BATON ROUGE --- LSU’s defense has been great this season.
Saturday was an exception to the rule.
For the second time this season the Tigers were gashed for more than 200 yards on the ground.
The time prior came at the hands of Cam Newton and Auburn, who delivered LSU their lone loss on the season.
With an offense that looked far from a four-win club, Jeremiah Masoli and Ole Miss went for 236 yards on the ground and 184 yards in the air - good for one of the three best passing days against the SEC’s top-ranked defense.
At the end of the day the scoreboard read 36 points for Ole Miss, the only time that LSU has given up more than 30 in 11 games this year.
No matter, the LSU offense - which seems to have hit stride as the regular season draws to a close – went for a season-high 470 yards en route to a 43-36 shootout win.
“I have to give lots of credit to (offensive coordinator) Gary Crowton,” said LSU coach Les Miles. “I think he has taken a bunch of criticism this year, and he called a magnificent game today. He operated the offense extremely well.”
There was a marked difference in LSU’s playcalling on Saturday and that from Crowton prior to the month of November.
The most common word the players used after the game: aggressive.
“With coach (Crowton) being aggressive and opening the playbook, that just kept me comfortable and very consistent throughout the game,” said quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who finished with a passer rating above 200 (209.62) for the first time this season.
His first pass went for 23 yards to Chris Tolliver.
His final snap, a handoff to Stevan Ridley, gave LSU a lead with 37 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Everywhere in between, Jefferson and the offense looked the part.
“The entire team had a good practice week, and I could just sense that Jordan was going to play well today,” Miles said. “He made a great contribution today.”
LSU’s first score came after a turnover on the game’s opening drive, one of the three turnovers that the defense forced. Coming on a blitz off the edge, freshman cornerback Tyrann Mathieu anticipated Masoli’s pass and jumped up to make the deflection. The ball landed in the hands of defensive end Lavar Edwards, who ran 17 yards to give the offense the ball at the Ole Miss 19-yard line.
Three rushes by Ridley later, the Tigers were up 7-0.
Baton Rouge native Brandon Bolden, who went for his sixth 100-yard game of the year, answered on the next offensive snap with a 50-yard scoring scamper.
The tone was set.
Despite what the game was tabbed to be, an offensive shootout was in the works.
The teams swapped field goals before LSU took their biggest lead of the game midway through the second quarter, tacking on points first with a two-yard touchdown run by Ridley and again on a 25-yard field goal from Josh Jasper.
LSU held the 20-10 lead until the final minute of the half.
On a drive that started at the Ole Miss 20-yard line, Masoli and Co. rushed their way to six points with a nine-play, 80-yard drive. The lone completed pass came on a fourth-down strike to Ja-Mes Logan that gave the Rebels new life a yard outside the redzone.
If the pace wasn’t fast enough, the second half picked up speed.
Just like in the first half, a sudden change in field position turned out the first points of the second half. After Jefferson turned the ball over on an interception and Masoli handed it back to LSU on a fumble, the Tigers called on Jasper for his third field goal of the day.
On the following possession Ole Miss pulled ahead for the first time at 24-23, seeing Bolden carry the ball four times for 25 yards and a touchdown on the drive.
Then came a big break for the visitors.
The Rebels used the squib quick to keep the ball out of the hands of Patrick Peterson, instead going short and having the bounce go to freshman linebacker Luke Muncie. Muncie was then hit hard by Lekenwic Haynes, which forced the ball out and into the hands of Fon Ingram.
While the defense had buckled before, the Tigers forced a quick three-and-out.
8 plays and 80 yards later, Jefferson stretched out across the goalline for a three-yard rushing touchdown that gave LSU the lead once more.
Up 29-24, Miles elected to go for two. Ole Miss called a timeout and then came up with the stop.
With Houston Nutt on one sideline, Miles on another and a full moon sitting just above Death Valley, the fourth quarter brought the magic that fans have grown to expect from the annual showdown between Western Division rivals.
A 22-yard rushing score by Masoli followed Jefferson’s touchdown, the culmination of a 10-play drive that took 5:24 off the clock. Just like with LSU on the series prior, the two-point conversion failed.
Crowton then sent Jefferson, the proven hot hand, back to the field.
Four plays later, LSU was back in the lead by way of a 27-yard Michael Ford scoring run on an option pitch from Jefferson.
Again LSU went for two points, and again they came up on the short end.
Down five points with just over 7 minutes left in the game, Masoli quickly found himself in a third-down situation on his own side of the field. While fourth-down conversions had been perfect, the Rebels didn’t have the same fortune on third.
This time, Masoli stepped up and found Markeith Summers for a 65-yard touchdown pass that put the Rebels back into the driver’s seat. After he dove into the endzone upon sprinting past LSU safety Karnell Hatcher, Summers was flagged for a celebration penalty.
Ole Miss burned their second timeout on a two-point play, and the series ended when Masoli overthrew an open Bolden in the endzone.
Just like against Georgia in 2009, the late-game flag proved costly. Ole Miss kicked off from their 15-yard line, which Peterson returned across midfield.
With 4:52 to play, Miles wasn’t fazed.
While his team famously fell on their face across the final minute of last year’s bout with the Rebels, this time around they looked like the coolest cats on the block.
Ford rushed for 16 yards on the first two carries, which Jefferson followed with a pair of keeper runs that moved LSU inside the 30-yard line.
As the clocked ticked down, LSU remained in control.
Crowton called for another rush from Ridley, forcing the Rebels to burn their final timeout with 1:29 on the clock. Faced with 3rd-and-1, Ridley took the ball and rolled seven yards up the gut.
One play later, with the clock below a minute, Ridley ran it for the LSU offense’s final seven yards and the winning touchdown.
“It was a complete effort,” said Ridley, who finished the day with 89 yards and three scores. “The coaches had a gameplan and we came out and stuck to it. When we got the ball there at the end, we knew we were going to pound it on them and either get it in the endzone or kick the winning field goal.
“Either way, we had faith.”
In a season where many followers questioned the purple and gold, faith – thanks to a 10-1 season and top-five national ranking – is growing again in Death Valley.