By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Gusts of wind strong enough to tilt goalposts and damage scoreboards shoved masses of rain sideways as they fell continuously into Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.
They did little to divert LSU from its late-season march through the muck of a mostly mediocre SEC slate. In fact, they turned out to be of great benefit.
A pair of wind-induced muffed first-half punts by the hosts lent essential aid to a slow-starting LSU offense, and a late-game diet of handoffs – plus 60 minutes of dominant run defense – proved enough to push the Tigers past Tennessee, 30-10.
“It was like little kids playing in the backyard,” said LSU head coach Ed Orgeron. “It charged them up.”
Pregame gales that sent a metal chunk of scoreboard onto the head of a Tiger fan, who required medical assistance, and set the west endzone’s goal post leaning hard to the left, continued after kickoff and helped spot LSU (8-3, 5-2 SEC) 10 points before it’d even registered a first down. Marquez Callaway misjudged Zach Von Rosenberg’s second punt of the game – this one into the wind – and muffed it. Special teams ace Russell Gage was there to collect the fumble, and three plays later, Connor Culp connected on a 30-yarder for a 3-0 LSU lead.
“With the wind swirling like it was, any returner back there is at a huge disadvantage,” said Von Rosenberg. “It’s a huge disadvantage with 25 mile per hour winds trying to catch any football hit high up in the air.”
Tennessee (4-7, 0-7 SEC) made the most of a pair of missed LSU tackles on its ensuing drive, converting an overturned fourth-and-1 near midfield and driving 54 yards in 14 plays to level the score on a 45-yard field goal from Aaron Medley one minute into the second quarter.
The Tigers answered back, boosted by Callaway’s second miscalculation, this time on a Von Rosenberg punt with the wind behind it. Michael Divinity pounced on this one, and Darrel Williams, who finished with 68 yards rushing and 30 receiving, raced 10 yards on a third-down sweep for a 10-3 lead with 11 minutes to play in the half. The Tigers struggled early to establish the run, picking up just nine first-quarter yards on the ground, but eventually found their footing, finishing the game with 200 yards on the turf.
“We just kept pounding the ball, feeding me and Derrius,” Williams said. “As a running back, that’s our type of weather. We just kept doing what we was doing, and we believed. It paid out in the end.”
After going three and out four times in its first six drives, LSU’s seventh proved fortuitous, explosive, and productively brief. Danny Etling (11-of-15, 81 yards) hit Derrick Dillon for an 11-yard gain, Williams raced 36 yards down the left sideline, and Etling (9 rushes, 42 yards) scampered 13 yards for a 17-3 lead that needed just three plays and 61 seconds.
“We had a different game plan going in, but once we saw the conditions, we had to adjust,” said Etling. “It changes a lot. You don’t go in there thinking you’re going to have that kind of game plan, but you go with it and try to make it win, any way you can.”
The Volunteers answered back with equal urgency, pulling back within a touchdown on four plays. Jared Guarantano found Callaway twice, first for 26 yards, then 46 and a touchdown, to trim the deficit back in just 45 seconds. LSU tried to add another field goal before halftime, but Culp’s 53-yard attempt hit the upright. If there was any fault in LSU’s defensive effort, it was stopping the pass, as Guarantano finished the night 13-of-23 for 239 yards and the score, despite the conditions, using a variety of screens and big plays downfield to move the ball.
“We’re disappointed in our man coverage,” Orgeron said. “Those guys are better than that.”
The special teams fiascos weren’t finished. A halftime monsoon took out half the lights in Neyland Stadium, and the Tigers kicked off to start the second half into a veritable storm.
“When I walked out that tunnel at halftime,” said tailback Derrius Guice, who surpassed 1,000 yards for the second straight season by picking up 97 yards on 24 carries, “I almost didn’t run out on the field.”
It’s a good thing he did. The winds, again, blew in LSU’s favor. Unable to see the half’s opening kick, Tennessee fell on the ball inside their five and went three-and-out, punting to LSU’s 50. From there, the Tigers ran nine straight times, the final resulting in Guice’s first touchdown of the night, a three-yarder for a 23-10 lead after Culp’s missed extra point. LSU’s took over on downs after Dave Aranda’s defense stuffed the Vols on fourth down at their own 21. Williams needed just two touches from there – a 15-yard reception and a 6-yard scoring run – to push the Tiger advantage to 30-10.
Guarantano connected with Jeff George for a 60-yard completion on the final play of the third quarter, but LSU’s defense forced another turnover on downs, despite a flag on Donte Jackson for a one-finger salute directed toward Tennessee’s student section.
Where is tall man? Where is tall man?
Here I am. Here I am. https://t.co/LofQaTPXoh
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) November 19, 2017
Tennessee outgained LSU 287-284 but managed just 38 rushing yards. LSU’s average starting field position was its own 43, 23 yards better than the Volunteers’.
“I thought it was the difference in the game,” Orgeron said. “Our punting and their two fumbles. It kept them in bad field position, and it gave us some hope.”