LITTLE ROCK, Ark. --- Trailing 31-20 and with visions of a BCS bowl fading, LSU stood eight yards away from a touchdown score that could help trim the lead to only a field goal.
With the clock nearing the two-minute mark, the moment was now. Truth be told, this was where Les Miles and the Cardiac Cats made their money.
But when center P.J. Lonergan sent the second down snap over Jefferson’s head for a 19-yard loss, the reality was drilled home that this wasn’t one of those nights.
“We had way too many mental mistakes,” said cornerback Patrick Peterson. “You can’t play like that and expect to win against a team like this.”
Bottom line: each time a window of opportunity opened, LSU found a way to take a step in the opposite direction.
“It seemed like we played really well at times, and other times we gave up big plays,” said head coach Les Miles.
It didn’t take long.
The first wave of missteps came after LSU’s first offensive possession when Joe Adams muffed Derek Helton’s punt. The ball quickly took a few bounces back towards the Arkansas goalline, but neither Spencer Ware nor Ron Brooks were able to corral the loose football. When it skipped out of bounds, Arkansas retained possession.
When Ryan Mallett fumbled the ball, the Tigers couldn’t fall on it in time. And while it forced the Razorbacks into a punt, the tables were soon to turn once more when Daniel Graff allowed the kick to bounce off him before falling into the wrong hands.
Midway through the first quarter, LSU found themselves on the short end of all three loose balls.
Tied at 7-7 in the second quarter, the Tigers had a chance to extend the lead with back-to-back scores. Instead Miles passed on a 4th-and-1 at midfield and punted the football away.
This is when things get interesting.
The LSU defense quickly forced Mallett into a third down. With another stop, LSU could swing momentum in their favor for the first time all game.
Instead, Arkansas delivered the first major blow by way of an 85-yard touchdown strike from Mallett to Cobi Hamilton. The blame was shouldered by Karnell Hatcher, who – in a bad night soon to turn worse – missed his early shot on Hamilton and allowed the Razorbacks wideout to sprint untouched down the sideline.
“We get to the boundary and all we have to do is collision the wide receiver,” Miles said. “If he comes off like he is supposed to, then there is no play. It’s an incomplete pass.”
Hatcher’s next blunder proved even more costly.
After LSU traded turnovers in the final minute of the first half, the Tigers punted the ball into the endzone with six seconds on the clock.
For Mallett, all he needed was a snap.
On a simple post route Mallett found Hamilton again, but this time Hamilton had cornerback Mo Claiborne on his heels and Hatcher coming in for the kill shot.
Then chaos ensued.
Hatcher cleared out Claiborne but never touched Hamilton.
“It knocked the wind out of me,” Claiborne said.
Hamilton spun away from the pair and continued upfield, where a blocker led him past Peterson and into the endzone for the 21-14 lead with no time on the clock.
Kelvin Sheppard said of the play: “I think out of 100 times we would stop that play 99 times. Today was just the day they got it.”
Consider it the deepest dagger - and an end to the half that certainly set the mood going forward. Whatever the story was to this point, the third quarter was going to be about settling.
On the first series Miles settled for three points despite going for it on 4th-and-1 from the Arkansas 37-yard line. When the Razorbacks tried to punt it back, the snap was mishandled and LSU came with the block.
With a starting point inside the opposing 10-yard line, common knowledge would say six points. But for the second time in the half, LSU settled on three.
“We had opportunities to take the lead and we should have taken them,” Jefferson said. “We just kept settling on three when six was what we really needed.”
When freshman Eric Reid intercepted Mallett on the next drive, LSU took one final breath.
From there, it was all Arkansas.
Unable to capitalize, LSU punted the ball back to Arkansas, who then took the game into the fourth quarter. Faced with 4th-and-3 from just beyond field goal range, Mallett iced LSU’s fate with the biggest conversion of the season.
“It was just a double move,” Peterson said. “We sent everybody and there was no safety over the top. They went max protect, so they had it blocked pretty well.”
Arkansas added a field goal to make it 31-20 with 6:09 to play in the game, which brings the discussion full circle.
With Lonergan’s snap soaring over the 6-foot-5 Jefferson’s head, LSU ended the night the same way they began it.
“Anytime you give up those kinds of big plays it’s very difficult to end in victory,” Miles said. “It didn’t finish like we wanted it to.”