ATLANTA -- Patrick Peterson kept his promise, and it’s a good thing.
If not, who knows where this LSU football team would be right now? And for that matter, could you imagine the reception his head coach would be getting back on the Bayou?
When told that he would indeed be returning kickoffs and punts this season, Peterson assured LSU coach Les Miles that he was making the right call.
“Once I saw the depth for the first time, I said, ‘Oh yeah, coach, I’m definitely going to make something happen,’ ” said Peterson, the Tigers’ star cornerback.
He didn’t just make something happen Saturday night in the Georgia Dome. He saved LSU’s bacon in a 30-24 win over a depleted North Carolina team in a Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game that went down to the final seconds with the Tar Heels throwing into the end zone from the 6-yard line.
As fate would have it, Peterson wasn’t on the field for those final two plays. He had to leave the game with cramps, a problem for him since his Pee Wee football days.
He’d done his damage earlier in the game with a record-setting performance in the return game.
His 257 combined return yards were an LSU record, and he had 244 of those by halftime. His 87-yard punt return for a touchdown looked like he was catapulted by a slingshot.
“It was like the Red Sea out there, it was so open,” Peterson said.
That gem was sandwiched between a 47-yard kickoff return to set up Russell Shepard’s 50-yard touchdown romp and a 37-yard punt return that led to Rueben Randle’s 51-yard touchdown catch.
Without any one of those plays, LSU would have been toast, and Miles would be trying to explain how he lost a game to the Tar Heels’ “B” team when the Tigers had a 30-10 lead entering the fourth quarter.
“We’ve just got to finish games,” Peterson said. “It killed us last year, and it almost got us tonight. I don’t know what it is, but something’s got to change.”
One thing that won’t change is Peterson drifting back deep on kicks. He said it’s the first time he’d returned a kick since the fourth game of his senior year in high school.
“And they stopped kicking it to me then, too,” joked Peterson, who didn’t get much of a chance to return kicks in the second half.
Shepard, who scored a pair of touchdowns himself, knew what kind of impact Peterson would make in the return game. He’s seen it too many times on the practice field.
“I think he’s the best player in the country -- period,” Shepard said. “There isn’t anything he can’t do.”
The Tigers, who struggled to put teams away last season, shifted into cruise control way too early against the Tar Heels, who never quit scrapping.
In fact, Peterson was out of the game on the 97-yard touchdown pass by T.J. Yates to Jheranie Boyd because he said LSU defensive backs coach Ron Cooper wanted to get some of the younger guys in the game.
“I guess he thought we had a comfortable lead,” Peterson said.
Senior middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard said it shouldn’t have mattered who was on the field. He said the Tigers simply got sloppy, which is hard to argue when you consider Yates passed for a career-high 412 yards and didn’t have his best receiver on the field (Greg Little).
“We won the game and don’t let anybody kid you,” Sheppard said. “But there’s definitely a feeling of, ‘Man, what happened in the second half?’ I mean, it’s obvious. Guys weren’t where they’re supposed to be. Giving up a (97-yard) touchdown pass is unacceptable. I don’t care where you’re playing at. We just can’t do that.
“Again, we did win the game, so you can’t just put it in the drain. But it’s upsetting that we emphasized finishing games so much, and while we never point fingers here and I make sure of that, for guys to have their eyes in the wrong place is disappointing.”
The offense certainly contributed to the near collapse.
Running back Stevan Ridley fumbled the football with a 1:08 to play, giving the Tar Heels one last chance to drive the field.
And they did.
But the Tigers also quit going to Shepard and Randle, who are clearly the top two game-breakers on this offense.
Shepard’s a guy who needs to touch it 12 to 15 times a game at the very least. He had three touches after halftime Saturday.
“There are a lot of things we need to clean up if we want to be back here in a couple of months playing for the SEC championship,” Shepard said. “The good thing is that we have the talent to do it.”