By BRETT MARTEL
BATON ROUGE, La. — Jeremy Hill capped his breakout game by leaping the fence dividing the field from the stands at Tiger Stadium and embracing a jubilant throng of students as they celebrated LSU’s quick ascendance back into the national title discussion.
Hill highlighted a 124-yard, two-touchdown performance with a 50-yard scoring run, and the ninth-ranked Tigers handed No. 3 South Carolina its first loss of the season, 23-21, on Saturday night.
Hill’s clutch runs, showcasing his tackle-breaking power as well as breakaway speed, were precisely what LSU needed a week after stumbling to its lone loss of the season at Florida, where the offense had been stagnant.
“We didn’t play like we were capable of playing last week against Florida. The entire offense knew that they had to step up and we made that a priority,” Hill said. “At the end, it was a great release and we wanted to celebrate with the students who have supported us throughout the season.”
LSU (6-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) substantially outgained South Carolina (6-1, 4-1), 406 yards to 211, but struggled to find the end zone. Three times, LSU settled for field goals after driving at least as far as the Gamecocks 5-yard line, and another drive to the South Carolina 15 stalled on a missed field goal.
But Hill’s long score with 5:03 left gave LSU a nine-point lead that proved to be just enough cushion for the Tigers.
The run caused bedlam in Death Valley, exactly what South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier did not want to see — or hear — after jokingly pretending to be momentarily confused this past week about the fact there are two Death Valley’s, one at LSU and one at Clemson.
“That was Death Valley,” Miles said triumphantly afterward. “That was the place where opponents’ dreams come to die — and it was spectacular.”
Connor Shaw drove South Carolina for a late TD on a short pass to Bruce Ellington with 1:41 left, and the Gamecocks got the ball once more with 35 seconds left, but LSU’s defense held up.
Zach Mettenberger had the latest in a string of inconsistent performances but made enough big throws to sustain scoring drives, finishing 12 of 25 for 148 yards. He had one costly interception returned 70 yards by Jimmy Legree, setting up South Carolina’s first TD.
Shaw finished 19 of 34 for 177 yards and two TDs, but was intercepted twice, once by Eric Reid to set up LSU’s go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter, and then on the final desperate play by Craig Loston.
“I don’t know if he got hit in the head tonight or not,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said of Shaw. “Some of his decision-making was a little off. … Connor has played beautifully all year. He had some good plays tonight but he wasn’t as sharp as he’s been.”
Shaw also was sacked four times — twice by defensive end Sam Montgomery, a South Carolina native.
“South Carolina was coming into our house as the third-ranked team in the country and my mom was here to see me play for the first time this season,” Montgomery said. “There was so many things to play for other than just the game.”
LSU limited South Carolina, led by star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, to only sack by linebacker Shaq Wilson.
“Some guys came out to play but some guys didn’t,” said Clowney, who had six tackles. “It may be because they were scared. We will address that in practice. We can’t come out against Florida like that” next weekend.
LSU tamed the Gamecocks’ pass rush by pounding the ball on the ground, finishing with a whopping 258-34 advantage in yards rushing.
“Tonight I realized why LSU was preseason No. 1. They can run the ball and stop the run,” Spurrier said. “That was the biggest difference in the game, probably.”
LSU’s second field goal cut South Carolina’s lead to 14-13 early in the fourth quarter, then LSU was right back in scoring range when Shaw overthrew an open receiver and the ball landed in Reid’s lap.
Reid returned it to the Gamecocks 22, then LSU drove to the 5 before settling for its third field goal to take a 16-14 lead.
Marcus Lattimore had a quiet night by his standards, gaining only 35 yards on 13 carries, but give the Gamecocks a 14-10 lead in the third quarter when he impressively broke Reid’s tackle on a 2-yard scoring run.
Under heavy criticism after failing to produce at touchdown in a loss a week earlier at Florida, LSU’s offense was down to only two opening day starters on the line because right guard Josh Williford was unable to return from a concussion and right tackle Alex Hurst was excused for personal reasons.
“To see the offense moving the way it did tonight was a tremendous credit to them,” LSU linebacker Lamin Barrow said. “They have worked all year long to get better and tonight fans got to see what we see in practice every day. … To see the progress that they made was beautiful. We fed off of them.”
The unit opened impressively by driving 69 yards on 16 plays, but settled for a field goal after freshman right tackle Vadal Alexander, elevated to starter two weeks earlier, was flagged for a false start on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
The Tigers were moving on their second series as well until Mettenberger’s only major mistake — Legree’s interception, which was returned to the LSU 1. That set up Ace Sanders’ short TD catch to give South Carolina a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter.
LSU went back in front on Hill’s 7-yard TD run on the first series of the second half.