LSU beats Arkansas 41-17, takes on Georgia next

For a little more than a quarter Friday, it looked as if Arkansas would again have LSU’s number.

But then it went back to vintage Tigers.

LSU fell behind by two touchdowns, but sparked by a big punt return, pressure on Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson and the Tigers’ signature bruising running game, LSU dominated the rest of the game for a 41-17 win that completed the first 12-0 regular-season in school history.

"This football team, down 14 points, did not flinch," LSU coach Les Miles said. "There was never a question in anyone's minds on that sideline that we were going to respond."

LSU, the nation’s unanimous No. 1 team, rushed for 286 yards as it advanced to the SEC championship game in Atlanta Saturday against Georgia. LSU completed the regular season 8-0 in the SEC for the first time in the BCS era.

No. 3 Arkansas (10-2, 6-2), which jumped to a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, became the third team ranked in the top five to lose to LSU this season. For a while though, it looked like the Razorbacks would continue a mastery of LSU that included three wins in the previous four meetings.

Arkansas took a 7-0 lead - the first time LSU has fallen behind by that much all season - on a 13-yard pass from Tyler Wilson to Jarius Wright. The lead went to 14-0 when Alonzo Highsmith returned a Michael Ford fumble 47 yards for a touchdown. LSU looked jittery early, committing several false starts along with the Ford fumble.

"Uncharacteristic," Miles called the mistakes. "But it really was just a matter of time."

LSU pulled away late, scoring the game's final 20 points to blow open what had been a tight 21-17 game after Arkansas kicker Zach Hooker hit a 29-yard field goal with 7:42 left in the third quarter.

LSU's really was sparked by the 92-yard punt return for a touchdown by Tyrann Mathieu, who was also involved in two fumbles while getting the start at free safety.

"Tyrann Mathieu's return for touchdown certainly was a fast answer," Miles said.

Down 14-0, LSU started its comeback with a 6-yard touchdown run by freshman Kenny Hilliard, then the electrifying punt return for a touchdown by Mathieu to tie it at 14-14.

LSU took the lead at 21-14 when Jordan Jefferson hit Russell Shepard for a 9-yard touchdown with 59 seconds left in the half.

Jefferson completed 18 of 29 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown and added 53 yards rushing, including a 48-yard run that gave LSU a 38-17 lead, blowing open what had been a close game.

"His leadership, his want for his team and how he plays gives us the opportunity (to win)," Miles said of Jefferson. "When the quarterback is under duress, he is that guy. He handles that well."

The most damage was done by LSU’s physical running game, which piled up 286 bruising yards on 46 carries led by true freshman Kenny Hilliard, who stacked up career-high totals of 102 yards on 19 carries.

Ford bounced back from the early fumble to rush for 96 yards on 11 carries and Spencer Ware rushed 8 times for 37 yards.

"I think the offensive line came off the ball today," Miles said. I think that Hilliard played well, Michael Ford played well and Spencer Ware played well. Those fullbacks came in the game and gave us some contact."

Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette said he was hoping LSU's fast start would make LSU "abandon the running game and start throwing it." It did not happen.

"They did a really good job of staying with what they do best," he said. "They were able to find the creases. We weren't able to wrap them up and get those guys down."

Wilson, the SEC's leading passer, completed 14 of 22 passes for 207 yards for Arkansas, but was sacked five times, twice by Barkevious Mingo. He was also intercepted by Morris Claiborne.

"I think the momentum shift was Tyrann Mathieu's return," Miles said. "The defense, even in the early going, was in and around (Wilson) a lot. The plays that he made scrambling out, the plays that he made under duress - and he did make some plays - it kind of told him that the pocket was not going to be a friendly place for him.

"Our guys were coming loose and it spells a problem for a team that throws the ball as well as they do."

LSU, which outscored Arkansas 41-3 over the game's final 42 minutes, nearly doubled the Razorbacks' total offense, 494-254.

"Well, we got beat by a better football team," said Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "You know they have played better offensively. Defensively, we started out well, took the lead, but we made some crucial errors."

The Tigers also bounced back from their uncharacteristic early mistakes. LSU had several early penalties and Ford's fumble and Jefferson threw his first interception on LSU's first drive of the second half, killing a promising drive.

But by game's end, LSU won the turnover battle, forcing three and giving up two. Two Arkansas fumbles recovered by LSU were both forced by Mathieu, who was the surprise starter at free safety for the injured Eric Reid. Mathieu had eight total tackles and on one of his forced fumbles, he recovered it as well.

"He knows all the coverages and all the safety responsibilities" Miles said of the decision to start Mathieu, usually a starting cornerback, at safety. "It was an easy move."

Mathieu said he brought his big-play mentality with him from cornerback.

"You have to have confidence in yourself," Mathieu said. "You never want to give up on yourself and you never want to give up on your team. When you get the chance, you make that big play."

Mingo was disruptive, getting three tackles for loss amond his six stops. LSU forced nine negative-yardage plays.

Rueben Randle caught nine passes for 134 yards for the Tigers in the pass attack.

Arkansas' loss completed a difficult week for the Razorbacks. On Sunday, tight end Garrett Uekman died of a cardiomyopathy, a previously undetected condition. Against LSU, Razorbacks players wore Uekman's No. 88 on the back of their helmets in tribute while tight end Austin Tate wore Uekman's 88 jersey in honor of the fallen teammate.

"I'm proud of our football team," Petrino said. "It has obviously been a tough week for us but we did a good job in preparation. I thought we practiced well all week long. Our players came out, competed hard and stuck together as a team."

Petrino had a terse exchange with Miles at midfield after the game, an exchange that hardly worried Miles, who afterwards was fielding questions on his team's place in LSU, SEC and college footbal history.

The win was LSU's seventh of the season against a team ranked when the Tigers played them and the third top five opponent defeated by the Tigers.

"I think we've played a lot of good teams this season and we took on all comers," Miles said. "I think this team is a very special team. They have quality leadership. They are a team that plays from behind, from ahead and in big games. I think the bigger the game, the better this team plays."

Where might that place LSU in college football lore?

"It would be without propriety for me to make a determination about the history of college football," he said. "I can tell you this: When it coms to strength of schedule, playing week in and week-out, six games on the road and so many ranked teams, I would have to say that they are qualified.

"Qualified for what? I don't know. But they are qualified."

Qualified, for now, for a trip to Atlanta.