LSU’s blueprint to its first victory in nearly a month had a lot of heavy lifting from its running game but ultimately the Tigers’ 27-24 victory Saturday over Arkansas had the fingerprints of a reserve defensive back all over it.
After surrendering several pass completions in his role at cornerback Jay Ward, who replaced starter Eli Ricks following his earlier ejection for targeting, partially blocked a 44-yard field goal attempt by Arkansas’ A.J. Reed with 1:24 to go, enabling the Tigers to leave Reynolds Razorback Stadium with a 27-24 victory in Southeastern Conference play.
“Big time players make big time plays in big moments,” LSU linebacker Jabril Cox said of Ward. “Earlier in the game he had a couple of struggles, but he came back and fought. That’s a testament of us working hard these past few weeks.”
The only taste that still lingered in the mouths of LSU’s players was that of a 48-11 loss at Auburn on Oct. 31.
The Tigers found themselves without a game for two straight weeks because of a bye on Nov. 7 and COVID-19 outbreak within the team that forced the cancellation of a scheduled home game Nov. 14 with Alabama.
The fate of the LSU-Arkansas game hung in the balance until Friday morning when the results of the team’s latest coronavirus test left the Razorbacks (they were without six defensive linemen, three of which were starters) with enough players to face the Tigers.
“Overall, just happy for the football team,” LSU head football coach Ed Orgeron said. “We needed this win.”
LSU put together a similar game plan for true freshman quarterback T.J. Finley to handle in his third start and second straight away from Tiger Stadium.
The Tigers unleashed running back Tyrion Davis-Price (24-104, TD) as part of a ground game that finished with 148 yards on 49 carries and helped control the clock for a decided edge in time of possession – 41 minutes, 43 seconds compared to Arkansas’ 18:17.
Finley also enjoyed the best production of his young career, completing 27 of 42 passes for 271 yards, a pair of touchdowns with no turnovers.
“I knew in the first quarter we were going to have to run the ball a lot, pound the ball no matter who had the hot hand,” Davis-Price said. “Shout out to the O-line. They did so great this week, probably had our best practice of the whole year.
“Great feeling, I hate losing,” Davis-Price said. “We had a great week of practice. We were real confident. We needed this win. I love those guys. We stuck with each other and came out with the W.”
Arkansas compensated for LSU’s ability to hang onto the ball for long stretches of time with an offense that outgained the Tigers (443-419) with explosive plays, moving the ball through the air at a rapid pace.
The Razorbacks, led by 339-yard outing from quarterback Feleipe Franks, took a 21-20 lead on Trelon Smith’s 1-yard with 1:04 left in the third quarter and capped the second of two 90-plus yard drives in the game.
Not only had Arkansas taken its first lead in the game, but it was the Razorbacks first lead since 2015 against the Tigers, who extended their win streak in their annual border war to five years.
Arkansas got the ball back and had a first-and-goal from LSU’s 6-yard line where the Tigers defense, which played the majority of the second half without both Ricks and All-American Derek Stingley Jr. (undisclosed head injury) forced Reed to kick a 22-yard field goal for a 24-20 edge at the 12:42 mark of the fourth quarter.
Finley, who took every snap in all of LSU’s 91 plays, put together the first signature drive of his three-game college career – leading the Tigers to a go-ahead score with just under four minutes remaining.
The 10-play, 67-yard drive which consumed 3:31 off the clock, was ignited by a 16-yard completion to Kayshon Boutte and a targeting call against Arkansas’ strong safety Jalen Catalon, who was ejected following a review of the play with 6:55 remaining.
Finley kept the important drive alive by twice converting on third down, the first time coming on a 16-yard yard completion to freshman tight end Arik Gilbert to Arkansas’ 8-yard line.
An intentional grounding call on first down moved LSU back to the 13, but Finley bought himself sometime in the pocket on third-and-goal and found Jaray Jenkins on a sliding 13-yard TD – the first of his career.
“T.J. showed leadership, we love T.J.,” Davis-Price said. “He held it down for us this game. He’s held it down since Myles (Brennan) went out. I commend him for being a leader, both on and off the football field. That’s big.”
LSU’s defense, which surrendered six plays of 29 yards or more, watched Arkansas drive from its 25 to the Tigers’ 27. The 11-play, 48-yard march reached a fourth-and-three following Ward’s pass break-up. He then served as the edge rusher on the team’s field goal-block unit on the right side and deflected Reed’s potential game-tying effort that was well short of the mark.
“He hung in there,” Orgeron said. “Jay’s a tough young man. You play like you practice. On our field goal block, Jay Ward’s always around the corner. He’s always making plays.”
LSU, which led 17-7 late in the second quarter and 20-14 at halftime, was able to breathe a sigh of relief after Ward’s key play.
Davis-Price rushed for three yards on first down after Ward’s heroics and the Tigers, after the Razorbacks final timeout, were able to kneel the final two plays with Finley doing the honors for a team that improved to 13-0 under Orgeron after a loss.
“Everybody stuck together, everybody stayed in the game the whole time,” Orgeron said. “Coaches stuck together. You could just feel that all week. Hopefully, that’s how things are going to be from now on and we can build on.”