COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Say hello to the LSU defense, Johnny Manziel.
Jeremy Hill rushed for a career-high 127 yards and a touchdown, and the sixth-ranked Tigers controlled Texas A&M’s dual-threat quarterback to rally from an early deficit and beat the 20th-ranked Aggies 24-19 at Kyle Field on Saturday.
Michael Ford had a touchdown run and Zach Mettenberger threw a TD pass to Kadron Boone for the Tigers (7-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference), who scored 21 points off Texas A&M turnovers.
A&M (5-2, 2-2) outplayed the Tigers for much of the first half and led 12-0, LSU’s largest deficit since the national championship game against Alabama in January. LSU converted two A&M miscues into touchdowns just before halftime, and Boone’s diving catch in the end zone with 11 seconds left put the Tigers up 14-12 at the break.
Manziel, the SEC’s leader in total offense, completed 29 of 56 passes for 276 yards and also threw three interceptions. He was also the league’s leading rusher coming into the game and was held to 27 yards on 17 carries.
"Defense just had to get their feet set and understand what was going on," LSU coach Les Miles said, "get the comfort of the scheme and the habit of throw and how to chase that quarterback. He’s a gutsy, tough guy."
The Tigers’ offense ranks eighth in the SEC and struggled to produce points in two of three previous conference games. The defense forced three turnovers and notched a safety in a 12-10 win over Auburn last month, and stepped up again with the offense sputtering on Saturday.
"They’ve made life difficult on everybody they’ve played," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said.
A&M started strong, taking a 6-0 lead on Christine Michael’s short touchdown run. LSU hadn’t given up a first-quarter score in four games.
LSU went three-and-out on its initial series, and the defense looked a step slow again when A&M got the ball back. Manziel got plenty of protection from the Aggies’ offensive line and threaded a 21-yard pass to Mike Evans for a first down at the LSU 34. Taylor Bertolet kicked a 32-yard field goal to put A&M up 9-0.
LSU’s defense generated better pressure on Manziel as the half wore on. The Tigers, meanwhile, sputtered for most of the half against the same Aggies’ defense that gave up 615 yards in last week’s 59-57 win at Louisiana Tech.
LSU got the kick-start it needed when freshman cornerback Jalen Collins intercepted Manziel at the LSU 39. Ford gained 13 yards on a fourth-and-1, then raced 20 yards down the sideline for the Tigers’ first touchdown with 1:49 left before halftime.
"The defense always sets us up," Hill said. "Every game they find a way to keep us in the game."
Ben Malena fumbled at the A&M 41 with just over a minute left in the half. The Aggies looked as if they might escape, but Boone’s spectacular, over-the-shoulder catch took away their momentum.
"There’s really no reason to panic when you get down," Mettenberger said. "You just have to keep grinding away, keep focusing and keep believing. We did that and right before the half we got two quick possessions and two quick touchdowns."
Mettenberger went 5-for-16 and the Tigers mustered only 147 yards in the first half. The Aggies amassed 256 yards in the first half -- 45 more yards than LSU allowed in a 23-21 win over South Carolina last week.
LSU started a drive early in the fourth quarter with eight straight running plays, gaining at least five yards on seven of them. Hill ran 18 yards up the middle to the A&M 9 before Jarvis Landry lost yardage on a pass by Mettenberger toward the sideline, and Drew Alleman’s 28-yard field goal put LSU up 17-12 with 8:35 remaining.
Trey Williams returned the ensuing kickoff 76 yards to the LSU 16. Linebacker Kevin Minter nearly sacked Manziel on second down and Manziel’s throw to Uzoma Nwachukwu fell incomplete on third down. Bertolet shanked a 33-yard attempt and LSU regained possession with 7:28 left.
"We needed to get out of there with something," Sumlin said.
LSU junior cornerback Tharold Simon put it away when he intercepted Manziel’s pass and returned it to the A&M 46.
"Early, we were reacting to balls thrown, and later we were reacting to intent of the quarterback," Miles said. "We were just making better plays and there were some adjustments made by our defensive staff in terms of calls and change of personnel."
Hill then burst up the middle and sprinted to the end zone, going over 100 yards for the second straight week. He rushed for a career-high 124 yards against South Carolina last week. LSU is 31-2 under Miles when it has a 100-yard rusher.
Malena finished a quick A&M drive with a 5-yard touchdown run with 1:17 left. But Odell Beckham, Jr. cleanly fielded the onside kick, and the Tigers held on.
The announced attendance was 87,429, the fifth largest crowd in Kyle Field history. The Tigers and Aggies were meeting for the 51st time—they played from 1960-75 and from 1986-95 before the series was discontinued. LSU beat Texas A&M 41-24 in the Cotton Bowl after the 2010 season.