"I am proud of the way our players competed," LSU head coach Nick Saban said. "They faced a lot of adversity. We fought through turnovers and bad field position. We could have melted down, but they showed a lot of character."
The Tigers (10-1, 6-1 in SEC) won its 10th game. The 10 wins for LSU marks only sixth time in school history and just the third time a Tiger squad has garnered 10 wins in the regular season; the first time since 1958. Saturday's win sets up a critical regular season finale at 2:30 on the day after Thanksgiving with the Arkansas Razorbacks.
"We got a good victory tonight over a good team," said LSU defensive tackle Chad Lavalais. "We have to go out Monday and focus on Arkansas."
Eli Manning's home finale was spoiled as was his Heisman Trophy campaign as the Tiger defense harassed the youngest of the Manning clan into completing just 16 of 36 passes for 200 yards. LSU limited the Rebels offense as a whole to a paltry 227 yards and only one offensive touchdown.
"They are definitely the best defense we've seen this year," said Ole Miss head coach David Cutcliffe. "They are as good as anyone in the country."
Manning had the opportunity to engineer a game-winning drive with less than two minutes remaining, but stumbled when an offensive lineman stepped on his foot and turned the ball over on downs all but ending the threat.
"It was a drop back pass and they were overloading the side and (Eli) had the protection sliding," Cutcliffe said. "He just got stepped on. That can sometimes happen. I asked him who and he didn't know exactly who stepped on him. You never know what would have happened. It was just unfortunate."
Just minutes earlier, Rebel kicker Jonathan Nichols, who ranked as the top kicker in the SEC, missed a 36-yard field, which would have tied the game. It was one of two misses on the day – Nichols also pushed a 47-yarder in the second quarter.
"I haven't had a chance to talk to Jonathan yet," Cutcliffe said. "Sometimes you just miss them. Nobody is upset."
The Tigers look for their second berth in the SEC Championship Game for the second time in three seasons when they welcome Arkansas Friday. LSU also inches its way up the Bowl Championship Series poll with Ohio State's 35-21 loss at rival Michigan.
"We don't worry about all that stuff on the side," Lavalais said.
Saban complimented his team's composure in what was one of the Tigers' uglier games of the season.
"It was a hard fought game, and honestly, it was shame someone had to lose," Saban said. "But I am proud we came away with the win. We have some fixing to do. When you win, sometimes it is hard to make people want to fix things. It wasn't always pretty, but they showed a lot of maturity."
However, the game could have spun out of control on the Tigers first offensive play of the game.
After forcing an Ole Miss punt on its first offensive possession, the Tigers faced poor field position at their own seven. Mauck bootlegged on a play-action pass and flung a pass intended for Michael Clayton. However, the errant offering hit Ole Miss defensive back Travis Johnson squarely in the hands as he danced the other way for a 6-yard return for a touchdown.
"The first was a rollout and I led Michael Clayton too much," Mauck said.
Clayton drew a great deal of attention most of the afternoon facing double and triple coverage. That was the case on the Johnson's interception for the quick six.
"We've been practicing hard and we knew (Michael) Clayton is a big receiver and he was going to get the ball a lot today," Johnson said. "It was the first play of the game and I knew it was going to be a pass play so I just stuck on him the whole time and made a big play."
Michael Clayton had nine catches for 83 yards and a touchdown Saturday.
Shaken but not rattled, the LSU offense collected itself and answered the Rebels' charge. The Tigers sapped over seven minutes from the clock on a 15-play, 52-yard drive resulting in a 45-yard, Chris Jackson field goal.
"One thing I will say is Matt (Mauck) did a fantastic job of not getting frustrated," Saban said. "He has a tendency to press because he is such a competitor. But it was key for him to help us have the success we did."
The Rebels continued to fluster Mauck and the Tiger offense most of the first half. LSU struggled running the football and Mauck tossed the second of three interceptions leaving the door wide open for an Ole Miss assault. However, while LSU struggled putting points on the board, the Tigers amassed an impressive 22 first half yards.
"I did not think we had our personality," Saban said. "I do not think we looked like ourselves. The staff did the best we could to get them to focus on the game and execute. We wanted them to focus on the game and execute."
While LSU spent most of the first half scratching its' collective heads offensively, Ole Miss endured much of the same frustrations. The Rebels' offense, which ranked No. 1 in the SEC, mustered a mere 79 first half yards, including a paltry 11 yards on the ground.
"They were pressing our receivers and making it hard for them to get off the line," said Ole Miss running back Vashon Pearson. "They were bringing everybody else and it was hard to pick up."
LSU finally managed some offensive consistency late in the second quarter. Following a flurry of punts, miscues and mistakes, the Tigers gained possession at their own 29 with 5:13 remaining in the half.
Bolstered by a 44-yard run by freshman tailback Justin Vincent, the Tigers penetrated the Rebels' red zone. Mauck hit Clayton twice inside the 17, the first covering 11 yards, the second completion coming from nine yards for a 10-7 LSU lead. Mauck flung the pass in the right flat, picked up a key block from Rodney Reed, and raced to the goal line.
The third quarter became a battle of field position as each desperately fought for advantage. However, both teams combined for just 58 total offensive yards in the third quarter.
LSU gained possession just before the end of the third stanza at its 31. A 2-yard Mauck scramble, coupled with an 11-yard pass propelled the Tigers in the final period with the ball at their own 47.
With one of the few big plays of the game, LSU opened the fourth quarter with an insurance touchdown that put the Tigers over the top. Mauck dropped back and found Henderson streaking down the left sideline. The same play on which Henderson scored the opening touchdown of LSU's 31-7 win over Auburn; Henderson danced 53 yards for a 17-7 Tiger advantage.
"We didn't play well during the game," Mauck said. "But we made the plays when we needed to."
Manning and the Rebels felt a sense of urgency as time was running down and they were on the wrong side of a 10-point deficit. The senior signal caller overcame a pair of sacks, took advantage of a key defensive holding call and a 43-yard desperation heave to Bill Flowers to lead Ole Miss into the end zone cutting the lead to 17-14. Manning hit Brandon Jacobs on a 10-yard circle rout for the fourth quarter score, making an already tense ball game tighter.
"We just started making plays," Manning said. "We were picking up protection and receivers were catching balls. I was more accurate than I was in the first quarter."
"We just made up our mind that we had to get it done," said Ole Miss wide out Chris Collins. "It wasn't just one particular thing that got us going in the fourth quarter. We challenged ourselves to make plays and we did."
Once the Rebels closed the gap, the LSU defense, which had controlled the tempo of the game, seemed to be on its collective heels. Ole Miss regained possession with 8:34 left to play. Utilizing a newfound rushing attack, the Rebs drove the ball to the Tigers' 18-yard line and faced a third and four. Manning's pass was off the mark and forced a Nichols' field goal attempt.
"It was never about what they did," said LSU cornerback Corey Webster. "We didn't execute on defense. It was all about what we weren't doing and getting our defense together."
Nichols' offering sailed wide right as Ole Miss watched their chances of an overtime showdown diminish. The rowdy Vaught-Hemingway crowd sat silent, this time almost realizing its fate.
The Rebels would get two more opportunities, both of which went for naught. Manning tripped over a lineman's foot on fourth down at the Ole Miss 32 and a Hail Mary heave fell short as time expired.
"We put ourselves in a position to have a chance to win," Cutcliffe said. "That's what we intended to do, and knew it wasn't going to be easy. As I said at the beginning, I am proud of our effort and proud of what we did. Now we have to put it behind us and move forward."