OXFORD, Miss. — There was just something that hung in the chilly October air over Saturday night’s LSU-Ole Miss game. The game; the series in which the improbable is often commonplace; the heroic effort is usually just part of the plan.
That thing was a full moon, rising high and beautiful over Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. On it rode a comet trail of upsets on this dizzying college football weekend in which four other top-10 teams fell.
Whether it was the LSU Tigers, who for some reason were eager to add their name to the list of fallen national contenders, or whether it was an inspired band of Ole Miss Rebels who were more than willing to do them in, the result was yet another outcome that makes college football fans love their game so much, despite all the scandals and excess and general ridiculousness — I’m thinking of you, Grambling — that we suffer through every year.
If you’re an LSU fan, of course, you’re not loving Saturday’s 27-24 loss to Ole Miss so much. The chaotic beauty of college football is lost on you when you’re left looking at the smoldering pile of debris that was your team’s championship hopes heading into what looked like a pretty predictable weekend.
Certainly tremendous credit to the Rebels. Everyone — your friendly neighborhood sportswriter included — thought Ole Miss’ defense was too much of a M*A*S*H unit to offer anything but token resistance to LSU’s balanced and potent attack. The Tigers were going to run through Mississippi like a Union army, passing only when it suited them to keep things fresh.
Someone forgot to tell the remaining Rebels they couldn’t tackle, or that they couldn’t make interceptions. Three times Zach Mettenberger targeted Odell Beckham Jr. in the first half, and three times the Rebels came away with picks — two of them in the end zone.
Two of the interceptions were on two of the most badly thrown deep balls Mettenberger has unleashed during this his renaissance senior season. Still, the Rebels had to make their catches.
Throughout the first half, LSU seemed intent to either throw deep or run the ball with middling success, ignoring or generally failing to capitalize on a squadron of receivers underneath who were so often running free.
In the second half, Mettenberger started to hit his marks like a veteran stage actor, and the Tigers conjured up a remarkable comeback. Converting a fourth-and-10 pass with a 15-yard strike to Beckham to the Ole Miss 16. Three plays later, Mettenberger found Jarvis Landry on play-action with a diving 4-yard grab to tie the game 24-24 with 3:19 left.
Just like in LSU’s loss at Georgia in September when the Tigers took the lead late, it was up to the defense to hold on. That time, it couldn’t, as the Bulldogs drove for the winning touchdown in a 44-41 thriller.
Considering the interceptions and the fact Ole Miss rolled for a season-high 525 total yards, maybe it was remarkable that the Tigers were even in a tie game with just over three minutes to go.
But as against Georgia, LSU’s defense, which seemed to rediscover itself in last Saturday’s 17-6 win over Florida, reverted to form. The Rebels marched as far as they deemed necessary to set up Andrew Ritter’s clutch 41-yard field goal that split the uprights with 2 seconds left.
Les Miles won’t be pilloried quite as much as he was here four years ago for a major clock meltdown that cost LSU a chance to score late in a 25-23 defeat. But once again, there was confusing decision-making in the closing seconds.
With the Rebels camped at the Tigers’ 24, Ole Miss wanted to let the clock run down so that Ritter’s field-goal attempt would be the last play of regulation. LSU thwarted those plans when Miles called his last timeout with 6 seconds left — but not really.
Miles could have stopped the clock with at least 26 seconds left — the whistle blew on the end of Jaylen Walton’s third-down run with 28 seconds left. It was fourth down. Ole Miss was definitely going to kick. If LSU had called time, it would have at least had a chance for a straightforward return and for Mettenberger and his offense to make something happen. Instead, the best explanation Miles could offer was he was trying to set up the field goal block. (Ego Ferguson blocked one earlier in the quarter.)
“This one is on me,” Miles said, referring generally to his team’s preparation. “I take it.”
Likely LSU would have still lost. But North Carolina drove the field with 16 seconds left Thursday night against Miami to at least throw a pass in the end zone in a 27-23 loss. There would have been time for a couple of passes to have a chance to get LSU in field goal range.
In the end, though, justice was served. The Tigers, with all their squandered offensive opportunities and lack of defense, didn’t deserve to win. And with said defensive deficiencies, LSU’s national championship hopes were really a mirage.
The only thing that was real is that college football defies description. That LSU puts itself in position to suffer painful upsets is really a testament to the success of Miles’ program. Not that it’s going to make him — or his Tigers, or their fans — feel any better after this crazy night.