It was a shot in the gut to an 8th-ranked Tennessee team (7-2) that battled gallantly against the more talented Tigers, only to see a three-point lead slip away as that freak of a quarterback, JaMarcus Russell, engineered a 15-play, 80-yard drive in the final seven minutes, converting a fourth-and-8 with 2:15 left.
``Obviously that hurts,'' Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. ``From an effort standpoint, we talk about emptying the bucket. We emptied the bucket. We got all they could give.''
But it wasn't enough. It wasn't enough because UT's defense couldn't make enough stops on key long-yardage situations and because the Vols had too many three-and-outs – five, to be exact. That allowed LSU to keep the ball for a staggering 41 minutes, 6 seconds.
``We left the defense on the field entirely too long,'' Fulmer said. ``Part of that was the offense's responsibility. Part of it was the defense's responsibility.''
But it's hard to find too much fault with Tennessee's play because the better team won. LSU not only dominated time of possession, it dominated the stat sheet. The Tigers had 478 yards on 81 plays to UT's 248 yards on 50 snaps. LSU outrushed UT 231 yards to 62. LSU had 28 first downs to 11. And the Tigers converted 8 of 14 third downs and three of three fourth downs. UT was five of 13 on third down.
Tennessee forced four turnovers for a plus-three margin in the game and had just one penalty compared to LSU's nine – four on false starts and one delay of game. That was enough to keep it close. It wasn't enough to win.
Tennessee was behind the eight-ball from the start. Quarterback Erik Ainge, who suffered a high ankle sprain against South Carolina, limped through three series. He was one of six passing – with three drops – for 3 yards before reinjuring his right ankle and tweaking his left on a sack by LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey.
That wasn't good news for a UT team that has had trouble stopping the run and running the ball. The Vols needed all of their offensive weapons to beat the SEC's most talented team. They didn't have them.
The offense did have several highlights. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jonathan Crompton threw a pair of touchdown passes – 37 and 54 yards to Robert Meachem – and bowled over an LSU defensive back. He played well, considering he was going against the nation's top-ranked defense in his first meaningful college outing.
The defense had some moments, also, returning one of its three interceptions for a touchdown and forcing a fumble.
``When you get four turnovers, you usually win,'' Fulmer said. ``That gave us a chance to win. You're hoping for one more.''
That one more would have been a fourth-quarter fumble by the 6-foot-6, 273-pound Russell that Tennessee recovered with less than six minutes left. But it didn't count.
``They said the ball was blown dead,'' said an anguished Fulmer. ``They couldn't review it. Umph, umph, umph.''
You might argue that the missed call on the Russell fumble offset UT's Demetrice Morley touching a punt that rolled into the end zone and was recovered by LSU. Morley said, with a smile, he didn't know if he touched the ball. Replays indicated he did. That would have given LSU a 14-0 lead against a team using a backup quarterback.
The Russell fumble came at the start of LSU's game-winning drive. The Tigers, prone to self-destruction, converted a fourth-and-8 to the UT 34, then scored the decisive touchdown with nine seconds left.
Russell, who guided LSU to four overtime or fourth-quarter wins a year ago, got his first late-game victory this season to silence some of his critics.
Russell was ripped for being big-time in small games but coming up short against good defenses. Entering the UT game, Russell had completed 78 percent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and one interception and a passer rating of 217 in LSU six wins. In the two defeats, he had completed 58 percent for one touchdown and three interceptions for a 109 rating.
Against Tennessee, Russell was good and bad. First, the bad: He threw three interceptions, threw another pass up for grabs with a Vol grabbing at his ankles, and lost a fumble that was blown dead.
The good: He completed 24 of 36 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns and converted a third-and-20, a fourth-and-8, and got 14 yards on a third-and-15 to set up a fourth-down conversion. He also gained 82 yards rushing – including a 34-yard dash – with a net of 71, counting sacks. He had gained 75 yards all season. His running ability was a key factor in a game Tennessee needed to keep alive its hopes for winning the SEC East Division and garnering a berth in a Bowl Championship Series bowl.
Now, those hopes are gone, with 8-1 Arkansas up next.
When the game was over, LSU players and coaches went to salute the several thousand Tiger fans in the northeast end zone.
After a minute or so, the players were instructed to retreat to the locker room.
LSU was still on the field. But when the Tigers finished dancing like it was Mardi Gras, they ran past the Power T. They ran toward the end zone where they had exorcised the demons of last year's overtime defeat to Tennessee – and the two road loses to top-10 SEC teams earlier this season.