With a shot at the national championship seemingly unattainable, the Tigers entered last Saturday's game against Tennessee with their senior class looking to capture the conference title that had previously eluded them. They did so knowing this was going to be their last shot and that their hopes rested largely on the shoulders of sophomore Ryan Perrilloux.
Perrilloux has sort of been a microcosm of LSU football this season – for all of his talent, he hasn't been able to get out of his own way at times and has been his own worst enemy. From a pure image standpoint, he is the polar opposite of senior Jacob Hester. Hester has been the stable anchor of the Tigers offense all year, as reliable as "Old Faithful" and a constant who has produced week in and week out.
For the first two quarters against Tennessee, LSU looked to be replaying its game from the week before with Arkansas – the defense was holding the Volunteers offense in check, the offense was racking up yardage between the 20s, and a one-point deficit was all the Tigers had to show for their efforts at halftime.
"We were moving the ball so well," Hester said. "We had so many yards. I mean, we had 50 plays in the first half, which is almost unheard of these days. Really felt like we had a lot of yards. We just had to get first downs. That was the motivation at halftime."
LSU actually ran 46 plays in the first half for 271 yards. Sixty-seven of those came on 12 carries by Hester, including a 14-yard run on his initial carry of the game where he treated a Volunteers defender like a wrecking ball would a brick wall. Perrilloux was 14-of-18 for 161 yards during those first 30 minutes, and was managing the game well.
Knowing Perrilloux would see appreciable playing time, and in all likelihood be starting Saturday, the senior leadership and other players rallied around him, according to Hester.
"We just let him know we were behind him," Hester said. "I said, ‘You're a great player. You have all the tools. Just go out there and be yourself.' And we really didn't have to tell him anything during the game. He wasn't nervous; he wasn't flustered or anything. He played a great game. Really, I think he only had one mistake the whole night. He's an older guy. He's going to be great in the future. We just really appreciate him stepping in with this kind of leadership tonight."
Perrilloux's mistake came late in the third quarter when Tennessee shifted its coverage just prior to the snap of the ball. An errant pass by Perrilloux was intercepted by Eric Berry at midfield and the Volunteers were given a chance to extend their 14-13 lead. Additionally, Perrilloux's finger clipped an opposing player's helmet on the throw.
"You know, I don't know what he did, but it was nasty," Hester said. "There was blood everywhere. He had it taped up and it was still leaking through the bandage. He was a warrior tonight and just fought through it."
Thankfully for the Tigers the turnover, which was their second on consecutive drives, led only to a missed field goal. LSU's offense never scored again, but held onto the ball enough after its defense gave it the lead to take time away from Tennessee.
Perrilloux returned after splitting his finger and even rushed into the end zone for a two-point conversion to put LSU ahead, 21-14.
Ultimately, he finished the night completing 20-of-30 passes for 243 yards with one touchdown and one interception, rushed nine times for 14 yards, and was named the game's MVP. Hester carried a total of 23 times for 120 yards, including a 20-yard run on a second and eight with 1:42 on the clock for a first down that sealed the game. That run also put Hester over the thousand-yard mark for the year.
"It's a great feeling," Hester said. "A thousand yards is great. It's a great individual goal, but the championship means more. I've never won an SEC Championship. That's always something that I wanted to do. It's so hard to do; so hard to compete in this league, get to the title game, and then beat a good Eastern Division team. Just to have that and say I won an SEC Championship in my career, it means everything to me."
For Hester, one game in an LSU uniform remains. A goal that was taken off the board following the Tigers loss to Arkansas has been put back up, thanks to losses by Missouri and West Virginia. Playing his last game in his home state means everything to him.
"It's 50 minutes down the road from my house," Hester said. "Our fans will get to travel there. We get to have a really good turnout. When I was in high school, if you got to the (Super) Dome, you were doing something special. Still the same way. If you get to the (Super) Dome in college, you're doing something special."
When he made that statement, Hester had no idea he would be playing in the BCS National Championship Game. Instead, he thought the Sugar Bowl would be his final outing as a Tiger. For Perrilloux, if he is able to ward off the demons that have plagued him in his personal life, there will be many more games to suit up for as a Tiger.
"Everything we do we play for each other," Perrilloux said. "We're all about team at LSU. We're all about each other. Everything we do is about us. We don't let outside distractions get inside our family. We just keep working and keep pressing forward and continue to get better."
Hopefully Perrilloux has finally learned his lesson from seniors like Hester, Glenn Dorsey, and upperclassmen like Darry Beckwith. Hopefully LSU coach Les Miles' mentoring is finally paying off. Matt Flynn will likely be healthy for the Tigers bowl game, but the torch was passed last Saturday night. Now it's up to Perrilloux to keep the fire burning.
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