LSU forced four turnovers during its 41-35 victory against Ole Miss on Saturday in Tiger Stadium.
The Tigers, who entered the game having forced a Southeastern Conference-leading 25 turnovers, have 15 takeaways in their past five games.
The team and its fans can look at that statistic in one of two ways, especially in the past two weeks. One is that LSU’s ability to force turnovers has enabled it to bounce back from its last-minute loss to Alabama and win its last two games. It’s also enabled the Tigers to beat three ranked teams in winning four of their past five, improving to 9-2 overall and 5-2 in the SEC.
All of that is true.
Here’s another way of looking at it: The turnovers have been essential for the Tigers to overcome the amount of yardage they’ve been giving up — and that anything less than three or four takeaways could lead to defeat at Arkansas on Friday, or in a postseason game down the road, if the yardage numbers don’t improve.
“At times, the defense was dominant,” coach Les Miles said, citing a critical juncture in which LSU pushed the Rebels back 20 yards with three consecutive negative plays. Those plays turned a first down at the Tigers’ 16-yard line into a missed field goal from 53 yards with the score tied late in the fourth quarter.
The last two plays were sacks of Bo Wallace, who passed for 310 yards and ran for 54. The first sack was made by Anthony Johnson, the second by Lavar Edwards, which might have been the biggest play by a senior on Senior Day.
“That’s something that we practice as a D-line,” said end Sam Montgomery, who had the Tigers’ other sack. “Players have to step up. That’s what my teammates train to do.”
LSU allowed a season-high 316 passing yards, surpassing by 12 yards the previous high it gave up a week earlier against Mississippi State. In that game, the Tigers had a fumble recovery and two interceptions, the last of which was returned 100 yards by safety Craig Loston for a touchdown, helping make a 37-17 victory seem a little easier than it really was.
But Saturday’s game most closely resembled a 24-19 win at Texas A&M on Oct. 20. The Aggies, like the Rebels, had a talented dual-threat quarterback (Johnny Manziel) who gave the Tigers fits while building an early lead.
Manziel, like Wallace, and the Aggies, like the Rebels, were done in by turnovers. LSU had five takeaways from A&M, intercepting Manziel three times — the same number of times the Tigers intercepted Wallace.
Deion Jones’ recovery of a muffed punt gave LSU the ball at the Ole Miss 18, leading to Drew Alleman’s 22-yard field goal that got the Tigers within 14-10 early in the second quarter.
Jalen Collins’ interception of a tipped pass gave LSU the ball at the Ole Miss 36, leading to Spencer Ware’s 1-yard touchdown that gave the Tigers a 17-14 second-quarter lead.
On the first possession of the third quarter, Tharold Simon intercepted Wallace, giving LSU the ball at the Rebels 20. That led to Alleman’s 24-yard field goal, which cut Ole Miss’ 21-17 halftime lead to one point.
An interception by Loston didn’t lead to points — Ole Miss picked off Zach Mettenberger on the next play — but the four takeaways collectively helped the Tigers mitigate the season-high 463 yards allowed, just as five takeaways helped mitigate the previous high (410) accumulated by the Aggies.
Montgomery talked about LSU making “big-time plays,” which it had to do to overcome the Rebels’ big-yardage plays. Wallace averaged 19.8 yards per completion.
“Hats off to them,” end Barkevious Mingo said of the Rebels. “There are some things we messed up on and we have to correct. We’ll get back at it.”
LSU gave up two first-quarter touchdowns for the first time in three years and had its most trouble slowing down Ole Miss during the first three quarters. The Tigers gave up a fourth-quarter touchdown that enabled the Rebels to take a 35-28 lead, but the defense — and the team as a whole — saved its best for last.
“We made a couple of mental errors,” safety Eric Reid said. “We missed tackles that allowed them to get two easy touchdowns at the beginning of the game. We just had to battle back.”
Reid was referring to Wallace’s 58-yard touchdown run — the longest run allowed by LSU in more than two years — and a 56-yard touchdown pass from Wallace to Donte Moncrief.
Defensive tackle Bennie Logan said the Rebels hurt the Tigers with their constant shifting, which he called “trickery.” That required the defenders to be disciplined and focus on defending the proper gap regardless of how much the Ole Miss players changed positions.
“Overall, we did a pretty good job,” Logan said. “We had little mistakes, but once we correct those things, we will be OK.”
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