BATON ROUGE, La. — Terrance West's dive over the pile gave Towson a second-quarter lead that stunned LSU fans who expected to witness a romp over their guests from the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision.
Towson made the kinds of plays that proved it was not intimidated by the first game in school history played in a venue as large or as loud as 92,000-seat Tiger Stadium. Still, keeping up with the third-ranked team in the nation was always going to be a tall order, and LSU eventually pulled away for a 38-22 victory Saturday night.
"I'm extremely conflicted," said Towson coach Rob Ambrose, whose program earned more than $500,000 and invaluable exposure for its nationally televised visit to Death Valley. "You don't line up to lose. With that being said, as a head coach, as an alum, as a father, I don't think it's humanly possible for me to be more proud of these players."
A small but vocal contingent of Towson fans were clearly proud as well, gathering near the tunnel to the visitor's locker room and applauding enthusiastically as their team left the field.
West gained 79 yards and scored two 1-yard touchdowns on 22 carries. Grant Enders was 13 of 33 for 103 yards and one TD passing. He also rushed for 86 yards, including a 43-yard scamper that set up West's first score.
Towson's defense did its part to keep the game as close as one possession into the third quarter, forcing three turnovers and registering four sacks. Tye Smith had two sacks and safety Jordan Dangerfield singlehandedly kept seven points off the score board during one LSU possession. First, he made a touchdown-saving shoestring tackle on running back Michael Ford, then forced Ford's lost fumble several plays later on the Towson 13.
"We didn't come here to pick up a check," said Dangerfield, who finished with seven tackles and a fumble recovery. "We came here to try to win and shock the world."
West's first scoring run gave Towson (2-2) a 9-7 lead in the second quarter before LSU (5-0) responded with 24 straight points.
LSU's Zach Mettenberger hit Odell Beckham Jr. five times for 128 yards and two touchdowns, and the quarterback finished 15 of 26 for 238 yards passing and no interceptions. Still, Mettenberger was disappointed with the sacks, turnovers and missed passes.
"It was just sloppy play," Mettenberger said. "We have been sloppy week in and week out. We have to clean it up. Right now we are not playing LSU football. I'm very disappointed in myself and the team right now."
J.C. Copeland, LSU's powerful 272-pound fullback, scored his third touchdown of the season on a 1-yard plunge in the third quarter, but was hurt in the fourth quarter and did not put any weight on his left leg as he was helped off the field.
In all, LSU fell short of the confidence-building performance it wanted before a trip to No. 11 Florida next weekend, followed by a visit from No. 6 South Carolina.
LSU had portrayed its 12-10 victory at Auburn a week earlier as a wakeup call, but it continued to stumble intermittently against its first FCS opponent of the season — enough so that frustrated fans routinely groaned and even booed.
"To say that we made improvement, I can't say that," LSU coach Les Miles said. "I'd have to say it was the same style of football that we played last week."
Ford still had a solid game overall, rushing 11 times for 76 yards, including a 4-yard TD. Receiver Russell Shepard had his best play on a designed run in the first quarter, when he burst through the line and sped down the sideline for a career-long 78-yard scoring run that he finished by diving to the pylon.
Towson did not drive past its own 30 on its first three possessions, but Kenny Hilliard's fumble on the LSU 38 late in the first quarter gave Towson its first break, and it capitalized with D.J. Soven's field goal.
Five of LSU's first six drives ended with three punts, a fumble and a missed 51-yard field goal attempt, keeping Towson in the game.
The animated Ambrose appeared to be thoroughly enjoying his Death Valley experience on the visitor's sideline, and it only got better for him when Mettenberger fumbled on a sack while scrambling left and Towson recovered on LSU's 45. Enders long scramble and West's TD followed soon after. The point-after kick missed, however, leaving it 9-7.
"It boosted our confidence," Enders said. "With the opportunity to be on this stage and scoring the first touchdown, we realized we could play with them."
Mettenberger responded as LSU hoped on his next drive, hitting tight end Chase Clement over the middle for 27 yards, then finding Beckham for a 27-yard score to make it 14-9.
LSU had another scoring chance before halftime after Towson's R.J. Peppers shanked a punt only 6 yards to his own 22. The drive stalled at the 5, setting up Drew Alleman's field goal to make it 17-9.