Mathieu interception the difference-maker for LSU
MORGANTOWN -- West Virginia's offense is good enough to gain a lot of yards and score a lot of points. Sometimes it happens in a hurry. Sometimes it can go bad just as fast.
Inspired by their ability, the Mountaineers decided to throw a pass on third-and-19 from their own 25-yard line with 43 seconds to go in the first half Saturday. It was tipped and then intercepted by cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and returned to the 1-yard line. The Tigers scored two plays later and took a 27-7 halftime lead on their way to a 47-21 victory.
LSU (4-0) moved up one spot to No. 1 in the Associated Press poll Sunday while the Mountaineers (3-1) dropped six places to No. 22.
"I don't know how you can call anything else other than handing the ball off in the middle or throwing a screen out on the edge," Coach Dana Holgorsen said of the play call.
The Tigers had a lead and momentum and then took a risk for which they were rewarded. Geno Smith completed a 3-yard pass to Ivan McCartney on third-and-9, but right guard Tyler Rader was called for holding. Rather than let WVU punt from its 38, LSU accepted the 10-yard penalty, knowing Mountaineers punter Corey Smith had struggled.
The Mountaineers, with three timeouts, but 75 yards between them and the end zone, called a run play that also gave Smith the right to change the play at the line of scrimmage. WVU had LSU outnumbered on the left side with three receivers and two defenders, one of which was a safety more than 10 yards off receiver Tavon Austin.
Smith changed the play to a quick screen to the Austin.
"I think if I would have gotten one or two blocks, I would have had a big play," Austin said.
Mathieu sneaked in behind defensive end Sam Montgomery and blitzed from the left side. He stopped suddenly when he saw Smith square up to throw. Mathieu jumped and hit the ball with his right hand and then caught it on the move at the 17. Smith and Austin made the tackle.
"I didn't see him," left tackle Don Barclay said. "The guy made a great play."
Holgorsen didn't mind Smith checking out of the run to a pass, but he didn't like Smith's execution on the throw considering Mathieu was showing a blitz before the snap.
"We knew he was going to do that," Holgorsen said. "That's on Geno. If he thinks he can get it over him, then get it over him. He was aware that kid was pretty good and when he blitzed he was going straight up the field. It's something Geno needs to do a better job of."
One reason Smith made the switch was because Mathieu was blitzing. He left inside receiver Devon Brown, which created the three-on-two advantage on the left side. The throw is normally safe and little more than a long handoff for the Mountaineers.
"That's our offense," Smith said. "It's something we've been doing, nothing new. The guy made a good play."
It was Mathieu's second turnover of the game. He stripped Brad Starks of the ball in the first quarter. In 17 career games, Mathieu has created 13 turnovers. He made six tackles against WVU.
"We were aware (Mathieu) was a great football player," Holgorsen said. "I felt like he was the best player on the field the first three games and I felt like he was the best player on the field (Saturday)."
Mathieu has company in a secondary filled with what are believed to be future NFL players, including cornerback Morris Claiborne, who returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, and safeties Eric Reid and Brandon Taylor, who intercepted a pass in the first quarter after it bounced off Austin's helmet.
That was one of WVU's four turnovers that led to 20 points for the Tigers.
Smith was 38-for-65 for 463 yards - all school records - and two touchdowns. WVU averaged 12.2 yards per completion and had 23 first downs by pass. LSU had 19 total first downs. WVU had four 20-yard pass plays against the Tigers, including 38- and 72- yard gains by Austin. LSU hadn't allowed one pass play to go for more than 25 yards this season.
A year ago, WVU had 177 yards of offense in a loss at LSU. Austin alone had 187 yards on 11 receptions Saturday.
"That No. 1 is a real special player," LSU Coach Les Miles said. "They did a great job. Geno is a much-improved passer than he was."
Miles said what WVU is doing with Holgorsen and the offense is "very strong," though that was of little value to the defeated Mountaineers.
"I think we did good and I think we moved the ball well," Smith said. "I think everything went right except for the fact that we turned it over so much. If we eliminate those turnovers and don't give them the easy points, it might be a different game. That's the way it goes sometimes. There's nothing we can do but move past it and get better."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.