It was a victory LSU sorely needed to keep its rapidly fading bowl eligibility hopes alive.
And with a backup true freshman quarterback and a defense pushed to the limit by one of the SEC’s best scrambling QBs, the Tigers lost 16-13 to No. 25 Arkansas in overtime on a chilly Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.
Cam Little’s 37-yard field goal provided the game-winning points for the Razorbacks (7-3, 3-3 SEC West). after LSU quarterback Garrett Nussmeier was intercepted in the end zone on the Tigers’ opening overtime possession.
“When that ball went through the uprights, it was one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen,” said euphoric second-year Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman, who got the Razorbacks their first 7-win season since 2016 which is the last time the Hogs beat LSU. “I call him Little Cam, but his leg ain’t. . .big leg.”
LSU, 4-6 overall and 2-5 in the SEC West, now must win its remaining games both at home next Saturday vs. UL-Monroe at 8 p.m and Nov. 27 vs. Texas A&M to get the six wins required to receive a bowl invite and avoid the Tigers’ first losing season since 1999.
The Tigers’ defense delivered an effort good enough to win, limiting Arkansas to 283 yards and just 3 of 16 on third down conversions. LSU’s only defense gaffe was allowing Razorbacks’ quarterback KJ Jefferson to scramble free and launch a 43-yard TD pass to wide open running back Dominique Johnson to tie the game at 10-10 in Arkansas’ 10-point third quarter.
The ultimate difference was the Hogs’ scored 13 points off three LSU failures such as:
•Following Cade York’s 55-yard field goal miss that would have given LSU a 13-3 lead with 8:23 left in the third period, Jefferson produced his game-tying TD pass.
“Great quarterbacks keep their eyes downfield and the only thing on my mind was making the play,” Jefferson said.
•After Nussmeier was intercepted by Myles Slusher at the Arkansas 37, the Razorbacks kept alive a drive on a successful fake field goal and took a 13-10 lead on Little’s 27-yard field goal.
•Finally, after Nussmeier made one of his best throws of the night, a 24-yard, third-and-20 strike to Malik Nabers at the Arkansas 11 in overtime, he telegraphed a corner fade route to Devonta Lee that was intercepted by the Hogs’ Montaric Brown for a touchback.
“It was a great play call, that’s on me,” Nussmeier said.
Four plays later, Little drilled the game-winning field goal.
Nussmeier replaced sophomore starting quarterback Max Johnson after the Johnson-engineered offense gained just 31 yards in the first two series of the game. The gunslinger freshman completed 18 of 31 passes for 179 yards, two interceptions and a TD.
When Johnson was pulled after making his 12th straight college start, he never played another snap the rest of the game.
“We didn’t want to put him back in were so far into it (the game),” LSU lame-duck head coach Ed Orgeron said of Johnson. “We felt like giving Garrett his shot and he made some good plays.”
LSU’s defense, led by 12 tackles each from linebackers Damone Clark and Micah Baskerville, gave the Tigers a chance to win from start to finish.
The Razorbacks’ best offense was Jefferson escaping the Tigers’ pass rush and creating on the run. He completed 18 of 25 passes for 142 yards and a TD but guided an attack that didn’t commit a turnover.
In a game in which every possession mattered for a couple of offenses desperate for points, an inexplicable play call by first-year LSU offensive coordinator Jake Peetz blew the Tigers’ chance to possibly lead 17-3 in the second quarter.
LSU got its first TD on the second play of Nussmeier’s second series and on the first play of the second quarter at the Arkansas 29.
Nussmeier fired a pass that appeared would sail out of the left corner of the end zone. But LSU freshman wide receiver Jack Bech, leaping like an outfielder trying to save a home run from leaving the park, hauled in the pass for a spectacular touchdown and 10-3 lead after York’s extra point.
After two more three-and-outs by Arkansas stymied offense, a 24-yard shanked punt by Hogs’ punter Reid Bauer gave the Tigers’ good field position at the LSU 44.
It seemed that Nussmeier had finally found a passing rhythm completing back-to-back passes of 17 yards to Bech and 18 yards to Jack Mashburn as LSU moved to the Arkansas 18.
There on first down, LSU offensive coordinator Peetz made the most confounding play-call in a season full of questionable decisions.
Instead of keeping Nussmeier in the game, he inserted running back Ty Davis-Price in a Wildcat formation to take a direct snap from center Liam Shanahan. But Shanahan’s snap bounced off Davis-Price’s hands and Arkansas defensive back Greg Brooks Jr. recovered at the Arkansas 30.
“It sucks to be the ones holding us back from getting a couple of wins (also last week’s 20-13 loss at No. 2 Alabama) that could have been really big wins for us,” Shanahan said of LSU’s offense. “It hurts when our defense comes out and plays like one of the best defenses in the country.”