks with a neck injury.

The Tigers got on the board five minutes into the first quarter when Armoni Goodwin rolled up the middle for a 5-yard touchdown run. LSU responded with Damian Ramos’ 31-yard field goal after their second drive stalled, but after the Tigers had a Kole Taylor touchdown catch called back due to pass interference, Ramos shanked an ensuing 38-yard try wide right to waste the Tigers’ third drive of the night.

Taylor’s would-be touchdown wasn’t the only one LSU lost in the first half, either: Jack Bech — appearing in  his first game as LSU’s punt returner — found a seam in the return coverage and took it back 76 yards but the play was called back due an illegal blindside block, a ruling that Kelly protested.  Coupled with the missed 38-yard field goal attempt and a kickoff out of bounds by Ramos, the special teams unit still left something to be desired after coming under scrutiny in the early part of the season.

LSU was without Ojulari and Burns on defense, but the product on the field suffered only slightly. The Tigers managed four sacks and despite coming up with no turnovers, didn’t allow a point. They racked up eight tackles for loss against a New Mexico team that attempted just seven passes by senior quarterback Miles Kendrick, who completed five of them for 47 yards. The Lobos totaled just 88 yards of total offense and made only two first downs.

It was far from Kelly’s first shutout, but it sure was something to revel in.

“I’ve been coaching 32 years, so I’ve had some of those games,” Kelly said. “I think in most of them, you know that you’re in a dominating performance and you just wish you had more points on the board at that time. It was pretty clear that they were going to have difficult time moving the football on us. I thought our plan was excellent and we felt pretty good going into halftime, even though it was 17-0.”

Starting quarterback Jayden Daniels exited the game after converting a fourth-and-four midway through the third quarter. Redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier quickly took the Tigers’ offense the final 22 yards before running back Noah Cain punched in a 1-yard touchdown with 5:27 left for a 24-0 lead.

Daniels was 24-29 passing for 279 yards and no touchdowns. He added 37 yards rushing on nine carries. Kelly said after the game that Daniels suffered a lower back strain and could’ve returned, but LSU erred on the side of caution with his starting quarterback.

“I think he’s getting more familiar with the offensive structure, the concepts, and we were really, I think, firm on fast feet and slowing down the thought process,” Kelly said about Daniels. “We felt like when his feet are slow, it puts his mind moving too fast, and it feels like the opposite occurs. So we got into a really good coaching point with fast feet, slow decision making.”

Cain and Nussmeier took over LSU’s offense in the second half, as Cain scored on a 49-yard run on the following drive with 1:45 left in the third quarter, before Nussmeier hit Brian Thomas, Jr. in stride for a 57-yard touchdown with 13:14 remaining. Nussmeier completed 9-of-10 passes for 135 yards and one touchdown.

Kelly was impressed with the poise Nussmeier showed in his performance, especially after a shaky showing in the blowout win over Southern two weeks ago.

“[Nussmeier was] decisive, and made obviously some really high level throws,” Kelly said. “He’s a talented football player. He’s just making good decisions, take what they give you, be disciplined, and you’re going to have a really fine quarterback.”

Three in a row makes a winning streak, and Kelly had words of wisdom for his players.

“I told our guys one time’s an accident, second time’s a coincidence, third time’s a habit,” Kelly said. “They’ve won three in a row, they’re building good habits and we look to continue to build on that heading into SEC play.”

Contact Ryne at rgberthelot@gmail.com

Photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports