BATON ROUGE, La. – Sam Montgomery's philosophical musings have led him to the conclusion that LSU has regained a certain focus, intensity and chemistry that had been lacking in recent weeks.
The proof came in the Tigers' 23-21 triumph Saturday night over a previously undefeated South Carolina team that came in ranked No. 3, a result which vaulted LSU back up the rankings from ninth to sixth.
"At the beginning of the season, it was about the national championship. But at the end of the day, it's all about family. I think we got back to that," Montgomery said. "Last year, we never would have talked about a national championship. We took it week by week by week by week, getting closer and closer."
LSU (6-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) had the appearance of a team in a slide for the previous several weeks, which included several unimpressive victories over heavy underdogs, followed by a loss at Florida on Oct. 6 in which first-year starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger and the Tigers' offense were unable to get into the end zone once.
"Maybe we needed a loss to be humbled, to get that hunger back, to get adversity knowing that everything doesn't comes so easily," said Montgomery, a defensive end, who had two sacks of South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw. "It was something we needed to wake us back (up), to get us playing tough, hard-nosed football."
LSU, which hasn't dropped back-to-back games since 2008, extended its school-record home winning streak to 22 games.
South Carolina (6-1, 4-1), meanwhile, was unable to extend its school-record 10-game winning streak, which dated to last season. The Gamecocks also seemed to lose a little of the swagger they had when they overwhelmed Georgia 35-7 the previous week.
Although the final score was close after a late South Carolina touchdown, LSU dominated statistically and might have won easily if not for four drives to the Gamecocks 15 or father that resulted in four field-goal attempts, one of which missed.
LSU outgained South Carolina by almost double, 406-211. The Tigers converted 11 of 19 third downs, compared to 3 of 13 for South Carolina. As a result, LSU had the ball for nearly 37 minutes.
"Our front seven didn't come to play," said South Carolina star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who was in on six tackles but did not have a sack. "We gave up way too many yards and too many third down conversions. We can't win like that."
Clowney went on to suggest some of his teammates may have let the intense and hostile Death Valley environment get to them, that they may have played "scared." He said the Gamecocks would have to address that before they head to the Swamp next weekend to face unbeaten No. 3 Florida in a game that will decide the leader of the SEC East.
"All of our goals are still there," said South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, who was held to 35 yards on 13 carries, but impressively broke safety Eric Reid's tackle for a go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. "We can still accomplish them."
Reid made up for it later with an interception on Shaw's overthrow in the fourth quarter, returning it to the South Carolina 22 and setting up a go-ahead field goal.
Shaw was under pressure much of the night, acknowledging his unit was "stunned" by its inability to run the ball. He was sacked four times in all, once by Josh Downs for a 9-yard loss that took the Gamecocks out of field-goal range late in the first half. Barkevious Mingo also got to him.
LSU was saved by its running game, which accounted for a whopping 258 yards despite having only two opening-week starters on the offensive line.
A pair of freshmen linemen, right tackle Vadal Alexander and right guard Trai Turner, earned praise from coach Les Miles after the game, having proved themselves against an elite defensive front. Then there was freshman running back Jeremy Hill, who announced his arrival as a big-time back with 124 yards on 17 carries, scoring LSU's only two touchdowns, the second on a 50-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Entering the season as the fifth-string running back, Hills' emergence highlighted the Tigers' embarrassment of riches at that position.
The Tigers opened by giving the ball to Spencer Ware until he was briefly sidelined by cramps and nausea. Miles turned to Hill, who led LSU to a win that kept the Tigers well in the hunt for SEC and national titles.
"Jeremy Hill's a pretty talented back and has really great speed for a big man and he's developed right along," Miles said. "He certainly came along at the right time. ... We were fortunate that Hill was ready to step in."