ARLINGTON -- Through all the turmoil that had engulfed the LSU football team recently ...
Through the bar fight, and the starting quarterback being arrested, and the suspension of their best offensive player ...
Through learning the sad news that their new offensive coordinator had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease ...
Through all of it, there was the sobering fact that none of the troublesome headlines involved the Tigers' defense.
For them, it was business as usual. It was Duck season, as the physical, No. 4-ranked Tigers showed Saturday night.
Against college football's No. 1-rated offense of 2010, the LSU defense swarmed. It hunted. It rattled Oregon into committing four turnovers, as the Tigers raced past the No. 3 Ducks 40-27 at Cowboys Stadium.
“The team played awfully well,” LSU coach Les Miles conceded after the game. “We asked them to put to the perimeter all those things that could be distractions and things that the sports media needed to visit about and rehash. We suggested that that's not going to play any part of this game.”
With erstwhile starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson suspended indefinitely, once-berated backup Jarrett Lee of Brenham ably directed the LSU offense on three consecutive second-half scoring drives, turning what had been a close, back-and-forth game into a runaway.
Lee's receivers left him with humble numbers at the end of the night -- 10 completions in 22 pass attempts, gaining only 98 yards. Hardly an aerial circus. But as many as four of his passes were dropped.
“I enjoyed Jarrett Lee's effort,”” Miles said. “I liked how the offense did the things it needed to do - keep the ball on the ground with the lead.”
Lee's 10-yard touchdown strike to Rueben Randle at the left end zone flag came just 44 seconds before intermission and gave LSU the lead for good.
Most of the remainder of the Tigers' offense, as Miles wanted, was extracted on the ground, principally by 99 net yards from Spencer Ware and 96 yards by hard-charging Michael Ford.
Clearly, Miles and his staff had done their homework. In last season's BCS title game, won by Auburn over the Ducks 22-19, the victors rushed for 254 yards.
On Saturday night, the LSU offense ran 48 times and netted 175 yards. In doing so, the Tigers gained the upper hand on what, as predicted, was a vital statistic - time of possession (LSU 33 minutes, Oregon 27).
The Ducks' well-chronicled, nonstop offense finished with 335 yards. And when the LSU defense didn't stop Oregon, the Ducks themselves did.
Oregon's star running back LaMichael James reprised his underwhelming BCS title game performance by gaining only 54 yards on 18 carries.
Quarterback Darron Thomas of Houston, who seemed to be throwing uphill all night, finished with 54 pass attempts (31 completions) for 240 yards.
But the Ducks managed really only one signature Oregon drive the entire game -- a 19-play, 79-yard, nearly 8-minute march that ended with James' 3-yard touchdown run.
To thwart the Ducks' fast-break attack, Miles had his defense practice against not one, but two scout-team offenses. One would huddle, the other would run a play, and on and on, keeping the defense in constant motion.
“Our defense played a spectacular game,”” Miles correctly assessed. “They played with an intensity and a speed to the ball.””
Only once, during that 7:41 second-quarter drive, did the LSU defense seem to weary at the Oregon pace.
For the rest of the night, the hunt was on.
None of the Oregon turnovers was more momentum-swinging than Kenjon Barner's botched punt near the start of the second quarter. Talented LSU sophomore Tyrann Mathieu wrapped up Barner, ripping the ball free, then snatched it and jogged 3 yards into the end zone.
The Ducks will decry, no doubt, their four giveaways -- i.e., "You can't turn the ball over four times against a team like (fill in the blank), etc., etc."
But LSU's faster, more physical defense had much to do with it. The one clear edge that this LSU team has over the Auburn champs of a year ago is in the secondary.
Followers of the Southeastern Conference will point out, of course, that here was another case of a rugged, defense-minded SEC team forcing its will on another team of (pick one) West Coast/Big Ten pretty boys.
Miles saw it differently.
“We were imperfect in all phases,” he said. “But we need to improve on offense. I don't feel like we've hung the moon in any way.
“I feel like we're a good team, but we need to improve.”
Maybe so. But as LSU comfortably asserted itself Saturday, it was almost easy to forget that this was a team that had lost its would-be starting quarterback less than two weeks ago after an alleged bar fight.
The Tigers had also lost their most versatile player, Russell Shepard, to an odd NCAA violation. And fall practice had begun with the sad news that newly named offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
But the Tigers still had their defense. The biggest headlines, in the end, were all theirs.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697