Tigers nip Vols at the wire

Tennessee had shown a knack for finishing with a flourish; LSU had exhibited a knack for choking in the clutch. Both trends ended dramatically Saturday, when the Tigers scored with nine seconds remaining to turn a 24-21 deficit into a 28-24 victory.

The kill shot was a four-yard touchdown pass from JaMarcus Russell to Early Doucet. Six plays earlier the two had hooked up for a clutch eight-yard completion on fourth-and-seven at Tennessee's 42-yard line to sustain the game-winning march.

Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer said there must've been a busted coverage on the game-winning TD pass because "the guy that caught the ball (Doucet) should've been double-covered."

Although starting quarterback Erik Ainge (1 of 6 passing for 3 yards) missed the last three quarters after reinjuring his right ankle, the Vol offense performed pretty well against an LSU defense ranked No. 1 nationally. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jonathan Crompton came off the bench to complete 11 of 24 passes for 183 yards with touchdown passes of 37 and 54 yards to Robert Meachem.

The 54-yard strike gave Tennessee a 24-21 lead with 7:29 to play. But LSU responded with a 15-play, 80-yard drive that consumed 7:14 and ended with Doucet's diving catch in the middle of the South end zone.

"Obviously, that hurts," Fulmer said. "But this team still has a lot of football to look forward to."

Each team now stands 7-2 overall and 3-2 in SEC play. Both UT losses can be traced to an opponent coming from behind in the final minutes. Florida used that formula to beat UT 21-20 on Sept. 16. The late lapse against LSU may have been even harder for Vol defenders to swallow, however.

"It's that time of the game when the defense should step up," senior tackle Turk McBride said. "We really didn't execute. We did certain things pretty good but that time was real critical for us and, as a team, we should've stepped up as a whole."

LSU won with a balanced offense (231 rushing yards, 247 passing yards) that kept the ball for 41 minutes and 6 seconds to Tennessee's 18 minutes and 54 seconds. The Tigers ran 81 offensive plays to the Vols' 50. The key: LSU converted 8 of 14 times on third down and 3 of 3 times on fourth down.

Fulmer noted that his defense was "left on the field entirely too long," blaming both the offense's inability to sustain time-consuming drives and the defense's inability to make third-down stops.

Tennessee's failure to stop the Tigers on third-and-long situations proved particularly costly. On its first TD drive, LSU gained 15 yards on a third-and-seven, 25 yards on a third-and-20 and 14 yards on a third-and-15, ultimately picking up the necessary inches on fourth down.

"The third-and-20 and third-and-15 they converted were huge," Fulmer noted.

The Tigers also converted a third-and-10 on their second touchdown drive when Russell scrambled 23 yards to the Vol 6-yard line. And no play in the game was bigger than the eight-yard pass from Russell to Doucet on fourth-and-seven at the Vol 42-yard line in the final minutes.

With LaMarcus Coker out due to a strained knee, a mid-game injury to Montario Hardesty forced starting tailback Arian Foster to shoulder virtually all of Tennessee's rushing duties. He finished with 10 carries for 44 net yards but got half of his yardage on one carry.

Meachem led Vol receivers with 121 yards on five catches but dropped two passes in the first quarter.

LSU's Russell entered the game with a reputation for choking in the clutch. The tag seemed to fit when he threw three interceptions, one of which was returned 31 yards for a third-quarter touchdown by Vol safety Demetrice Morley. Russell was Mr. Clutch on the Tigers' final drive, however. He finished with 24 completions in 36 attempts for 247 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed seven times for a team-high 71 yards.

Crompton, who had thrown just four passes in UT's first eight games, performed with poise and threw with accuracy for a player with so little game experience. He also scrambled six times for 22 net yards.

Fulmer said he couldn't imagine a tougher spot for a young quarterback than getting his first significant playing time against the top-ranked defense in college football. The head man said he was "really proud of Crompton," adding that he is "going to be a really fine player."

Tennessee generally prevails when the Vols win the takeaway margin but that wasn't the case this time. LSU lost three interceptions and fumble, whereas UT lost just one Crompton interception. The Tigers overcame their miscues by piling up 478 yards of total offense to the Vols' 248.

"With four turnovers, you think you're going to win," Fulmer said, subsequently noting that "they executed and we didn't."

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