LSU’s closer-than-expected 13-10 victory Saturday over Arkansas in a Southeastern Conference Western Division encounter had Harold Perkins’ handprints all over it.
With the Tigers offense rendered mostly ineffective throughout, it was the play of the team’s defense and in particular Perkins, that saved the day at Arkansas’ Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Perkins tied a school record with four quarterback sacks, and it was his pressure that forced a fumble from Arkansas reserve quarterback Cade Fortin, resulting in a recovery by defensive lineman Mehki Wingo to seal the game with 1:19 to play.
“It’s survival in the SEC,” LSU football coach Brian Kelly said. “We fought hard but you have to give credit to Arkansas. We didn’t have our ‘A’ game. Hopefully we’ve learned that we have to prepare.”
Kelly said Perkins was under the weather with the flu, throwing up on the way to a team meeting.
“I said hey, ‘MJ (Michael Jordan) threw up and had his best game’,” Kelly said of conversation with Perkins. “He said, ‘Who’s MJ’?” I’m getting old.”
The result of LSU’s victory, coupled with Alabama’s 30-24 win over Ole Miss, solidified the Tigers as champions of the SEC West and representative in the SEC Championship Game Dec. 3 in Atlanta.
A week after what was considered a watershed moment in a 32-31 overtime home win over Alabama, No. 7 LSU didn’t resemble the same team and found itself in a tense battle that wasn’t determined until the final minute of play.
LSU (8-2, 6-1) extended its longest win streak of the season to four games and will conclude its league schedule Nov. 26 at Texas A&M on Nov. 26. The Tigers host Alabama-Birmingham next week in Tiger Stadium at 8 p.m.
“Their team was well prepared and was a great challenge for us today,” Kelly said of Arkansas. “But we found a way to win on the road.
“I’m proud of our guys to have great mental toughness to battle and find a way to win a football game when we were challenged the way we were today,” Kelly added.
It was hardly a conventional method for the Tigers who gained 284 total yards with quarterback Jayden Daniels being limited to a season-low 96 yards and no touchdowns. Daniels completed 8-of-15 passes for 86 yards with an interception and carried 19 times for 10 yards and lost a fumble.
Daniels was the target of an extreme pass rush from Arkansas which sacked him seven times for minus-41 yards.
Running back Josh Williams led the Tigers with 19 carries for 122 yards – a career high – and scored his team’s lone touchdown. Damien Ramos kicked field goals of 38 and 29 yards in the first half.
“Sometimes you have to grind through this league,” Kelly said. “Hats off to (Arkansas coach) Sam (Pittman). He had his team ready to play.”
LSU’s defense directly had a hand in the offense’s lone score. Arkansas opted to go on fourth-and-two but Malik Hornsby, who rolled to his right, slipped down and lost 12 yards on the play to LSU’s 40 with 7:16 showing.
The Tigers converted their first explosive play of the game when Daniels connected with Kayshon Boutte for 26 yards to the Razorbacks’ 1 and Williams scored on the next play for a 13-3 lead.
Arkansas (5-5, 2-4), which started Hornsby in place of injured starter KJ Jefferson, turned to Fortin, the team’s No. 3 quarterback, midway through the third quarter and the move paid dividends. The senior transfer from South Florida delivered a pass before getting crushed by Perkins, with Matt Landers beating LSU’s Mekhi Garner along the sideline for a 40-yard TD with 13:17 left to play.
Each team had the ball four more times, including an overturned play with 4:09 left on an apparent sack and fumble recovery caused by Perkins, but LSU’s defense stood firm and limited Arkansas to 249 total yards.
Linebacker Greg Penn had a team-high nine tackles with Perkins adding eight tackles, a pass break-up, a quarterback hurry and two forced fumbles.
“He impacted the game to the level where we won the game because of his final play,” Kelly said of Perkins. “I don’t think there are enough superlatives to talk about the play of this young man.”
The game kicked off in 36-degree temperatures and Reynolds Stadium had an inch of snow and ice removed from a storm the night before.
LSU overcame a pair of first-quarter turnovers against Arkansas’ aggressive defense to lead 6-3 at halftime.
John Emery Jr.’s 32-yard gain on first down sparked the go-ahead drive just before halftime but Daniels was sacked for the fifth time back to his own 48-yard line. It was the most sacks in the SEC registered in a half this season by any team.
LSU, which held the ball for 11 plays and five-plus minutes, turned to Noah Cain and moved the ball inside Arkansas’ 7 but the Tigers, following an illegal procedure penalty, settled for Ramos’ 29-yard field goal with 1:51 remaining.
After being one of the nation’s best in terms of protecting the football, Daniels turned the ball over twice in the first quarter.
The Tigers picked up three first downs on their first possession and had reached Arkansas’ territory when Daniels was intercepted for the second time on his 270th throw of the year, an attempt that went directly into the line of scrimmage where safety Latavious Brini picked it off the ball at the 11:29 mark.
Arkansas produced a 3-0 lead with 4:48 left in the opening quarter on Cam Little’s 28-yard field goal. It was the first big moment for LSU’s defense which allowed three first downs on the drive and was backed up on its 10-yard line before forcing the field goal.
Two plays later LSU’s defense was back on the field when Daniels was stripped of the football which Brini recovered at LSU’s 10. The Razorbacks opted to go on fourth-and-goal from the 3, but BJ Ojulari converged to bring down Hornsby stepping up into the pocket to avoid pressure.
Perkins displayed his big-play ability early in the second quarter when Hornsby attempted to take off from the pocket. He tracked him down and forced a fumble that Ojulari recovered at the Razorbacks’ 37.
Daniels scrambled for 20 yards on first down to the 17 but took an eight-yard sack on third down and Ramos tied the game at 3-3 with a 38-yard field goal with 9:28 left.
“Thank God he’s on our team,” Kelly said of Perkins.