Tigers weather early storm, thump Razorbacks

Mathieu ignites a comeback with a 92-yard punt return, LSU grinds out 286 rushing yards and the defense limits Arkansas to 254 yards as the Tigers wrap up the first 12-0 regular season in program history and blaze into an SEC Championship Game clash against Georgia.

Even perfection sometimes has a few imperfections if you look close enough.

How you fix those minor glitches, well, that's a big part of the reason perfection looks and feels so good.

Top-ranked LSU stumbled out of the gate against No. 3 Arkansas Friday afternoon in the regular-season finale, falling into a surprising two-touchdown hole that the Tigers haven't experienced in a long time.

Nonplussed, LSU kicked into gear with a long offensive touchdown drive and Tyrann Mathieu launched a day for the ages with a 92-yard punt-return touchdown as the Tigers surged back for a 41-17 triumph at a packed and noisy Tiger Stadium.

Tigers freshman RB Kenny Hilliard: 102 yards on 19 carries to pace the LSU rushing game.
Mathieu also forced a pair of fumbles, one that along with his return sparked a 21-point barrage in the second quarter. The Tigers offense gashed Arkansas for 286 rushing yards (part of a season-high 494 total yards) with freshman Kenny Hilliard running for 102 and Jordan Jefferson passed for 208 more. And the defense clamped down when it had to and limited the high-flying Hogs to 254 total yards.

Friday's win was the Tigers' seventh against a ranked opponent this season, the third against a foe ranked in the top three, the 10th victory by 13 points or more, the ninth by 24 or more and marked the eighth time this fall LSU has scored 40 points or more.

Perfection? Pretty darn close to it.

"The bigger the game," Tigers coach Les Miles said, "the better this team plays."

LSU's comeback from its largest deficit since falling 21-3 against Ole Miss in the next-to-last game of the regular season in 2008 capped a 12-0 regular season, the first in program history.

The victory also propels the Tigers onto the SEC Championship Game against Georgia a week from Saturday. A win there – and perhaps even with a loss – and LSU will punch a ticket to the BCS Championship Game in New Orleans on Jan. 9.

Those goals were still prominent Friday, even after a rare lopsided victory against the Razorbacks (10-2, 6-2), who have been as big a thorn in the Tigers' side as any team in the SEC in recent years.

"It's not over yet," senior safety Brandon Taylor said. "We still haven't got what we want yet."

Walloping Arkansas Friday was the first of three massive steps, though.

The Hogs staggered LSU early when Jarius Wright finished off a 62-yard touchdown drive with a 13-yard catch from Tyler Wilson, a rare passing touchdown against the Tigers – heck, a rare TD of any kind by an SEC foe.

Arkansas safety Tramain Thomas forced a fumble against Michael Ford and Arkansas' Alonzo Highsmith grabbed the ball and took it 47 yards for a touchdown.
Then right when it looked like LSU's offense was starting to click, Arkansas safety Tramain Thomas drilled Michael Ford on an option pitch, the ball popped up and Alonzo Highsmith plucked it out of the air and rambled 47 yards to the end zone to silence the crowd of 93,108.

With a perfect season, the SEC West championship and a shot at a national crown teetering in the balance, you might've thought the Tigers were starting to feel some pressure.

Not quite.

"This football team, down 14 points, did not flinch," Miles said. "There was never a question in anybody's mind on that sideline that they were going to respond."

That response got off to a lurching start.

Jefferson fumbled the first snap but got it back. Moments later when he was pressured, he flipped a ball up haphazardly that could've been picked off. A false start and an illegal shift nearly derailed momentum. Hilliard bobbled an option toss moments later, but pounced back on it.

But the Tigers persevered, got some help from a facemask and started grinding away at the Hogs defense on the ground – mostly with Hilliard, who carried five times for 26 yards. When he busted into the end zone from 6 yards out at the 5:15 juncture of the second quarter, LSU had cut the Arkansas lead in half.

"You want to take the momentum away, and we knew the only way we were going to do that was to drive down, take the wind out of their sails and score some points," left guard Will Blackwell said.

Turned out the Tigers were just getting warmed up.

LSU's defense forced a three-and-out when Ron Brooks sacked Wilson on first down and Craig Loston broke up a pass on third down.

Razorback punter Dylan Breeding had pinned the Tigers at the 8- and 3-yard-line on his first two attempts and launched his third kick 42 yards. But instead of going directionally, Breeding's kick sailed to the middle of the field where Mathieu was willing and waiting.

Mathieu gathered in the kick, sidestepped one tackler and split two others before finding daylight along the left sideline. By the time he covered the 92 yards, the stadium was whipped into a frenzy.

"I could feel the stadium rocking," Mathieu said.

"We were in safe (defense) because we were expecting a fake, so we had our first defense on the field. Those guys are not really used to blocking, but they did a great job."

That play evened the score, 14-14 after Drew Alleman's point-after kick. More importantly, it allowed the Tigers to climb back even and re-establish control.

"That was a huge turning point in the game," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "We were trying to get the ball punted to the sideline, but (Breeding) mishit it a bit and punted it to the middle of the field. We had guys right there and (Mathieu) made a tremendous run. He made a great cut and made us miss at the point of attack."

He also turned the game upside-down.

"That's when we hit the momentum shift," receiver Russell Shepard said. "Once we hit that, we never looked back."

Added Blackwell, "I'm so glad that guy is on our team and not anybody else's."

Moments later, there was more reason to be glad.

