OXFORD, Miss. --- When the final second ticked off the game clock, Vaught-Hemingway Stadium erupted into the loudest Hotty Toddy chant the Rebel faithful could manage.
Rueben Randle, who hauled in LSU’s only two offensive touchdowns, stood near the end zone with a blank stare.
Right tackle Joseph Barksdale stood alone near midfield, helmetless and hanging his head low.
Wide receiver Terrance Tolliver, who finished with a team-high five catches for 107 yards, had pulled down a 43-yard Hail Mary attempt from quarterback Jordan Jefferson just moments earlier.
Without a timeout and unsure of whether to get the field goal unit rushed out or take the quick snap and throw for the win, the Tigers did neither – and lost because of it.
Call it bad coaching.
Les Miles did.
“It’s my fault we didn’t finish first in that game,” he said.
When Alabama’s Julio Jones took a screen pass for the win against LSU two weeks ago, the dagger didn’t decide the outcome as much as it changed the momentum of the game.
Heartbreaking? Sure. But as a small example of an issue that operates on a broader scale, one series usually doesn’t cost any team a football game.
On Saturday night, LSU might have managed an exception to the rule.
First thing’s first, the Rebels are the second best team in the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division for good reason.
All week LSU talked about how their defense had to bottle up Dexter McCluster, who rushed for 282 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee the week prior. “If we stop him, we stop Ole Miss,” was the consensus.
The Tigers stopped the senior from running a touchdown, but that was about the extent of their luck holding the 5-foot-9, 170-pound speedster in check. He finished the game with 159 yards on 24 carries, also adding a 27-yard touchdown pass that gave the Rebels a five-point lead with 13:33 left in the fourth quarter.
McCluster’s success went a long way in helping Houston Nutt’s side keep the LSU defense on the field – a problem the Tigers have run into week-in and week-out.
During game week preparations, Miles stressed that the Tigers would need to win the time of possession battle to win the game.
When the clock hit zero, Ole Miss had possessed the ball seven minutes longer than LSU and outgained the Tigers by 136 yards.
It’s not rocket science.
The Rebels were better in all phases.
They went 4-of-4 on their red zone scoring chances, converted more third downs, recorded more first downs, and came up with the only turnover of the game.
When LSU stood at their own 34-yard line with 3:32 left in the game, the 25-17 score seemed out of reach. Yet, three completions and a pair of runs moved the ball to the Ole Miss 25-yard line before Jefferson found Rueben Randle in the corner of the end zone for his second score of the game.
After punting on every possession (5) of the second half, the Tigers had found life.
Pay attention, because this is where it gets interesting.
Down 25-23, LSU’s two-point conversion attempt saw Jefferson find Terrance Toliver in the corner of the end zone. Toliver mishandled the catch, but pass interference was called on cornerback Cassius Vaughn.
The penalty moved the ball just outside the one-yard line, where Miles elected not to run but instead come back with the same play call. This time Vaughn made the stop, and the Rebels stayed out front by two.
“I know I have gotten stopped on some plays when we needed a yard, but I still felt like we would have rushed the ball there,” said running back Stevan Ridley.
Then lady luck danced again.
LSU’s last-ditch effort, an onside kick with just over a minute to play, was recovered by wide receiver Brandon LaFell.
Vaught-Hemingway fell silent. Red and blue pom-poms ceased to shake. After a 10-point fourth quarter that appeared to be enough to take down the Tigers for the second year in a row, LSU had the ball and only a handful of yards to drive for the game-winning field goal attempt.
For LSU fans that saw the game, you probably don’t want to read this column any further.
After a 26-yard completion to LaFell that moved the ball to the Ole Miss 32-yard line, the Tigers were almost to the Promised Land. From there, Josh Jasper’s winning field goal attempt would have been from 49 yards out. In the second quarter, the junior hit on a 50-yard attempt.
“We were close enough to kick the field goal at that point,” Miles said. “Even though long, close enough to kick.”
With Keiland Williams out with a possible broken ankle, the workload for the final minute was on the shoulders of sophomore Stevan Ridley.
Instead of pounding the ball and settling for the field goal, offensive coordinator Gary Crowton had a different plan – and Miles didn’t stop him.
“We suggested a run, but Gary had a good thought, felt the quarterback could handle the situation,” Miles said. “It was my mistake.”
After an incomplete pass, Jefferson pulled the ultimate late-game no-no, getting sacked for a nine-yard loss that pushed LSU out of field goal range.
After a timeout stopped the clock, the Tigers needed roughly 10 yards to get back into Jasper’s field goal range. Instead, a screen pass to Ridley resulted in a seven-yard loss and forced Miles to call LSU’s final timeout.
Trouble was, the clock rolled from 32 seconds at the snap down to nine seconds before the time out was called.
With a timeout in his pocket and the ability to still set up for a field goal, was Miles riding his fortune on a Hail Mary?
“We didn’t know that [the timeout] hadn’t been called,” Miles said. “The clock ran down, and timeouts were being called verbally. I didn’t relate to the official apparently.”
As Miles would say, speculation is rampant – this time as to whether the headman had the time out called or not. No matter, the timeout came late – which left the Tigers in a state of mass confusion.
“I was expecting a timeout, but it didn’t happen,” Ridley said. “You could say we were unprepared when that situation came up.”
With only nine seconds to play and LSU 48 yards away from the game winning score, the options had dwindled to just one.
Jefferson scrambled from pressure and offered his best Hail Mary, and amazingly, Toliver came down with the catch at the five-yard line.
One second remained on the clock. Lady luck was still dancing.
With no timeouts, LSU was at a fork in the road: run the field goal unit out or rush the offense down and hurry off the final snap.
In the two timeouts that occurred within the final 32 seconds, the plan for the game’s final play was never passed along.
A couple of members of the field goal unit strapped on their helmets and started to head onto the field. The offensive line, assuming the idea was to get a final snap off with Jefferson, sprinted down field and lined up. Jefferson, who looked as lost as a freshman on the first day of class, stared frantically at the sidelines awaiting the play.
“The signal caller told me to clock the ball,” Jefferson said. Jefferson said the coach that sent him the call was graduate assistant Jeff Dunn.
Amidst confusion overload unseen from a Tiger side in some time, the snap never got off.
Final score: Ole Miss 25, LSU 23.