Funny how time changes perception.
If you would have told the average football fan or media member or even an LSU football player two months ago that the Tigers would beat Arkansas by a mere field goal when the teams met in Fayetteville in November, the reactions would have bordered on incredulous.
Something like “Arkansas by just three points? You mean the team that has lost 19 straight SEC games? You mean the program on its third head coach in four years? You mean the fan base that says by the last week of September, `When does basketball season start?’”
Yet here we are on a rainy November Saturday afternoon in Fayetteville, LSU hasn’t won a game in more than a month (thanks to a loss, an open date and a COVID-19 game postponement) and that victory was against a coach who was fired last Sunday.
LSU’s Ed Orgeron, once the toast of Louisiana as coach of the unbeaten 2019 national champions, is bent over on the sideline with his hands on his knees. He’s fighting a cold, trying to scratch out a win for his young 2-3 squad that hasn’t improved much since the stunning season opening loss to Mississippi State.
Arkansas, suddenly revitalized under new coach Sam Pittman, is a successful 44-yard field goal away with 1:24 left from sending the game to overtime with a chance for its fourth victory.
Orgeron has just one thought.
“Just block it, man or miss it,” he said. “We need a break.”
One break, coming your way from an unlikely hero.
LSU’s Jay Ward came hard off the edge, dove and deflected just enough of A.J. Reed’s field goal to leave it short and allow the Tigers to edge the COVID-19 depleted Razorbacks, 27-24.
The sigh of relief from the Tigers walking off the Reynolds Razorback Stadium field was the same one heard throughout Louisiana living rooms and bars.
Don’t care if Arkansas was missing six defensive linemen (including three starters) and its starting running back who are in COVID-19 quarantine.
Don’t care if LSU’s secondary got lit up again, allowing five pass plays totaling 245 yards and a TD in a game where the Tigers eventually lost both their starting cornerbacks. Eli Ricks was ejected for targeting in the first half and Derek Stingley sustained an unspecified head injury in the second half.
Don’t care if botched first half-ending clock management forced LSU to settle for placekicker Cade York’s second and final field goal of the day.
It has been a long three weeks of having the lingering stink of the Tigers’ 48-11 loss at Auburn hang like hidden rotten eggs in LSU’s practice facility.
A win is a damned win, no matter how you want to quantify it.
“It’s a great feeling man, I hate losing,” LSU running back Ty Davis-Price said.
Davis-Price certainly ran the way he felt. He accounted for 104 yards of the Tigers’ 148 yards rushing as the Tigers tried to repeat the same offensive game plan they employed in their last victory. Remember the 52-24 Tiger Stadium Oct. 24 demolition of South Carolina and then-soon-to-be fired head coach Will Muschamp?
“We wanted to run the football,” Orgeron said, “be in manageable third downs, short easy throws (for starting true freshman quarterback TJ Finley), take some (downfield) shots when we could and put the ball in our playmakers hands.”
Finley, who imploded in the Auburn loss with two interceptions and a fumble leading to 21 AU points, played a relatively clean game vs. the Razorhoggies. He completed 27 of 42 passes for 271 yards and two TDs with no interceptions and not many “why did he try to throw that pass?” moments.
He fit some of his short darts into some incredibly tight spaces, many to fellow true freshman tight end Arik Gilbert who made five catches for 55 yards.
None was bigger than Gilbert’s 16-yard catch-and-run on third-and-13 from the Arkansas 24 to the Arkansas 8 on LSU’s game-deciding possession.
What turned out to be the game-winning 67-yard drive may also well have been Finley’s ultimate college football baptism of fire.
He completed 3 of 5 passes for 44 yards, the final throw his scrambling third-and-goal 13-yard TD rocket to a diving Jaray Jenkins with 3:59 left to play.
But it’s what he overcame in the 10-play march that was impressive.
First, he had an apparent 25-yard TD pass to Davis-Price ruled incomplete twice – on the field and by the replay official. Two plays later, he converted the third down completion to Gilbert.
Then, on second-and-goal at the Arkansas 8, Finley was called for intentional grounding. It resulted in a 5-yard loss because the play was ruled a sack, and it also was a loss of down.
Finley didn’t blink, humming the game-winning scoring strike to Jenkins on the next play.
Of course, there was still almost four minutes on the clock.
And again, it appeared LSU’s defense was about to let a win slip into overtime as a tie, especially when Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks completed a 7-yard, fourth-and-3 pass to Trelon Smith on its last gasp 48-yard drive. The possession died with two big plays made by Ward, including his victory-preserving field goal block.
“It came down to making a play at the end,” Orgeron said. “And we did.”
There was no talk afterward that the win was something LSU can build on, something it can take into next Saturday’s game at Texas A&M.
That’s because the Tigers have yet to prove this season they can carry winning momentum in the next week. It has been loss-win-loss-win-loss-win.
The one thing LSU did finally show Saturday was an offense capable of making a game-winning drive on a day where the Tigers could never pull away because of the defense again giving up huge chunk plays at the most inopportune times.
LSU won the day Saturday, nothing more than that. But for a team that has had trouble doing just that, it was enough.