The Hogs came out clicking and threatened to stem LSU's momentum. Two Wilson passes to Greg Childs ate up 24 yards and got Arkansas on the Tigers' end of the field. On second-and-1, Dennis Johnson broke free for a 9-yard run, but Mathieu was there again to poke the ball loose and Brooks smothered it at the 35.

LSU WR Rueben Randle caught nine passes for 134 yards
Five snaps and four Jefferson passes later – two to Rueben Randle covering 40 yards – LSU was in front when Shepard snatched a quick slant and darted in for a go-ahead TD.

"This team has been doing that the whole year," Shepard said. "We've dealt with all kinds of adversity and fought through it ever time. We knew once we got the momentum shifted and our defense got settled in, we were going to be fine."

Arkansas got as close as 21-17 on its first series of the second half on Zach Hocker's 29-yard field goal. That came after Thomas picked off a Jefferson pass at the Razorbacks' 12-yard-line top snuff out a promising opening series of the third quarter.

Two plays after the pick, Wilson zipped a pass to Cobi Hamilton on the left flat and he turned it into a 60-yard gain when he spun away from two defenders and streaked down the sideline until Tharold Simon knocked him out of bounds.

That momentum swing didn't faze the Tigers much.

After Hocker's field goal, LSU's patiently settled into a groove. Ford and Hilliard pecked away on the ensuing drive until Ford busted loose for a 49-yard scamper to fuel a 76-yard march that culminated with Alleman's 21-yard field goal and 24-17 lead.

Following a Breeden punt and Mathieu's 16-yard return, the Tigers began the fourth quarter with the ball and powered out a 45-yard touchdown drive with Hilliard grinding out 24 yards, Ford lowering his shoulder for a 6-yard gain and Ware finishing it off with consecutive 7-yard bursts – the second resulting in a TD and 31-17 lead.

"We came in at halftime and our o-line said ‘We're going to wear them down,' and then we started pounding the ball," Hilliard said. "That's what we do."

Added Blackwell, who combined with tackle Chris Faulk to open up huge holes on the left side, "We love the physicality. All these offensive lineman, all we get to do is pound people."

The Tigers defense wasn't about to be left out.

With Arkansas in desperation mode, Wilson tried to crank a downfield pass to Wright on the first snap after the kickoff and Morris Claiborne plucked the ball out of the air for his fifth interception of the season.

Jordan Jefferson passed for 208 yards and a TD and ran for a 48-yard score.
From midfield, LSU didn't waste any time. On second-and-8, Jefferson faked a handoff to Ford, slipped through a crack at the line of scrimmage and long-strided the rest of the way for a 45-yard TD that pushed the lead to 38-17 with 10:09 to play.

"They have the mindset of running the ball down your throat," Thomas said. "They came out and did just that."

Likewise, the Tigers' defense what it wanted, especially in the second half.

After the field-goal drive, the Razorbacks snapped the ball only 11 more times for 16 yards – punting twice and losing it twice on Claiborne's pick and Mathieu's second fumble recovery.

It went back further than that, though. After rushing for 41 yards on 13 attempts in the first 15 minutes, the Razorbacks scratched out only 16 more yards on their final 15 totes.

Wilson completed only 6-of-11 second-half passes and never looked comfortable after the long touchdown drive that ended on the first play of the second quarter. He was sacked five times and unable to look downfield most of the day.

"As the game wears on, I like how that defenses plays," Mile said. "They just come back in the second half, there are some adjustments, and they came out to play."

Said Petrino, "I thought we were where we wanted to be in the first half. We had a chance to drive it and take the lead, but then in the second half we really did not execute well at all on offense."

Much of that fell on Wilson's shoulders.

The SEC's leading passer coming in, Wilson floundered on third down in the second half, producing only 7 yards on four tries and converting just once.

Bobby Petrino
"Yeah, they did get to (Wilson), particularly in the second half," Petrino said. "I think that caused him to not look down the field sometimes and certainly made a difference in the game."

There was no bigger difference than Mathieu, though.

Stepping in at safety for injured Eric Reid – the first time he's ever played the position – the 5-foot-9, 175-pound sophomore helped solidify LSU's pass defense with a team-high 8 tackles and the two forced fumbles.

"I had to not bite on plays as much as a safety," Mathieu said. "It was really about getting 15-20 yards back and trying to read everything. I definitely think I rose to the challenge."

So did Tigers' defensive coordinator John Chavis, who concocted the idea to shift Mathieu to safety along with secondary coach Ron Cooper. The ripple effect meant Claiborne played primarily nickelback, with Brooks and Simon manning the corners.

"We knew what we were going to see (from Arkansas)," Chavis said. "We felt like it would be a big benefit having our best corner (Claiborne) inside playing their slot receivers when we played man-to-man."

That move worked, just like most everything did for a team striving for perfection.

Just don't expect the Tigers to ease up now that they've taken this latest big step.

"We've still got one more game to play before we can think about being a champion," Mathieu said. "We're going to prepare for that game and look for a victory."

Added Miles when asked if there was a sense that LSU would still get a national championship shot even with a loss to Georgia in Atlanta, "There would be no way that this football team could come to Atlanta and not play their best."

LSU's players loft the Big Golden Boot after roaring past Arkansas 41-17.


A shift in the secondary

NOTES: Crowd honors LSU seniors

SCORING RECAP: LSU 41, Arkansas 17

Recruiting glance: Arkansas game visitors

VIDEO: TSD 1-on-1 with Les Miles after Arkansas win

VIDEO: LSU vs. Arkansas recap

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