BATON ROUGE, La. – By the time Zach Mettenberger and the LSU Tigers had sealed up their latest victory over Auburn in their Southeastern Conference opener, they were too disappointed over their second-half slippage to celebrate their early dominance.
"Guys just didn't keep their heads in the game," Mettenberger said following Saturday night's 35-21 victory. "We just let off the gas pedal. Hopefully this is a lesson that everybody learned."
For the most part, sixth-ranked LSU (4-0, 1-0 SEC) is where it wants to be heading into its toughest test yet at No. 9 Georgia (2-1, 1-0) next Saturday. The Tigers have won all four of their games by double digits while establishing balance on offense and strong play on a defense that entered the season with a host of new starters.
LSU is averaging 43.2 points per game, while giving up only 19.5.
In wet, sloppy conditions in Death Valley, LSU raced to a 21-0 halftime lead thanks in large part to a ground game — led by 6-foot-2, 235-pound running back Jeremy Hill — which accounted for 154 yards in the first half alone. Hill, who sat out the season opener because of an offseason arrest, has wasted little time re-establishing himself as arguably to most explosive and powerful force on the LSU offense — and showing why it benefited coach Les Miles to keep the length Hill's benching brief. Hill had 152 of those first-half yards — including runs of 49 and 54 yards — and finished with a career-high 184 yards to go with three TDs.
Oddly, when the rain let up in the second half, LSU got sloppy.
"We try to be a weather-proof offense," Mettenberger said. "When it was raining, we actually played our best football. I think guys need to keep their heads in it for all four quarters."
Likewise, Hill was less interested in talking about his big day than discussing the "sour taste" he was left with when the running game's production tapered off in the fourth quarter, preventing LSU from putting Auburn away as early as it hoped.
"I don't really remember the positive things. I remember the negative things that happened to my team," Hill said. "We didn't finish strong."
Hill and his teammates seemed to be following the lead of coach Les Miles, who asserted, "I just didn't like how we finished. We certainly can play better. ... We need to control these games."
Although LSU answered Auburn's first two TDs of the second half with scoring drives of its own, it needed a late fourth-down stop near its own end zone to preserve a two-score lead and finally run out the clock.
LSU rushed for 74 yards on 21 carries in the second half, a relatively pedestrian average of 3.5 yards per carry. Even Hill was tackled for several short losses in the fourth quarter as LSU had to keep punting back the an Auburn team that refused to fold.
And while Mettenberger threw for his 10th TD of the young season — after throwing for 12 in all of 2012 — he had his worst game of 2013. He threw his first interception of the season early in the second half, setting up Auburn's first scoring drive. He also passed for a season-low 229 yards.
Now Mettenberger prepares to head home to his native Georgia, and to play against the school he first signed with out of high school — also the school where his mother has long worked in the football office.
The quarterback hopes that story line doesn't become a distraction, and has already told LSU sports information personnel that he would prefer not to do any phone interviews with out-of-town media this week, and only meet with reporters in person during his regular weekly appearance on Monday at LSU's football headquarters.
Mettenberger also deflected questions about playing the his old college team shortly after the victory over Auburn, saying, "Honestly, I haven't even thought about the Georgia game. That's next Saturday."
By Monday, he should have more to say about that.