BATON ROUGE, La. – No. 3 LSU’s season-opening 41-14 victory overt North Texas on Saturday night in Tiger Stadium wasn’t nearly as decisive as the oddsmakers had expected or the Tigers would have preferred.
The 43-point underdog Mean Green withstood a 24-0 start by LSU and shocked the Tigers with an 80-yard touchdown pass and a point-saving interception near their own goal line to get within 24-7 at halftime.
That forced LSU to stick with its starters well into the second half.
LSU had by far its longest possession in the game in the third quarter, moving 74 yards in 16 plays, but settled for a 30-yard field goal by Drew Alleman and a relatively modest 27-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The Tigers have touted new starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger as a strong-armed junior who will bring far greater balance to the offense, but that didn’t happen Saturday. Mettenberger completed 19-of-26 passes for 192 yards and threw an interception from the North Texas seven.
Mettenberger’s 30-yard touchdown pass to Russell Shepard at the end of the third quarter was negated by a penalty, as was an earlier punt return for a touchdown. LSU was penalized 10 times for 55 yards.
Mettenberger got his only touchdown of the game, moments after the pass to Shepard was negated, when he threw a 34-yard scoring pass to Kadron Boone to make it 34-7 on the first play of the fourth quarter.
North Texas cut the deficit to 34-14 when Derek Thompson threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Brelan Chancellor.
The Tigers completed the scoring on fullback J.C. Copeland’s five-yard touchdown run with 2:20 left in the game.
On LSU’s first possession of the game, Jarvin Landry converted a third-and-one play by making a one-handed catch of Mettenberger’s pass, and on the next play Kenny Hilliard sprinted 38 yards for a touchdown.
Later in the first quarter, Odell Beckham Jr., whose 76-yard punt return for an apparent touchdown had been negated by a penalty moments earlier, ran a punt back 70 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
LSU had some anxious moments late in the first quarter when Mettenberger was shaken up on a hard hit by cornerback Hilbert Jackson on a sack. Mettenberger sat out a series and was replaced by Stephen Rivers, brother of quarterback Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers.
While Mettenberger was out, Alfred Blue sparked another scoring drive with a 37-yard run. Hilliard’s five-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second quarter gave the Tigers 21-0 lead.
Mettenberger ran to the locker room for a brief examination and sprinted back to the sideline a few minutes later. He returned after missing one series and the Tigers drove to Drew Alleman’s 44-yard field goal, which gave LSU a 24-0 lead.
LSU found itself in scoring position again when Eric Reid made a diving interception after Thompson’s pass was tipped, giving the Tigers a first down at the Mean Green 29.
But LSU stalled and Alleman was wide right on a 34-yard field goal attempt, his first miss after making his last 10 tries last year and his first Saturday.
Moments later, North Texas, which had only 55 yards of total offense until then, struck quickly on a third-and-10 when Thompson found Chancellor behind Reid, and Chancellor outran Reid and Craig Loston to cut the Tigers’ lead to 24-7 with 1:55 left in the second quarter.
LSU looked like it was going to answer with a score before halftime when Hilliard ran 60 yards to a first down at the Mean Green 7-yard-line, but two plays later Zac Whitfield intercepted Mettenberger’s pass, leaving the Tigers with a 24-7 halftime lead.
NOTES: LSU had two running backs gain 100 yards each in a season opener — Kenny Hilliard (13 carries, 141 yards, two touchdowns) and Alfred Blue (16-123) – for the first time since 1982 when Dalton Hilliard and Garry James did it. … Tigers all-America punter Brad Wing sat out the game because of a mild hamstring strain. Freshman Jamie Keehn, who like Wing is from Australia, punted three times for a 41.0 average. … LSU fullback J.C. Copeland, who had two carries for zero yards in his career coming in ran for times for 33 yards and a touchdown.