No. 3 Gamecocks blow late lead in loss to No. 9 LSU

LSU rode a time-consuming drive, a huge turnover and freshman Jeremy Hill’s backbreaking 50-yard touchdown run to a big fourth quarter, and the ninth-ranked Tigers toppled third-ranked South Carolina 23-21 Saturday night in front of a full and rowdy house at Tiger Stadium.

Coming off a 14-6 loss at Florida last week, LSU avoided back-to-back defeats, which hasn’t happened to the program since 2008. The Tigers also extended their home winning streak to a national-best 22 games.

The Tigers (6-1, 2-1 SEC) beat the highest-ranked foe at home since they toppled top-ranked Florida in 1997.

“That’s what we do,” LSU coach Les Miles said after he improved to 3-0 against the Gamecocks (6-1, 4-1) and coach Steve Spurrier. “That’s what we’re supposed to do.

Down 14-10 after the teams swapped third-quarter touchdowns, the Tigers got the ball at their own 23-yard line late in the third quarter and started grinding away at South Carolina’s normally sticky defense.

Hill, who rushed for a career-best 124 yards and two TDs, ignited the drive with a 19-yard burst, and junior Spencer Ware converted three third downs with bruising runs as LSU gobbled up 7:57 on 16 plays.

The Tigers ran for 258 yards in the game, and it was a combined effort, with Ware running for 55, Michael Ford for 41 and Kenny Hilliard for 33. LSU averaged 4.9 yards per rush.

“They were running much better than we thought they would,” Spurrier said. “Today, I realized why LSU was preseason No. 1 (USA Today/ESPN coaches poll). They’re a big, strong team.”

The Tigers’ long and powerful fourth-quarter drive finished with a 20-yard field goal by Drew Alleman that cut the Tigers’ deficit to 14-13.

The South Carolina offense was rusty by the time it got on the field, and quarterback Connor Shaw showed as much when his third-down pass sailed high, and Eric Reid picked it off.

Reid returned the interception 29 yards to the Gamecocks’ 22. After Ware pounded out another first down with an 11-yard run, LSU was content to run three safe running plays and set Alleman up for a 22-yard go-ahead kick with 6:37 to go.

The Tigers’ defense was suffocating all night, never more so than on South Carolina’s ensuing series when Barkevious Mingo sacked Shaw for an 11-yard loss on third down to force a punt.

LSU got the ball at midfield on the exchange, and Hill provided the dagger on the next play when he ran through a gaping hole on the right side, cut back inside and found daylight in the secondary.

That brought the crowd of 92,734 to the loudest roar of the night in a game when the home-field advantage was palpable.

“That was Death Valley,” Miles said of the atmosphere. “That was the place where opponents’ dreams come to die. It started early and it ended late. It was spectacular. It started early and it went late. It was with us the whole night.”

LSU hasn’t lost at home since October 2009, when Tim Tebow-led No. 1 Florida claimed a 13-3 decision.

The Gamecocks closed the gap to the final score with a rapid 77-yard TD drive that ended with Shaw’s 1-yard strike to Bruce Ellington. LSU held on the final series when Craig Loston came up with a second interception.

The second half was a back-and-forth battle as the LSU offense suddenly found a comfort zone and moved the ball well at times.

Down 7-3 at the half, the Tigers rolled down the field on the first series of the third quarter, driving 69 yards as Zach Mettenberger hit passes early in the drive and then let LSU’s two bulky power backs finish it up.

Hill did that when he crashed through a tackle on a toss play and bulled in for a 7-yard score.

Just like the week before, LSU jumped in front with a field goal on its opening series, but that itself was maddening and typified another 30 minutes of offensive football.

After the Tigers stuffed South Carolina on the first series and forced a three-and-out, LSU’s maligned offense came out clicking.

Running almost exclusively from the I-formation, the Tigers methodically pecked away at the Gamecocks’ defense, with Ware grinding away and Mettenberger getting time to complete 4-of-5 passes for 42 yards.

After carving out only one third-down conversion in 13 tries last week, LSU converted four consecutive third downs. That streak ended when Kenny Hilliard was met at the goal line by safety Victor Hampton on a lead play from the 2-yard line and then dumped inches away from a touchdown by linebacker Reginald Bowens.

Miles initially sent the field-goal unit out, but he then called his second timeout of the drive and sent the offense back out with Ware at quarterback. Ware snuck in for the TD, but right tackle Vadal Alexander was flagged for a false start.

That prompted Miles to send Alleman out for a 22-yard field goal that capped a 16-play, 69-yard drive that consumed 7:47.

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